The Civic del Sol borrows its name in part from words meaning "the sun."

Nothing could be more appropriate for Honda Motors' little two-seater, an open-air automobile made for fun in the sun.

It's a much-updated version of earlier-day sports cars like the MG. It's small, cute (for want of a better term), moderately inexpensive in base form and a kick to drive.

Even the convertible feature is a bit different -- it consists of a lightweight aluminum roof panel that can easily be removed and stored in a specially designed rack in the trunk. In place, the panel turns the open car into a traditional hardtop coupe.

Honda offers three series -- a base S, an Si and a more technically upscale VTEC.

"The Si is the best-seller by far," said Joel Pittman, sales manager for Dan Young Honda. "It replaces the (Honda) CRX, and many use it as a second car."

Unlike earlier two- seaters that were rather spartan, the del Sol offers a fairly high degree of comfort.

While seating is limited to a driver and one passenger, they have a surprising amount of interior room. And with an overhead bar behind the seats, there's a high degree of air-flow management.

The body features rounded contours to enhance the aerodynamics, but this is only part of the design theme.

The steeply raked windshield, along with the shape and placement of the side mirrors, controls air flow around the interior. Then the overhead Targa bar with wide B-support pillars minimizes buffeting behind the occupant's heads.

The bar breaks up the wind," Pittman said. "You can ride in the car without the roof on and it doesn't muss your hair."

Air flow can be further managed by raising the power side windows and power rear window. Heater outlets on both sides of the center console allow heated air to be directed at the driver and passenger when the del Sol is driven with the top off in cool weather.

The Targa bar also helps stiffen a roofless body. And a strong, rigid platform was a key element in the del Sol's engineering, allowing a sophisticated double-wishbone suspension on all four wheels to work.

For a small car, the del Sol has a moderately long wheelbase that contributes to a smooth ride and stability through fast corners. In fact, control at speed is an interesting feature, since the steering becomes progressively faster as you move up in model designation.

With the del Sol S, the steering ratio is 3.9 turns of the wheel from lock to lock (full right to full left) with a manual five-speed transmission. With a four-speed automatic, it drops to 3.6 turns.

The steering on an Si is 3.6 regardless of transmission, and with the VTEC it's 3.0 turns with a five-speed manual, the only transmission available on this model.

Somehow, I don't understand why the steering on an S would be slower with a manual gearbox than with an automatic. I would have expected it to be the other way around.

I can understand, however, the quicker steering with the VTEC, whose engine has Honda's V ariable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control valve system. Its power is rated at a robust 160 horsepower, versus 102 horses for the S and 125 for the Si.

Irrespective of model, the del Sol is designed to be more of a sporty car than a bone- shaking sports car of the old school. Comfort and convenience features include some power assists, full analog (sweep hand) instrumentation and state-of-the-art controls that are conveniently located.

Obviously this is a niche vehicle designed for a specific type of buyer.

"It's a limited market," Pittman acknowledged. "But it's a very good car for someone wanting a small, open automobile. And it's in an affordable price range."

1994 Honda Civic del Sol S Base price: $14,450.Type: Front engine, front-drive, two-passenger sport convertible.Engine: 1.5 liters, SOHC 4, 16 valves, fuel-injected, 102 horsepower, 98 foot-pounds of torque.Transmission: Five-speed manual.Mileage: 35 mpg city, 41 mpg highway.W heelbase: 93.3 inches.Length: 157.3 inches.Width: 66.7 inches.Height: 49.4 inches.Curb weight: 2,301 pounds.