NEWS: 1985 Honda CRX HF vs. 2010 Honda Insight

June 19, 2009
0907 01 Z+1985 Honda CRX HF+2010 Honda Insight
Let's review some facts:
It is the year 2009, and the planet is in a general state of higgledy-piggledy. The global economy is in the toilet, the polar ice caps are melting, and most car manufacturers are running scared.
Sound depressing? Look on the bright side: Gasoline is no longer five dollars a gallon, which is good, because almost everyone is newly broke. People are driving less, which means that there's less traffic, at least in theory. And if you like the idea of using as little fuel as possible while you drive around spending money you don't have, there are now more hybrid vehicles on the market than ever before.
Good students that we are, that last fact gave us pause. Something doesn't add up: many of those hybrids are big, heavy machines, their glorious technological accomplishments muted by high curb weights and dowdy chassis behavior. If less is more in our brave new world, then where are all the light, affordable, entertaining hybrid cars? Is there no room for fun in the fuel miser?
Twenty-four years ago, Honda reached out to mileage enthusiasts with the Civic CRX HF - for high fuel efficiency - which earned EPA ratings of 49/54 mpg (40/48 mpg adjusted to today's procedures). A tiny engine, 1713-pound curb weight, and petite size were the HF's key attributes. The 2010 Honda Insight, the HF's closest descendant, gets a back seat, a hybrid powertrain, and extensive safety and emissions upgrades, all of which pile on half a ton more weight. Mileage-wise, the Insight can't beat the HF, but it still achieves 40/43 mpg.
The world has traditionally turned to Japan in search of fuel efficiency, and with all due respect to Toyota and its Prius, Honda has usually been the one to answer the call. From the first S500 roadster to the current Fit hatchback, Honda's cars have typically placed a premium on keeping fuel bills in value-menu territory.
The House That Soichiro Built began poking around the dirty world of fuel usage as early as 1965, the year it established a ten-man investigative task force dubbed the Air Pollution Research Group. Boring name, yes; boring results, no. The group's research into lean-burn combustion techniques directly led to the 1975 Civic/CVCC, a 53-hp, 40-plus-mpg wonder that knocked Detroit on its ear and passed EPA emissions standards without a catalytic converter. It garnered the EPA's highest fuel-economy rating for four years straight, and although it was little more than a standard Civic with a special engine, it proved that fuel economy need not have drawbacks and that the government's seemingly outlandish mandates were attainable.
0907 02 Z+1985 Honda CRX HF+2010 Honda Insight
Fast-forward to the Reagan era, when gas was cheap and few people cared about oil reserves. Honda's 1984 Civic CRX hatchback nevertheless picked up where the CVCC left off, continuing its pursuit of fuel efficiency with clever tweaks to the Civic sedan's spec sheet and a cheeky mind-set. The difference? Unlike the CVCC, the CRX was a fun, refined, quiet, and relatively modern car, and it still comports itself well today.
Consider its engine - a 1.3-liter, aluminum-block four-cylinder that's barely larger than a briefcase. Although it was based on the ordinary Civic's 1.5-liter unit, clever updates such as smaller crankshaft journals and fewer piston rings (two per cylinder, versus the 1.5's three) were implemented in the name of reduced internal friction. An aluminum cylinder head, a plastic valve cover, and a hollow camshaft helped reduce weight; a lunchbox-sized catalytic converter was tucked up underneath the exhaust manifold in order to be both as small and as effective as possible. All told, the engine weighed about 200 pounds, produced an impressive 60 hp at 5500 rpm, and churned out 73 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm.
Still, there's more to high mileage than a pint-size, punch-above-its-weight powerplant. Compared with the Civic, the base CRX (Honda also offered a slightly porkier, less-efficient 1.5-liter model) employed a handful of canny chassis tricks. The gas tank, cooling system, and front disc brakes were all Lilliputian; a plastic nosepiece and front fenders helped cut weight; and the CRX's bobtail shape yielded a wind-cheating 0.33 drag coefficient. A widely geared five-speed manual put the power to the ground through skinny thirteen-inch rubber. When Honda's engineers finally put down their pencils, they had created a midget monster: in 1984, the base CRX was the lightest and most fuel-efficient car money could buy.
The car you see here, Northern California resident Gordon Baeyen's 370,000-mile 1985 CRX HF, represents what came next. Honda gifted the CRX with a mild revamp in '85, bumping the base model's displacement to 1.5 liters and adding an "HF" badge, but the rest of the car remained essentially unchanged. The HF's significance lies in the fact that it was marketed solely on its fuel thrift - most ads for the HF touted the glories of the 50-mpg life. (Despite its age, Baeyen's car regularly averages 40 mpg.)
