Americans who came of age in the late 1980s and early ’90s share certain common threads. An acute and troubling awareness of the fleeting nature of fashion is one. Mixtapes, Coke Classic, hair metal, and grunge rock are but a few others. Then there’s the smell of a Honda from that era, redolent of aged carpet and worn plastic.
One whiff and you’re carried back in time from the moment you set foot inside a 1988 Honda CRX Si as clean as the one you see here — a rare survivor unspoiled by the ravenous tuner culture that devoured them. There’s something refreshing about a sports car as pure and simple as the CRX Si. Aside from its then-daring styling, it was the CRX Si’s humble roots that made it such a desirable and endearing choice for average-Joe enthusiasts.
The basic CRX was a shining example of Honda’s magical blend of practicality and engineering prowess. With oil prices continuing to rise, the automaker’s Japanese executives wanted a car that could hit 50 mpg; the engineers set out to develop a fuel-efficient yet sporty coupe based on the Civic sedan’s chassis. The critical leap of ditching the car’s rear seats to lighten it was actually the idea of Honda Research America in Torrance, California.
Honda introduced the CRX for the 1984 model year, and it quickly became a smash hit globally. The CRX HF (high fuel economy) model in particular demolished Honda’s 50-plus-mpg goal with EPA ratings of 51/67 mpg city/highway. Improved aerodynamics and a dainty curb weight of less than 2,000 pounds helped it achieve those benchmarks. Combine that with the CRX’s affordability, and it became a natural to do a performance-driven Si model. Honda launched the first CRX Si for 1985, adding fuel injection to the standard model’s carbureted 1.5-liter four-cylinder, increasing power from 76 to 91 horsepower.
Major improvements came in 1988, vaulting the CRX and its hotter Si variant into truly hallowed status. The first-generation car’s torsion-bar front and semi-independent rear suspension were replaced with fully independent double-wishbones at all four wheels, improving ride quality again while adding crucial athleticism and agility. With a new 1.6-liter four-cylinder and multi-port fuel injection, the ’88 Si made 105 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque while weighing a mere 2,017 pounds. Mated to a five-speed manual transmission, the Si sprinted to 60 mph in roughly 8.5 seconds.
The CRX Si’s lightness and simplicity made it a potent rival to similar affordable performance cars like the Volkswagen GTI. Outside the U.S., Honda even offered the CRX with a 1.6-liter DOHC VTEC engine, making as much as 158 hp in the Japanese-market CRX SiR. As a result, the CRX and especially the Si became adored and prized by the burgeoning import tuner crowd. As a result, it’s genuinely difficult to find a bone-stock CRX Si like this that hasn’t been savaged beyond recognition. You can’t help but embrace how wonderful a bare-bones and untainted, vintage Honda sports car feels in 2016. “This car is 30 years old, and it functions the way I wish most new cars did,” says owner Steve Ewing.
Ergonomically, the CRX Si is spectacular; the seating position is perfectly low and intimate with the road, and the switchgear maintains its pleasant analog clack with each push. Despite its compact dimensions, the cockpit feels perfectly adequate for two passengers. Visibility is stupendous thanks to skinny A-pillars, a low dashboard with a broad windshield, and a huge sloping rear window. There’s a handy shelf where the rear seats would be, but in typical Honda fashion, it folds cleverly into a storage area with a pair of cubbies on the sides. We can’t help but geek out over little details like the icons for the trunk release and gas cap, which can still be found in today’s Hondas.
Ewing is an automotive journalist and former AUTOMOBILE intern, and he bought the car from former AUTOMOBILE editor Sam Smith. The car’s survival no doubt owes itself to the hands of people who recognized its provenance and inherent value as part of Honda’s golden age. “It’s light, functional, efficient, and most of all honest,” Ewing notes. “No distractions. All it does is drive.”
Bombing through Detroit’s Eastern Market, the CRX Si shimmies happily from corner to corner, delighted to be pushed hard despite its age. The unassisted steering is lively and perfectly communicative. Clutch action is light but easy to feel at the engagement point, and the five-speed manual gearbox feels every bit as sweet and precise as a modern Civic Si. It’s most definitely not a fast car by modern standards, but as is often the case, there’s real joy in the feedback and satisfaction you get from pushing a slow car to its non-lethal limit.
As fantastic as it is to dip your toes into Honda’s past with the CRX Si, it’s somewhat of a poignant but sad reminder that cars like this don’t exist anymore. Today’s hot hatches like VW’s GTI and Ford’s Fiesta ST, spiritual successors though they are, still suffer from the weight gain and complexities of modern cars. Worse still was the Honda CR-Z hybrid, which proved a heroic flop despite attempting to channel the CRX with its styling. The best we can hope for is that when a CRX Si like this crops up, people will recognize it as a jewel and resist the urge to spoil it, if only to preserve that Honda smell.
|Engine||1.6L SOHC I-4/105 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 98 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm|
|Front Suspension||Control arms, coil springs|
|Rear Suspension||Control arms, coil springs|
|Number Sold||65,245 (est)|
|Original Price||$10,195 (’88)|
|Value Today||$3,500 (NADA)|
*National Auto Dealers Association
Due to its upgraded engine and chassis, enthusiasts favor the second-gen CRX Si first offered for the 1988 model year. Honda, in its Suzuka plant in Japan, built just north of 65,200 units of the Si from 1988 to 1991, but good luck finding one that hasn’t been torn apart and hopped-up by tuners with a questionable VTEC swap. The 1988 CRX Si is particularly noteworthy not only because it was the debut year for the second generation but also because it weighed about 120 pounds less than the later ’89-’91 CRX Si, which made 108 versus 105 hp. Ewing is the third owner of this original California car, having purchased it six years ago for $3,500, but given the condition and relatively low miles, it could be worth a couple grand more to the right buyer. When shopping for a CRX Si, the main thing to look for, aside from over-modification, is rust. If you can find a good one, all it takes to be in top shape and great fun is regular maintenance, cover from the elements, and a driver not afraid to wind it out.