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BEHIND THE WHEEL / 1993 HONDA CIVIC DEL SOL

The Sunny Side of the Street

August 03, 1992|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My neighbor across the street is young and cool, tanned and in tune with her inner self--a co-ed and a California classic.

She surely would trade her beloved Fiero for this car.

My son is a college senior majoring in fine arts with minors in photo science, pectoral development, burgermeister and pizza.

He would give up the beach for this car.

So two wheels up to Honda for its 1993 Civic del Sol, a youthful, economical, very nifty replacement for the rather naughty CRX--and a spirited two-seater that reflects one corporation's admirable concern with fun before fury.

It had to be.

Small sports cars and inexpensive sports coupes remain tangled in a dash to heftier horsepower and more startling performance. Unfortunately, these pocket rockets are priced for the young, and are crunched and rolled more frequently by the young. That rapidly transforms parents and insurance agents into very old grumps.

But aside from matters of liability and diminishing image, the snub-backed CRX mouse that first roared in 1984 also has been losing sales to younger and more jovial sports: Mazda's Miata and new MX-3, and this year's Toyota Paseo.

So Honda made a radical judgment. It decided to depart the head-to-head competition in horsepower, change marketing concepts and actually detune the third generation CRX into a less rapid, more genteel car.

If buyers wanted street racers, went the reasoning, there was always the Mazda RX-7 or Toyota MR-2. Honda is predicting heftier profits and a higher reputation from building a fun-oriented zip-around that nobody else is making--just as Mazda succeeded when it produced the Miata as a rag-top retrospective of '60s sports cars.

Hence the vastly enjoyable Civic del Sol, a two-seater with a targa top that allows full access to God's breezes with none of the tousled hair and yelled conversations of a pukka convertible.

The detachable top is a 23-pound aluminum panel. It is released by one person unlatching two easy roof catches. Stowage is in the trunk, where the panel clips easily into its special rack, just like the lid of a Chevy Corvette.

Piece of cake. No tonneau cover snaps to incite blasphemy. No grubbied fingers and wrecked manicures. No canvas tops to be rotted by time and acid rain. There is a power rear window that descends and rises from the rear bulkhead to increase or decrease the airiness.

The del Sol is powerful enough to hold its own in traffic, but no matter how hard one works the gears, don't expect warp speeds.

The car is agile around turns, but be prepared for the short-wheelbase wobbles if pushed too hard.

Yet as already decided, hot performance isn't the key to this car. Honda has traded speed for sunshine.

So the del Sol is a dirt bike, a boogie board, a roller blade, a puppy on a leash, all those fun things to handle. It is sun on the forehead, breezes up a sleeve and every other elemental joy that produces smiles when a body is released from a steel and glass commuter cube.

Despite an increase in length, width and weight over the extinct CRX, the del Sol remains Tonka cute. The front shows a large egg-crate grille that could be found on a cartoon Ferrari. The rear--enhanced by the magnificent arch and sturdiness of the targa pillar--is just chubby enough to be fun.

Both del Sol models are based on Honda's Civic line of hatchbacks and notchbacks, which means they consume gas by the teaspoon.

The base del Sol, with a 1.5-liter, 102-horsepower four-banger, is good for 34 m.p.g. in town, 38 m.p.g. on the road. The more powerful Si with automatic transmission--powered by a multivalve, 1.6-liter engine developing 125 horsepower--will deliver 27 m.p.g. in the city and 34 m.p.g. on interstates.

Neither car comes loaded with technology. A driver's-side air bag, yes. But no anti-lock brake system. Nor traction controls, nor load levelers. That's how Honda keeps costs down--$13,200 for the del Sol S, about $15,000 for the Si.

Low price. Sturdy of heart and construction. Easy on gas and without enough power to come to much harm. That's why the del Sol will appeal to the young of this world--also to parents chaffing to find a safe, competent, relatively tame toy for the kids.

And that's an admirable strategy for any component of an industry too often bent on dogging competitors' progress before considering customer wants.

The del Sol's interior is just as cozy and youthful as its bug-cute exterior. There are slashes of high-tech scarlet in the carpeting and single panels in each seat to contrast the upholstery.

The dash layout, its simplicity and familiarity, is just another exercise in Honda efficiency. Instruments are large, dead ahead and held in a close cluster where one glance views all. Gearshift and hand brake, lighting and wiper stalks are set where they can be reached by instinct.

There is an amazing amount of leg, head, knee and shoulder room for pilot and passenger in a car of unquestionably small dimensions. Seats are fully supportive, with armrests precisely at elbow level.

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