Versus the competiton:
Two-seater roadsters are rushing back into focus, with German top dogs BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Audi introducing the latest variations of an old theme.
Of course, it was Mazda that set everyone back on their heels a decade ago with the mighty Miata. Others tried to emulate Mazda’s success in reinventing the affordable sports car.
One that met the challenge was Honda’s unique little Del Sol, another version of the basic Civic, Honda’s economical mainstay.
The Del Sol was always a good concept, a workable compromise between a convertible, a sporty two-seater and an economy coupe.
Originally, there was a certain level of disappointment in the Del Sol, compared with the bad-boy Civic CRX it replaced. The new two-seater was rapped for being too kind and gentle, too stubby and cute, a cartoon Ferrari, non-threatening to a fault.
Yet for the young who yearned for open-air transportation with the least cost and hassle, the Del Sol fits the bill nicely.
It was nice to get reacquainted with the little critter, especially one equipped with the trick VTEC engine. This high-revving, 160-horsepower mill, along with a well-controlled suspension and performance tires, bestows upon the Del Sol an aggressive streak that belies its mild appearance.
The VTEC is the top model, above the SI with its 127-horse engine and the base Del Sol S, with a 106-horsepower engine.
At $20,000, the Del Sol’s price tag is not insignificant, but for the high fun-factor level, it must be some kind of bargain.
A strong engine that makes all the right noises, quick steering, tight cornering, open-air aplomb; these were the perfect ingredients for an afternoon tryout along the tightly twisting curves of the Apache Trail east of Mesa to Tortilla Flat.
The flexible VTEC engine, pulling freely up to a race-bred 8,000 rpm, made the trip easy. Most of the time, the shifter was just left in third gear, with plenty of range in vehicle speed dialed in by the engine’s wide power band.
The VTEC engine uses a variable valve-timing-and-lift setup, which gives it the free-spinning power at the upper revs while keeping acceptable torque and driveability at slower speeds. As the engine speed builds, you can feel it switch over at about 5,000 rpm, the engine suddenly feeling stronger, its exhaust note more urgent.
Remarkably, this engine has the highest horsepower-per-liter rating of any naturally aspirated engine, meaning one that’s not turbocharged or supercharged, in any passenger car.
The engine is very smooth, but it can get noisy.
Road noise in the Del Sol also can be excessive, particularly on the concrete surface of a freeway. The chunky tread on the high-performance tires doesn’t help.
Shifting is smooth and direct. However, the gearing is rather short, probably to accommodate the engine’s powerful upper-rev characteristics.
The Del Sol’s best feature remains the simple system for turning a coupe into a converti ble. Flip two latches on either side of the cockpit, lift off the targa top (the kind of roof that lifts off between the windshield and a fixed roll-bar structure), stow it in the trunk-mounted rack and, best of all, roll down the electric back window.
The only problem with Honda’s system is the weight and awkward size of the removeable top. A rather small woman enlisted to demonstrate was unable to heft it into place. Oh, well.
The interior, though roomy, was compromised by weird design problems, such as skimpy, ineffective sun visors; ugly switches along the top of the dash; marginally comfortable seats and the world’s worst cup holders.
On the plus side, quality and materials of the interior seem top-notch, and some features, such as the two locking stowage areas behind the seats, were well-appreciated.
Overall, the Del Sol VTEC raises the appeal of this chubby cruiser considerably, with the enhanced engine power and handling improvements making this cha racter fee l more like a sports car than a beach toy.
1996 Honda Del Dol
Vehicle type: Two-passenger, two-door targa-top convertible, front-wheel drive Base price: $19,600. Price as tested: $20,832. Engine: 1.6-liter inline 4, 160 horsepower at 7,600 rpm, 111 pound-feet of torque at 7,000 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 2,522 pounds. Length: 157.7 inches. Wheelbase: 93.3 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 26 mpg city, 30 mpg highway.