Since the 1960s, Honda has pushed the boundaries of what an affordable sports car can do, redefining the concept more than once. Car enthusiasts may salivate at the sight of a vintage Ferrari or Corvette, but they revere the NSX’s superior engineering, and a corner of their heart will always be reserved for the Civic – most likely pre-owned – that gave them their first feeling of adolescent independence thrashing it every chance they got. Here’s how Honda’s sports cars have evolved over the years – and how that evolution has moved the industry forward.
The history of Honda Motor Company as it exists today begins in the ashes of World War II. Founder Soichiro Honda had previously run a successful business supplying parts to car manufacturers, but after two of his factories were destroyed during the war, he sold the Company to Toyota and founded the Honda Research Technical Institute in 1946. As fancy as its name may sound, the research institute was, in reality, a small operation housed in a wooden shack. Within its insubstantial walls, a staff of twelve built engines designed to be attached to bicycles. After achieving moderate financial success, the Company was sold, and the profits were used to form the Honda Motor Company.
The new Company made a very successful foray into motorcycles, becoming the top global producer in 1959, before releasing their first four-wheeled vehicle in 1963. The vehicle in question, the T360, was neither a car nor sporty. Rather, it was a tiny Kei pickup. But it was followed soon after by the S500 – a real game-changing sports roadster.
9 Honda S500 – Creative Engineering Jumpstarts A New Age Of Sports Cars
Designing a sports roadster may seem like a pretty ambitious project for a company that had only designed one car before – a toy pickup no less – but in fact, Honda’s lack of experience encouraged innovation. While the styling was heavily inspired by European roadsters of the time, the rest of the S500 was like nothing the industry had seen before, with many design elements inspired by Honda’s two-wheeled heritage. The car’s all-aluminum four-cylinder 531 cc engine packed more power than the larger iron block engines of its European competitors. It featured a carburetor on each cylinder and dual overhead camshafts allowing it to reach up to 9,500 rpm. Superior handling was achieved utilizing a novel rear suspension composed of chain-driven rear wheels attached to coil-sprung trailing arms – not so far removed from a motorcycle’s setup. A torsion bar, relatively uncommon in production cars of the time, was used on the front suspension to lend a smoother ride.
Mechanically, this S500 was different from anything on the market. It wasn’t necessarily technologically advanced. The components that made it special had all existed before. In fact, the succeeding S600 holds the dubious honor of being the last chain-driven production car; most other examples date to the early 20th century – but they had never existed together in one vehicle, let alone a production car.
With its innovative mechanical approach, Honda had created a car that not only performed better than the Japanese and European competition but whose simplicity meant that it was more reliable as well. Honda continued to tweak the design throughout the ’60s, earning a loyal following around the world. The S line came to a close when production ended on the S800 in 1970.
8 The Honda Prelude & Honda CRX – Shaking Off The Economy Rep
The 1970s were a landmark decade for Honda thanks to the fuel crisis that consumed much of the decade and the ensuing demand for fuel-sipping economy cars. The company went from selling a mere 4,200 cars in the US in 1970 to 353, 291 in 1979 almost entirely thanks to two models – the Civic and Accord – whose low-emission CVCC engines conserved fuel while also allowing the cars to accept either leaded or unleaded fuel.
Honda had finally penetrated the American market. The problem was its vehicles were primarily associated with a no-frills economy. The cars were convenient, but they weren’t necessarily fun. Definitely not sexy. What Honda needed was a car with more than mere fuel economy to revitalize interest in the brand. Enter the Prelude.
Though it had basically the same drivetrain as the Accord, the Prelude sported a lower profile and shorter wheelbase. That, coupled with the anti-sway bar incorporated into the accord-borrowed suspension allowed for a little more speed and a lot better cornering. The Prelude wasn’t overly fast, but it was a lot of fun.
The body style of the first generation left a lot to be desired, but the new body style introduced in the second generation fixed that.
The Prelude cemented Honda’s reputation for engineering excellence and held it firmly. Succeeding generations offered more powerful engines and more technology. Generation three, released in 1987, was the first production car to feature four-wheel steering. Since being pulled from production in 2001, the Prelude has faded somewhat from public consciousness, overshadowed by Honda’s more affordable sport compacts, but it still attracts a strong following among enthusiasts
7 The CRX – No Frills Fun
Like the Prelude, the CR-X (Civic Renaissance – Experimental) used the drivetrain of a popular economy car – the Civic – but with an all-new interior and body. It featured a shorter wheelbase and lower profile that not only added sporty good looks but provided improved aerodynamics as well. When it debuted in the U.S. in 1984, there were three available trims: standard, featuring a 1.3-liter CVCC engine, and a 1.5-liter sport model. In 1985, Honda released an SI model with a more powerful 1.5-liter fuel injected engine. Released in 1992, the CR-X Del Sol was the first production car to feature an electronic targa roof.
The true significance of the CRX was that it opened the door for a whole generation of sporty economy cars that were cheap, fun, fuel-efficient, and – above all – comfortable. Until then, sports cars were, by definition, neither practical nor comfortable. They were a status symbol, an extra car only the well-off could afford. Although the CRX came exclusively in a two-seat configuration, reviewers of the time remarked on the surprisingly spacious interior. The rear storage was pretty spacious as well. Whether tearing up the open road or sitting in commuter traffic, the CR-X could do both – and well. And though the CR-X was discontinued in 1997, its spirit lives on in the Civic Si.
6 Honda Civic Si
In the 1980’s Honda was still trying to figure out what the future of the sports car looked like. They had released the Prelude the decade as a counterpoint to their economy lineup. The CR-X followed in 1984. But rather than satisfy the growing consumer appetite for performance, they merely created a demand for a better compromise between sport and comfort.
