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2011 Honda CR-Z vs. 1987 Honda CRX Si

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.

Interior Simplicity
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.

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