The light-weight CRX: another coup for Honda

The spanking-new Honda Civic CRX sports coupe is a ''lightweight,'' but only in pounds. In performance, it's a super-heavyweight; and, at under $7,000, the car is almost a steal.

Indeed, the truncated Honda Civic CRX may never win a beauty contest, yet to some it could end up being the cutest thing on the road.

Seating two people with a voluminous cargo hold in the back, the Civic CRX is Honda's low-cost (by today's standards) entry into the sporty coupe market. It combines high under-the-hood efficiency - which translates into super-high mileage on the road - perky performance, and a design that's likely to grow on you.

With the base 1.3-liter engine, the car is credited by the Environmental Protection Agency with 67 miles to a gallon on the highway - or an astrounding 51 mpg in the city, highest of any production car on US roads, including diesels.

But with the larger 12-valve, 1.5-liter engine and 5-speed manual transmission, the mpg falls to 49 and 36. Add a 3-speed automatic transmission and torque converter lockup, and the mpg ''drops off'' to 42 and 32.

Who can quibble with any of these figures? No matter what the configuration, it means super mileage behind the wheel, even if the real-world figures are somewhat smaller.

The spirited 1.5-liter, 76-hp aluminum engine is a downsized version of the 1 .8-liter, introduced in the second-generation Prelude earlier this year.

Honda has long had a reputation for making the automobile industry sit up and take notice. The original Honda Civic with its low-emission CVCC (compound vortex controlled combustion) engine sent Detroit engineers back to the drawing boards, and the Japanese carmaker is still stunning the auto industry with thoughtfully conceived, innovative products.

Being small has not meant ''thinking small,'' except in the size of its cars.

Since November 1982 Honda has been building Accords in Marysville, Ohio, adjacent to its motorcycle assembly plant. Thus the company has escaped some of the vocal anti-Japanese sentiment that has been building in some parts of the US over the past few years.

Because of the Ohio plant, which will produce well over 100,000 cars in the next 12 months, the carmaker could sell more than a half million vehicles in the US in 1984. The Civic CRX sports coupe should help speed Honda toward that mark.

Japan's Honda has a knack for designing and building small cars that meet the market head on. The first Civic didn't have too far to go before being fully entrenched in the marketplace. The follow-up Accord was a knockout. Then the sporty Prelude found its market niche. Now comes the third-generation Civic, including the 2-seater hatchback CRX.

Even the company's highly publicized rust problem of a few years ago hasn't turned off the buyers.

The CRX, with a curb weight of around 1,800 pounds, uses Honda-refined plastics in innovative ways. The front fenders, for example, are made of tough, lightweight plastic to resist low-speed bumps - in a parking lot, for example - while the lower body panels are made of plastic to inhibit rust. The bumpers as well are plastic.

Handling rates an ''A,'' not only on the straight stretches of roadway, but also on the bends. In a sharp turn, the car sticks to the road with a vengeance. The suspension is sufficiently stiff to provide a sporty ride, although it may be a mite choppy when the road surface turns rough. A softer suspension would compromise the car's handling characteristics.

Stabilizer bars are used front and rear, and the Michelin premium steel-belted radial tires do their job well. A front air dam and rear spoiler help the car slice through the air with minimal disturbance.

Inside space is large, even for a 6-footer and up. There is no closed-in feeling, despite the limited dimensions of the vehicle itself. The seats have ample room to adjust; only the very tall would need to move the forward-aft adjustment all the way back.

Ergonomically, the car feels good to me. The controls all seem to fit, with no awkward reach or twist.

One enthusiastic young woman, singing the praises of the car after a test ride, told me, however, that with high heels she found it awkward to reach the gas pedal. ''I'd have to wear tennis shoes,'' she added.

Even so, Honda has come out with a high performer that is some 700 pounds lighter than the plastic-bodied Pontiac Fiero. Pontiac wanted a much lighter car in the Fiero, but Honda has done it.

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