Both cars introduced a new level of comfort and practicality up front, but the back seats were tiny in the Prelude and non-existent in the CR-X. That cut out a considerable portion of the brand’s customer base. Families, for one, needed a space other than the trunk to keep their kids. Teens needed back seats too; partly to haul their envious friends to the mall for maximum cool points, and partly for… other reasons.
So only one year after the CR-X was released Honda debuted the Civic Si (Sport Injected), a four-seat sport compact equipped with the same 91hp, 1.5-liter engine featured in the CRX-SI the previous year.
The Honda Civic Si began a new chapter in Honda Sports car history. With new improvements to the engine, suspension, and chassis in the ensuing generations, the CR-X became a redundancy. The ax would fall on the Civics’ two-seat cousin only 6 years later.
5 Honda NSX – The Pinnacle
Teetering on the line between sports car and supercar, the NSX was Honda’s attempt to beat exotic brands like Ferrari at their own game. The goal was to create a mid-engine supercar that could match the performance of exotic European cars while providing a more comfortable riding experience – all at a more affordable price point. Oh, and don’t forget better reliability.
Sound impossible? Well, Honda achieved its goal right out of the gate.
Debuting in 1990, the NSX was the first production car to feature an all-aluminum monocoque chassis. The decrease in weight, combined with the power of its 3.0-liter L V6 engine, allowed it to achieve a 0-60 time of about 5 seconds. Marketed in the U.S. under Acura, Honda’s luxury and performance division, the NSX was the first car sold in the States to feature Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing system, which provides improved performance at higher RPMs by optimizing the fuel/air mixture entering each cylinder. A technology born out of tax avoidance – the Japanese government levies a tax based on engine displacement – the technology had the added feature of increasing efficiency. Probably not at the top of the list of features most sports car buyers are looking for, but still nice.
Everything, from the chassis to the engine to the body, was custom designed for the NSX. Honda Chief designer Masahito Nakano and Chief Engineer Shigeru Uehara led the design team. Formula One World Champion Ayrton Senna test drove and consulted on the design. The result was a technical marvel. For years, the NSX regularly outperformed exotic brands on the track.
Succeeding generations improved on the engine, suspension, and transmission, staying one step ahead of the competition until the model was discontinued in 2005 due to falling sales only to be resurrected in 2016 to rave reviews. The current NSX is slated to get the ax soon. However, Honda reps have promised that a new, most likely electric version will debut after a hiatus.
4 Integra Type R
Debuting in Japan in 1985 – then in the U.S. a year later under the Acura badge – the Integra was Honda’s take on a luxury Sedan. Powered by a 1.6 L DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine and equipped with upgraded brakes and suspension, the Integra earned points with enthusiasts.
Performance was taken to a new level when Honda introduced the Integra Type R in 1995. The goal with the Type R was to create a stripped-down, high-performance sports car. The U.S. version – introduced in 1997 – featured only air conditioning as the only option. The Type R features a reinforced chassis and upgraded suspension. All that, plus it’s a 1.8-liter DOHC VTEC in-line 4-cylinder developing 195hp in the U.S. version (the JDM version developed 107) made the Integra type R one heck of a fun ride.
More than a decade after the Integra was discontinued, the Type R remains in high demand with collectors.
3 S2000 – The End Of An Era
Arguably, the last ‘true’ Honda’s sportscar in sold in the U.S. and Europe was the Honda S200, a reincarnation of the s-series that first brought the brand into the limelight. The mid-engine roadster was powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mounted behind the rear axle for optimal weight distribution.
The engine, which featured Honda’s VTEC system, was the most powerful in its class. The S2000 continued the fun-loving tradition of the original Honda roadster. But demand for such a car was waning, and the S2000 was discontinued in 2009. In Japan, the roadster tradition was carried on by the Honda S660.
2 Civic Type R
Depending on one’s perspective, the Honda Civic Type R either represents the final phase in the evolution or devolution of the Honda sports car. The sportified compact is the endpoint of a process that began with the CR-X in 1985: the replacement of traditional sports coupes with sporty editions of popular production cars. That doesn’t mean the Type R isn’t sporty, the first generation released in 1997 incorporated a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine producing 182 hp. With a 0-60 time of 6.7 seconds, the first monocoque chassis in its class, and upgraded suspension, it was quite a ride.
The original Civic Si was as stripped-down as its Integra predecessor but succeeding generations have gone a little soft. The latest models include not only comfy seats and a backup camera but an infotainments system as well. Luckily the turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine producing 306hp more than makes up for any extra weight.
1 Electric: It’s The Future
Gone are the days of cheap, fun little cars with quick (but not necessarily fast) engines, responsive handling, and no roof. In a world of electric NSX’s and turbo-charge Civic Type R’s, surely there’s no room for S series-type frivolity, right?
Actually, right now is the perfect time for such a car to make a comeback. With climate change and various other social maladies making the future seem like an intimidating prospect, pop culture is looking back to decades past for escape. Everything old is new. Old movies are being rebooted. Old fashions – for better or worse – are finding their way onto the street. Nothing is exactly as it was. Some additions and innovations retrospectively perfect the old, like how Honda reimagined the well-established sports roadster when they introduced the S500.
Not it looks like Honda is up to their old tricks. Debuting at the Tokyo Auto Show in 2017, Honda’s Sports EV is an electric car with styling cues from the ’60s sports cars that first established the automaker’s reputation. Sporting a 113-kW motor, the EV has a 0-60 time of fewer than 8 seconds. The Sports EV was originally slated for release in 2022, but Honda has yet to set a firm date.
The Sports EV is the indirect successor to Honda’s compact S660 and is set for a 2022 release.
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