Honda has pretty much dared everyone to do this comparison. If it had called its new hybrid two-seater the Insight Coupe or the H2S or the EI-EI-O, then maybe those of the thick-headed persuasion would never thought of comparing the 2011 Honda CR-Z with a 1987 Honda CRX Si.
But no, Honda went and called its new car "CR-Z" (it stands for "Compact Renaissance Zero," the corporate product planners tell us), so we're all comparing it to the CRX in our minds if not in sheet metal. So Honda, don't whine. You asked for it.
If the CR-Z comes up short, don't blame us. Instead blame all those engineers working at Honda back in the early 1980s, some of them now up in senior management, many of them retired and a few dead. They're the ones who did such a spectacular job with the original Civic CRX. Because it is a car with a magical luster that hasn't faded with time.
Back to Simple
In 1976 Honda adopted one of the greatest ad slogans ever chiseled out of an agency flack's brain: "We Make It Simple." These four words perfectly summarized the guiding principles of Honda's design philosophy back when the Honda Accord was brand-new and the company still had to prove itself in the American market. This was back when people bought Hondas because they were, in fact, simple and exquisitely engineered. And even though Honda stopped using "We Make It Simple" as a slogan way back in 1982, a lot of people still believe that's what Honda is all about. Or, at least, is supposed to be all about.
The Honda Civic was due for a generational change with the 1984 model year, but the CRX was an unexpected addition to the line. "Honda's all-new Civic CRX 1.5 suggests the term 'Rollerskate GT' because," wrote Kevin Smith for Motor Trend upon first encountering it, "walking up to it for the first time you may think it's easier to strap it to your feet than to climb into; it truly looks like a toy."
Almost 27 years later, we approach Chris Hoffman's well-preserved and well-used 1987 CRX Si and it still seems inconceivably small. At just 144.7 inches long, this first-generation Honda CRX is 0.9 inch shorter overall than a 2010 Mini Cooper, while its 86.8-inch wheelbase is an amazing 10.3 inches shorter than the BMW-engineered Mini. More pertinently, the CRX is a staggering 15.9 inches shorter overall than the new CR-Z, while its wheelbase is 9.1 inches shorter.
The Style of No Style
But it's not just the Honda CRX's super-dink proportions that differentiate it from its hybrid grandkid. The CRX's body is almost unadorned; the flat body panels are clean and free of styling flourishes. This unfussiness lets the CRX's slope-backed profile become the visual focal point of the car. The CR-Z's visual firepower, on the other hand, lies in details like the character lines that run along its flanks, around the beautifully shaped rear taillights and across the rear glass panel.
Where the CR-Z fails stylewise, is in its flat and busy nose. It's too flat (thanks for the pedestrian impact standards, EU!) and over-decorated with a massive grille. The big, heavily sculpted holes beneath the headlights contain driving lights that look as if they were pulled from a parts bin as an afterthought. With the old CRX you have to work hard to even find the grille. And while the CRX's driving lights might as well be stuck on the front of the car with Elmer's Glue-All, they're as square as the headlights at least.
Of course there are design elements to the CRX that are archaic. The 14-inch wheels with four round holes in them are pure retro from the Huey Lewis era, the mud flaps look like they're off a Kenworth big rig and the marker lights in the front fender are just arbitrary. But overall, the CRX is still a sweet little package. And it's still a great-looking car — timeless, really.
The CR-Z isn't likely to age that well.
Both the CRX and CR-Z do a great job of accommodating two people and more of their stuff than you might think possible. There are some style and convenience differences, however. And they matter.
Of course the CRX was built back in those bloody, gore-splattered, awful days when airbags weren't a mandated element of every car. So when you face the steering wheel, the dashboard seems almost barren. Still, however, every control is at the driver's fingertips. There's a nice cubby with a hinged lid atop the dash in which to accumulate change for the tollway (back when tollways didn't require folding money), and there's a real cigarette lighter next to a real ashtray for those precious moments that can only be completed by firing up a Benson & Hedges Menthol 100.
The CRX's harshly trapezoidal dash cover over the instrumentation looks dated; the orange-on-black numerals of the instrumentation was a bad idea back then and still is; the slider-based ventilation controls aren't as convenient as dials; and both the seats and door panels are covered in mouse fur. But these are just decorator issues. The driving position is low, but perfect. The seats are nicely shaped. And any single-DIN radio will slide right in.
The CR-Z innards are, yes, better than the CRX's. The seats are better, there are more storage areas strewn around the cockpit and the navigation system is an improvement over any single-DIN radio. Yes, the instrumentation is a bit too Tokyo pop, but otherwise the CR-Z interior is a great driving environment.