As you might expect from a car that weighs just over 1700 pounds, Baeyen's CRX is tiny. Really tiny. Acres of glass and toothpick-thin roof pillars tend to fool the camera lens, but in person, the CRX comes across as a believe-it-or-not Mini-Me, a shrunk-in-the-wash version of a real car. The hood wafts open with the lightest of lifts, as thin and tossable as a potato chip. The peashooter exhaust could be clogged by a golf ball. Bowled over by how tiny it is, you circle the car in a daze, amazed that everything works - "Look," you think, "it actually runs! The hood even opens! How cute!"
0907 01 Z+1985 Honda CRX HF+2010 Honda Insight
Strangely, however, the Honda's interior feels nothing short of cavernous. Like a vintage Mini or an early Volkswagen Beetle, the 145-inch-long CRX makes the best of its modest dimensions. The console-free floor, extensive glass, and thin doors give the interior a stretched-out, airy feel, like a living room without enough furniture in it. The two thin, high-backed seats are comfortable and supportive. Ties to the MTV generation remain - the blue carpet in Baeyen's car is thick enough to be combed with a rake, and there's enough hard, shiny plastic to decorate a McDonald's - but by and large, the CRX's cabin isn't a bad place to be.
The behind-the-wheel experience is surprisingly modern. The CRX's 87-inch (!) wheelbase and jaw-droppingly quick steering let you fling it into corners with abandon; the car rotates so well that it's almost as if the rear wheels are pivoting around your hips.
Torsion bars and struts up front work with a beam axle and a Panhard rod in the rear, and the result is a remarkable level of controllable, predictable grip. A dinky Keihin carburetor and a thick web of vacuum lines and dashpots live under the hood, but they do their work invisibly - the HF's engine exhibits none of the emissions-related stumbles or throttle-response hiccups common to 1980s econoboxes. You flit down a winding road, revving the whee out of the CRX's gutsy four, and it strikes you that few cars on the market today are quite as well-rounded.
Park a 2010 Insight next to the HF, and the family resemblance is obvious. Soichiro Honda may have believed in the power of dreams, as Honda's ad campaign touts, but he was also a pragmatist, and one of his many legacies is that the best Honda products emphasize function over form. In the case of the Insight and the CRX, that means a Kamm-back tail and a long, sloping roofline for minimal drag. (Interestingly, both the original, 2000-2006 Insight and the second-generation 1988-1991 CRX had the same basic shape.) But both cars also have noncosmetic things in common. Like most Honda vehicles, they boast comfortable, practical interiors and densely packaged but well-thought-out engine compartments. There's a distinct logic at work in each, an innate comprehension of the fact that both the CRX and the Insight are machines to be owned, lived with, and repaired without unnecessary complications.
0907 02 Z+1985 Honda CRX HF+2010 Honda Insight
And what of the Insight's road manners? Unlike the HF, Honda's latest hybrid isn't interested in your high-rpm, curvy-pavement fantasies. The Insight is a perfectly fine four-door sedan, a wonderfully sedate transportation device that completes its task using a bare minimum of fuel, but it has a single-mindedness that the CRX lacks: Its 98-hp, 1.3-liter four-cylinder and continuously variable transmission aren't concerned with serving up anything other than smooth, unobtrusive propulsion. The chassis is oddly willing and indifferent at the same time, the steering neither as dull and distant as a Prius's nor as talkative as the rack in a Civic sedan. We've discussed the Insight's strengths and flaws on these pages before, but suffice it to say that although the H-badged humpback is one of the most capable hybrids on the market, it doesn't do anything to get your blood pumping.
That, then, is the problem. When you chuck the CRX into a corner, gas mileage doesn't seem to matter. If the Insight is a practical, serious answer to a very important question, then the HF is that same question answered in giddy, grinning song. Unlike most of today's fuel-economy stars, which never stop reminding you how green your right foot is, the older Honda goes about its task subtly - it's a good car first and a green car second. The HF reminds us that efficiency is what you make it. Honda's tiny, featherweight hatchback may be where we've been, but it's also where we need to be going.

  Insight CRX HF
Price $20,470 $6,479
Dimensions    
Seats/Doors 5/4 2/2
L x W x H 172.3 x 66.7 x 56.2 in 144.7 x 63.9 x 50.8 in
Track f/r 58.7/58.1 in 55.1/55.7 in
Wheelbase 100.4 in 86.6 in
Cargo capacity 15.9 cu ft 13.0 cu ft
Curb weight 2723 lb 1713 lb
Turning circle 36.1 ft 30.8 ft
Drivetrain    
Type SOHC 1.3L I-4 SOHC 1.5L I-4
  electric hybrid  
Horsepower 98 hp @ 58 hp @
  5800 rpm 4500 rpm
Torque 123 lb-ft @ 79 lb-ft @
  1000 rpm 2500 rpm
Comp. Ratio 10.8:1 10.0:1
Fuel Type 87 octane 91 octane
Transmission Continuously variable 5-speed manual
EPA mileage 40/43 mpg 40/48 mpg

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