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MPG Wars: 1989 Honda CRX HF vs. 2009 Toyota Prius

Posted in Car Tech, Compact Cars, Environment, Fuel, General, Honda, Hybrid, Hybrid Technologies, Safety, Toyota by Dustin May | March 26th, 2009 | 31 Responses |

We’ve all thought it or heard someone ask it. “I remember cars in the ‘80s getting 50 mpg. Why can’t they do that today?”

To some it is a conspiracy by OPEC, the Bush Family, Big Oil and the Illuminati. To others it signifies the problems in Detroit and the decline of the auto industry in the US.

Well, today we are going to take a look at one of those cars from the ‘80s and compare it to one of the most fuel efficient cars today.

According to fueleconomy.gov, the 1989 Honda CRX HF gets 41 mpg city and 50 mpg highway. The 2009 Toyota Prius, on the other hand, gets 48 mpg city and 45 mpg highway. Why does it take a hybrid to just come close to matching the fuel economy of a 20 year old car?

There are several contributing factors, but it all comes down to weight. The CR-X HF weighs in at 1,834 lb. The Prius, like many of its contemporaries, tips the scale significantly higher at 2,932 lb. Where does that 1,100 lb. come from?

One of the key reasons why cars weigh more today than they did 20 years ago is safety regulations and consumer demand for safety features and characteristics.

In the early ‘90s the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began rating the safety performance of new cars and publishing the reports to the general public. Because of this new awareness on crash safety, consumers have been shunning cars with anything lower than an Acceptable IIHS rating or a 3-star NHTSA rating, and the carmakers have responded by striving to achieve Good and 5-star ratings for all cars.

Airbag systems, required for both driver and front passenger, add weight with the not just the actual airbag module, but also the sensors, computers and wiring between it all. Other safety systems like ABS, stability control, and traction control also add weight to a vehicle for the same reasons. All of this adds weight.

The 2009 Toyota Prius gets a 4-star rating all around from NHTSA and a Good rating from the IIHS. It offers standard curtain airbags for the front and rear seats. The front seats also get standard torso bags. ABS is standard on all four wheels, as is traction control and TPMS. Stability control is optional.

The 1989 Honda CRX HF had seatbelts. That was it for safety equipment. It would fail probably every test in the NHTSA and IIHS programs. However, even without all of the safety features of the 2009 Prius, only 111 injuries were recorded by the IIHS in Honda Civics (all trim levels) between 1989 and 1991, which was average, compared to 84 bodily injury liability recordings for the 2005-07 Toyota Prius (the latest data is available), which was also in the average range.

We’re spoiled. Let’s face it. Our cars now have amenities that were not common even 5 years ago. You can now get factory-installed infotainment centers with DVD input, iPod controls, SatNav, and a 6-disc in-dash CD changer. Air conditioning is standard on virtually every new car sold in the US. Power windows, seats, and mirrors are more common than not. Have you ever taken a 6-way power seat out of a car? They are frickin’ heavy.

The 2009 Toyota Prius comes standard with an LCD display to show how many electrons or fuel molecules you’re using, as well as control the climate control system and stereo. The standard stereo is an AM/FM CD system with 6 speakers, but buyers can upgrade all the way to a 9-speaker JBL system with 6-disc in-dash CD changer, satellite radio, and Bluetooth. A SatNav system is also offered for the directionally challenged. Power windows and door locks are standard. Center and overhead consoles are also standard for storing all the crap we feel we need to take with us everywhere. Both sun visors are illuminated so the driver can put her makeup on while cruising at 70 mph. There is more, but my hands are cramping up.

The standard equipment list for the 1989 Honda CRX HF was much more limited. It has power brakes, a rear defroster, and the aforementioned seat belts. Yup, that was about it. Air conditioning, fog lights, and an AM/FM radio or AM/FM Cassette system complete the options list. The HF didn’t even offer a slushbox. Navigation was provided by Rand-McNally. Storage was limited. There was no LCD infotainment center. You had a few gages and the feel of a driver forced to pay attention to his car and the road. The radio, if equipped, had maybe 4 speakers.