Nevertheless, once you throw some airbags into the CRX, round off the dash angles, redesign the instrumentation graphics, add power windows and mirrors and upholster everything in contemporary materials, this interior would be among the best offered in any small car today.
According to Honda's factory specifications, the 1987 Honda CRX weighed 1,830 pounds with a full tank of fuel, which makes it 824 pounds lighter than the CR-Z EX. The math says this means every one of the CRX Si's 91 horses has to move 20.1 pounds of vehicle mass. Each of the CR-Z EX's 122 horses has to contend with 21.8 pounds of heft. Virtually all the measurable performance differences between the two cars can be explained in light of those numbers.
In deference to Chris Hoffman's CRX Si's age and 108,500 miles, we're using performance numbers generated by Motor Trend in its issue of March 1985, which featured coverage of the 1985 Honda CRX Si. The CRX galloped to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds (with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and ripped through the quarter-mile in 16.2 seconds at 84.5 mph. That's not terrible performance today, and it was terrific performance for back then. Faster than the Mitsubishi Mirage Turbo, Pontiac Fiero V6 and Toyota MR2, the editors noted.
These acceleration numbers, however, don't tell the whole performance story of the CRX Si. Its punk-spec, fuel-injected SOHC 12-valve 1.5-liter inline-4 might predate the introduction of VTEC variable valve timing, but it's still a rev-happy twerp. Throw in the precise shifting of the five-speed transmission and the result is still a blast to drive. It's not just good in a vintage way; it's good in every way.
In contrast, the CR-Z is simply more of a chore to drive. First, the driver needs to pick a driving mode — Econ, Normal or Sport — and then it's a matter of tuning oneself to drive within that mode. A soft touch for the Econ, a moderate touch for Normal and moderately harder touch for Sport. The CR-Z demands more attention than the CRX.
Like the original CRX Si, the CR-Z has a fuel-injected SOHC 1.5-liter inline-4, and thanks to 16 valves and i-VTEC it makes 113 horsepower on its own. Combine it with Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system and the output goes up to 122 hp. And in Sport mode, there's actually some low-end torque to play with.
At full throttle the CR-Z performs the same no matter what mode it's in. And that performance is a trip to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds (8.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout) and 16.5 seconds at 84.1 mph for the quarter-mile. If you engage the traction and stability control system (technology the CRX Si conspicuously lacks), you get to 60 mph in 9.4 seconds (9.1 seconds with 1 foot of rollout) and reach the quarter-mile in 17.1 seconds at 82.9 mph.
The CR-Z's six-speed shifts great and the entire hybrid drivetrain is refined, but it's not as quick as the old CRX Si. And yes, that's even after taking into account Motor Trend's aggressive weather corrections and timing methods in 1985.
Simple Life, Simple Pleasures
Set up right on aggressive tires, an old CRX is a monster in autocross events. But even wearing the modest 185/60R14s that Chris Hoffman's car does, the CRX Si is a precise driving instrument from the tip of its manual steering to the trailing edge of its rear beam axle.
In comparison, the CR-Z really is one of the very best-driving hybrids to go on sale in America. But it can't duplicate the direct connection between car and driver that the CRX provides. The CR-Z does have a more compliant and controlled ride than the CRX, but it's nowhere near as much fun.
But also keep this in mind. While we all remember the CRX for its extraordinary fuel mileage, this is because of the special, low-performance, fuel-sipping CRX HF. Back in 1987 the EPA rated the Honda CRX HF at an incredible 52 mpg in the city and 57 mpg on the highway. But once you calculate the CRX's numbers with the latest EPA methodology, its results drop to 42 mpg and 51 mpg, respectively. The 1987 CRX Si, on the other hand, carried a sticker showing an EPA-certified 30 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway, which converts to 26 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway today. The legend of the hyper-parsimonious CRX is at least somewhat conditional.
But the bigger, heavier 2011 Honda CR-Z six-speed carries an EPA rating of 31 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway. While other hybrids do better, the CR-Z actually does very well in the context of its ancestors.
A Simple Summary
As we've discovered here in this 1987 Honda CRX Si, the CRX Si in its first- and second-generation forms remains among the most lovable cars that Honda has ever produced. And if Honda produced something directly equivalent to them today — as lightweight and with just as delightful a powertrain — we'd all want one.
But that's not what Honda offers us. Times have changed, and the 2011 Honda CR-Z shows us that modern standards of safety and comfort have taken their toll on the size and weight of small cars, even as improved structural rigidity and electronically enhanced engines, brakes and vehicle control systems have made them better for everyday transportation.
Yet what Honda offers in the CR-Z isn't that bad at all.