My reference point for “old cars” is an old MGB, owned by my friend Paul. Passed down from his father, Paul’s MGB has less than 70,000 original miles and every conceivable part that needed replacing had been swapped out for new during its relatively easy lifetime. When Paul offered me a chance to drive it, it took me all of two seconds to agree on waking up at 6 AM on a weekend just to do so.
Predictably, the drive was a let down for me. I loved the noise of the carburetors…and that’s about it. The unassisted steering and brakes were nothing short of spooky and their vagueness and the gearshift felt like it was lifted from a Gran Turismo force feedback wheel. I drove it for about 10 minutes before I decided I’d had enough and politely thanked Paul. I won’t lie – part of me was scared that if I pushed the car even slightly, his heirloom would spontaneously destroy itself, as old cars are wont to do.
The MGB was never a hero car of mine, but I began to lie awake at night wondering what other old cars I lusted after were really crap to drive. The Alfa Romeo GTV? The Lotus Cortina? The Elan? Surely they couldn’t all be that bad could they? Did every old car need a resto-mod to be any good to drive?
During a recent tour of Honda’s Museum, I had the chance to drive a 1987 CRX Si, a car that has been canonized as one of the great performance cars of the past half-century, and a landmark car for Honda. This example, with about 52,000 miles, was donated to Honda some years ago by a gentleman who wanted a good home for it before he left for the Coast Guard.
This very well may be one of the last clean CRX Si’s in existence, and therefore it’s a great baseline to see how it performs. I’m a big fan of Honda cars as you all know, and I’m proud to say that I’ve driven may of the cars from the golden age, like the Prelude VTEC, the Integra GS-R and various Civics, with and without VTEC motors in them.
This one isn’t fit to lick their boots.
The things that other people may find charming and soulful about old cars simply didn’t sit well with me. The manual steering which I last enjoyed so much on a Lotus Elise felt primitive and didn’t exactly inspire confidence in any situation. Making a quick U-Turn on a side street, something I normally never think about, was nerve wracking. The 1.5L engine did its best impression of a Honda lawnmower and puttered down the street, while the brake pedal had more travel than George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air. For all the talk of “feedback” and “purity”, it just seemed like, well, a crappy old car. Again, I drove it for about 10 minutes, took a picture of it outside Toyota’s head office and flipped the keys to Blake Z. Rong of Autoweek, who ended up writing a piece that serves as a more tactful version of this one.
Of course, tell this to anybody and they’ll sputter and spit in an apoplectic fury. “This is exactly what Honda should be making!” they’ll cry, with all the indignation and disbelief of a Milli Vanilla fan who just found out about the whole lip-sync deal. Others will justify the CRX’s shortcomings by stating that we must judge these cars in the era they were introduced. Yes, it was a revelation compared to the unsophisticated barges of the time, but the Mazda Miata, which debuted three years later, it actually feels like a modern car when you drive one, whereas the CRX felt more closely related to Paul’s MGB. The two cars are of distinct generations of automotive technological progress, the same way a CRT television is antiquated but distinct from one where you have to turn a knob to change the channel.
There is a strong chance that I am biased towards modern cars, having been raised on them, but if someone offered me the choice between this CRX and a modern CR-Z, I’d take the CR-Z. It may be a slow hybrid but it also wouldn’t tear in half like tissue paper in a crash, and honestly, no car, no matter how cool, is worth losing your legs over. When I think back to all of the great Honda products from the 90’s that I’ve driven, it’s hard to find a common link between them and the CRX. Even the rattiest, most hack-job VTEC swapped Civic hatch still felt lithe and fiesty, like it was ready to attack the pavement with the kind of grip and balance you’d never expect from a front-drive car, while making pseudo-superbike noises from under the hood. The CRX felt like the senile old relative to those cars, who got to come home from its assisted living facility for family occasions. Now, if you stuck a B16 with a 5-speed Y1 gearbox and an LSD, Integra 4-wheel discs and some Bilstein HDs, then we might have a fun car that steers like a shopping cart. In stock form though, I was not impressed.
Nevertheless, I am stuck with an even greater problem now. The curator of the Honda museum has offered to let me drive their 1991 NSX next time I visit. I have no real attachment to the CRX, but the NSX has been a car I have idolized since I was a sentient being. My childhood bedroom is filled with all kinds of NSX posters, brochures, trinkets and die-cast cars. I have never driven one, but now, I’m afraid. What if I’m let down by the now meager 270 horsepower? Will the superb-at-the-time handling dynamics seem mundane after years of driving R8s, Boss 302s and BMWs? You know what they say, don’t meet your heroes and all that. Then again I am a glutton for inflicting mental anguish on myself. Why else would I still be working here?