Practical Honda Takes A Sporty Turn

Almost a decade ago, Honda created a new category of cars with its sprightly CRX, a nimble two-seater that emphasized price and fuel economy over macho, zero-to-60 performance. It developed an instant cult following and spawned a host of competitors--such so-called "pocket rockets" as the Pontiac Fiero and the Toyota MR2.

Now, with the Fiero relegated to history and the MR2 chasing the macho set, Honda is taking the third-generation CRX off in a more playful direction. The new Civic del Sol is a diminutive yet practical coupe. But, as the name implies, it's more fun to roll down the windows, shed the top, and experience the wind-in-your-hair exhilaration for which the car was designed.

CARGO CAVERN. While the del Sol brings to mind the Mazda Miata, an inexpensive open-air roadster, the similarities quickly end. The Miata is a true ragtop, with all of a convertible's foibles: body shake, safety and security questions, and a finicky canvas top. The del Sol is more citified, with its removable fiberglass top and electrically heated power rear window that retracts.

As with all Hondas, the engineering is exquisite. The 23-pound top, which must be unhooked manually, packs away neatly in its own frame that raises and lowers with the trunk lid. Even with the top stowed, cargo space measures more than 8 cubic feet, cavernous for a two-seater.

The cockpit is thoughtfully laid out. Instruments are uncluttered, and seats are firm, with good lumbar support. Locking storage compartments are behind both seats.

About all that's missing is a glove compartment and, annoyingly, a trunk-release lever. Honda says that's for security reasons, but other carmakers solve the problem with a lockable release.

TWO FOR ONE. Don't expect sports car performance from the del Sol. While the suspension is firmer than the bigger members of the Civic family, it's tuned more for comfort than for tight cornering. And the two engines are designed more for fuel economy than for blasting away from the starting line. The base model, with a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, rates 34 mpg in the city and 38 on highways.

What you can expect is a nifty runabout that, starting at $13,200, is pretty easy on the pocketbook. And that really gets you two cars: a practical commuter for weekdays and a sporty roadster for weekends.

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