The Independent Road Test: The hair-raising feats of Honda's dancing roof: Richard Bremner takes the lid off the new Honda CRX VTi, listens to the engine and revs up the 'targa top' panel

IT IS hard to know whether sun-lovers are necessarily lazy people, but Honda seems to think so. If you want to catch the rays in its new Civic CRX, all you have to do is stop the car, undo some catches (hard work, that) and press a button. The roof panel is magically lifted skywards, to be received by a kind of grab that emerges from the boot and, after a few whirring seconds, carries it back to its lair.

Watch this party piece from the pavement and you'll be astonished, both at the complexity and precision of the process, and at the lengths to which car engineers will go to to keep their customers happy.

But this balletic triumph of electro-trickery is an option (priced at about pounds 800), and it won't be available until later this year. Those who want a CRX now are going to have to face up to getting out of the car and doing the job themselves. Not that much energy is required - you just release a couple of levers, open the boot, lift the roof free (it's aluminium, and therefore bearably light) and place it in its carrier frame in the boot. The frame hinges upwards, revealing a surprisingly large luggage area beneath.

Car buffs will have spotted that this car is different from the last one to wear the CRX badge, which was a small, 2+2 coupe. Honda will introduce a new, compact, Civic-based coupe next year - in the meantime, those who want a sporty Civic must choose either this breezy two-seater or the hatchback VTi, with which the CRX shares an engine. And a remarkable engine it is, too. It produces 160bhp from 1.6 litres, sprints to 60mph in 7.7 seconds and, most amazingly of all, revs to 8,000rpm without bursting a blood vessel. When it is being pushed hard it sounds like a Grand Prix engine, and the high revs let you hang on longer before shifting up a gear on a twisty back road.

If all this sounds like fun, well, it is, especially when the roof is off and the wind is frothing your hair. Because it is a 'targa top' (an arrangement that leaves the pillars and the rear section of the roof in place) the whipping and tugging of the wind that flies through traditional sports cars is almost completely absent, even when you roll down (electrically, of course) the rear window.

Generally, the cabin is a pleasant place to be: it offers bags of room, decent seats, a comfortable driving stance and sensibly located controls. In fact the only drawbacks are the lack of room for a journey's junk, and the rather cheap finish of some of the plastics.

The CRX's major drawback, if you are a keen driver, is that it seems rather dead when cornered keenly, leaving you feeling a little detached from the proceedings. It's not that the car doesn't have a confident grip on the road; it's just that you can't feel through the rim of the steering wheel exactly what the front wheels are up to.

Enthusiasts may feel that, in its efforts to sanitise the CRX, Honda has subtracted some of the intangibles that make a good sports car great. But don't cross it off your list until you've had a go, because it's a temptingly endearing

machine.

(Photograph omitted)

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