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When the sun is shining, a convertible is one of life's more delicious automotive pleasures. In the dead of winter, on the other hand, even a well-lined convertible can seem damp and cold.
One compromise for this classic ragtop dilemma is the del Sol, Honda's entertaining little shoe box without a lid. With its removable targa roof panel, it supplies plenty of open-air motoring, with a substantial weatherproof environment for off-season cruising. Available in performance levels ranging from good to gee-whiz, the del Sol offers relatively inexpensive fun in a Honda package.
Honda originally called this car the Civic del Sol because it shares a number of components with the popular Civic family. However, for 1995, it's simply the del Sol, as Honda attempts to give this car a separate image.
The del Sol inhabits the cute end of the sports-car spectrum. Low, round and curvy, it has an endearing toylike demeanor, particularly when it's painted eye-catching grasshopper green (sort of a metallic Fisher-Price). Up front, aerodynamic quartz halogen headlights sharpen its looks, especially with the optional round auxiliary lights. The overall impression is teddy bear rather than tiger.
The car's defining characteristic, of course, is its targa roof. By removing the large roof panel, you can enjoy top-down motoring with less buffeting than in a convertible. Considerable attention has gone into managing airflow around the car, from the raked windshield to the flying buttress pillars at the rear of the roof. The result is a civilized open sports car that lets you sit up and listen to the music, too. A novel rear window that goes up and down offers an additional way to adjust the airflow.
Another nice touch is the cleverly designed rack that's mounted under the trunk lid for storing the roof panel rattle-free. The rack lifts with the trunk lid, always allowing access to the surprisingly generous trunk space. Trunk capacity is 10.5 cu. ft. empty - only 1 cu. ft. less than the Civic Coupe; the del Sol's trunk capacity is 8.3 cu. ft. with the roof stowed.
The roof panel releases rather easily with just two levers. And though the panel itself is relatively light, it is awkwardly large. Unless you have the arms of a chimpanzee, you will probably need help stowing it.
The del Sol comes in three trim levels, indistinguishable from the exterior except for the badging. The base 1.5-liter S model is powered by a 102-hp 4-cylinder engine, the same engine found in the estimable Honda Civic. The 1.6-liter Si and top-of-the-line VTEC models are powered by single and double overhead cam versions of Honda's technologically advanced VTEC engine with variable valve timing, producing 125 hp and 160 hp, respectively.
Our test car was the del Sol VTEC, which we consider to be the quickest car in its class. It retails at the high end of the del Sol price range: $19,550.
Hondas have the reputation of being mass-market cars that are also driver's cars, and the del Sol is no exception. Everything about the interior related to driving is purposeful and well-done. The comfortable, contoured bucket seats hold you securely. The pedals, shifter, footrest and controls are all simple and well-placed, with a tactile sense.
The instrument panel and dashboard are refreshingly gadget-free. The speedometer and standard tachometer are framed by the steering wheel. An arched hood over the instrument panel holds rocker switches for the cruise control, auxiliary lights, rear defroster and hazard lights. The simple stalk-mounted lights and wipers are stock Honda pieces, as is the straightforward climate-control system.
Other aspects of the interior are less ergonomically pleasing. The ashtray is tucked on the side of the center console where you are more likely to burn your hip than stub out your cigarette. Reaching the center storage compartment to swap cassettes requires an awkward up-and-behind motion of the driver's arm. The cupholder rack is part of the storage compartment lid (a dubious idea in itself) and it requires a two-part maneuver to release it. (It's almost easier to take off the roof panel.)
Two lockable storage compartments behind the seats create a shelf, but these cubbies can't be accessed without pulling the seatbacks forward.
The standard equipment levels are quite good, maybe even miraculous if your last sports car had rubber flaps where the roll-up windows should have been. The base S model offers power windows, rear-window defroster, tachometer, adjustable steering column, digital clock and cargo area light.
New for 1995 are a low-fuel warning light, a lockable remote trunk release and a control for the driver-side vent. Dual airbags are standard, as is a side-impact beam.
The Si and VTEC have standard power door locks and mirrors, cruise control and a 4-speaker, 20-watt AM/FM/ cassette system with a sliding cover. The VTEC has standard anti-lock brakes (ABS).
In motion, the del Sol runs true to the family traits: light, nimble, almost race-carlike. honda's signature double-wishbone suspension is standard, and contributes to the characteristic responsiveness. Some torsional rigidity is lost, of course, because of the targa top, but the car still feels solid and under control.
The del Sol's nimble platform is a shortened version of the Civic's (a 93.3 in. wheelbase vs. 103.2 in. for the Civic coupe). The S model, with its softer suspension, 13-in. wheels and disc/drum brakes, is less sporting than the Si and VTEC versions, which have 14-in. alloy wheels, 4-wheel disc brakes and front stabilizer bars.
The VTEC has even larger, speed-rated tires, stiffer suspension settings and a rear stabilizer bar in addition to ABS. Consequently, the Si and VTEC have a firmer ride and flatter cornering than the S models to go with their sizeable horsepower advantage.
The VTEC engines are interesting pieces of technology that require some adjustment by American tastes and sensibilities. These babies develop remarkable amounts of power; at 160 hp, the 1.6-liter VTEC engine produces more horsepower per liter than any other normally aspirated engine, which made our test car one very hot little number. And it boasted a surprisingly high level of fuel efficiency: The VTEC gets 26 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway.
But maximum power is developed at high engine speeds. The VTEC peak power comes at 7600 rpm; the Si's 125 hp at 6600 rpm. This creates a very busy-sounding engine that you may or may not find satisfying. Cruising in fifth gear at 65 mph, for example, the engine was turning at 3500 rpm and we felt a constant urge to upshift. Running through the gears, our tolerance for the noise level faded at about 5500 rpm, while the red-line still loitered at a distant 8200 rpm.
Befitting its sports-car nature, a 5-speed manual transmission is standard on all del Sols, with a 4-speed electronic automatic available as an option on all models except the VTEC.
As a package, the Honda del Sol offers some unique characteristics. Its hard targa top provides top-down motoring without a winter penalty. The front-drive layout also offers a bad-weather advantage over the rear-drive Mazda Miata, the del Sol's primary competitor.
The del Sol has all the Honda virtues of intelligent design, high quality and advanced technology - witness the spunky VTEC engine.
The interior is relatively livable for a sports car, although there are some ergonomic problems. The mid- to high-teens price is reasonable, too, for such an entertaining car.