Again, all of this adds weight to the car. The equipment itself has weight, and the wiring connecting all that equipment together adds weight. So one must ask oneself, “Self, do I really need a 9-speaker stereo with satellite, SatNav, and 6 CDs available at my whim? Do I really need hands free cell phone controls, 55 gallons of storage in consoles and bins and pockets? What’s wrong with driving and paying attention to the road? What’s so wrong with looking out the front window and making sure that person in the lane next to me who’s talking on their phone while reading a book and drinking their Starbucks doesn’t swerve unexpectedly into my lane?” The answer is, “No you don’t” and, “Nothing is wrong with that.”

Another contributor to weight is the physical size of a vehicle. The Honda CRX HF measures out at 147.8 in. long, 65.7 in. wide and 50.1 in. tall. The Toyota Prius, a small car by today’s standards, is whale compared to the little CRX. It measures 175 in. in length, 67.9 in. wide, and 58.7 in. tall. That’s over 2 feet longer, 2 inches wider and 8.6 inches taller, for those playing at home. I’ve ridden in several CRXes, and I can tell you they did not feel all that cramped inside. Now, granted, the CRX is only a 2-seater and the Prius seats 5. Still, why the extra width and height? I’ve ridden in several CRXes and never once felt cramped.

Because of the extra weight of the Prius, it needs more power to be able to carry it’s lard-ass around. In order to get close to the CRX HF in fuel economy, Toyota engineers had to put a gas/electric hybrid system in the Prius. Power comes from both a 1.5L 4-banger putting out 76 hp and 82 torques as well as an electric motor adding another 67 hp and 295 torques for a net power output of 110 hp. The CRX HF makes due with a 1.5L I-4 making 62 hp.

As any engineer will tell you, the extra torque of the Prius is most useful in starting from a standstill. Well, with an extra half ton to propel down the road, that torque is needed. Most engineers will also tell you that the simplest solution is often the best solution. Rather than dealing with a gas/electric hybrid system, the batteries, regenerative braking, associated cooling systems, etc., why not just have a lighter car with a smaller engine? It seems like it worked for the CRX.

What about performance? Well, 0-60 times aren’t exactly what you buy an economy car for. If you must know, the Prius makes it to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds. The CRX is only marginally slower at 12 seconds. With 48 fewer horses under the hood and without the benefit of the near-immediate torque of an electric motor the CRX manages to basically pace the Prius down the dragway.

There you have it. Now when someone asks you why car companies can’t build a 50 mpg car today without fancy hybrid systems you can tell them. All the crap we think we need, but somehow managed to survive without for so long, adds weight which requires more power which sucks more gas. Diesel-powered vehicles also get outstanding gas mileage, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Sources: MSN Autos, CRXSI.com, Toyota, NHTSA, and IIHS
Photos courtesy of Crunchgear.com and Toyota

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31 Responses

  1. Butch Deadlift says:

    Personally, I’ll stick with my 20-yr-old Volkswagen. It’s a portly 2,600 lbs, very heavy for its day. Today, it sometimes feel like I’m going to need to tie it down in a strong wind.

  2. Mike McCloskey says:

    I think this is compairing apple to oranges try compairing it the the chevy aveo or some othe small car that is getting embarassing gas milage the prius is doing well for its size why arent the other little cars keeping pace? The air bag system coplete cant weigh 100 lbs try again. Thank you for bringing this topic up.

  3. g says:

    That’s over 2 feet longer, 2 inches wider and 8.6 inches taller, for those playing at home. I’ve ridden in several CRXes, and I can tell you they did not feel all that cramped inside. Now, granted, the CRX is only a 2-seater and the Prius seats 5. Still, why the extra width and height?

    Why the extra width and height??? So it’ll hold those three other people you just mentioned, right? Durrr…

    This article doesn’t say anything about anything. It’s like a Dave Barry article except not as funny. How about comparing an old Civic to a modern day Civic and a modern day Hybrid Civic? That would at least be a good start…

  4. Eric Johnstone says:

    This article missed 2 key factors (at least) that influence fuel economy now and then. I had a CRX in the early 90’s and would count on 50+ mpg on long flat trips. True, this was because of the weight and power ratio – However, to make a fair comparison in this article, you must compare apples to apples. Take the new 2009 North American Smart car – same horsepower and weight (a different shape) but the mileage is 33/41 and requires premium gasoline. Good by today’s standards, but not as good as in 1990. Why? (This is where this article should begin)
    One reason is the alcohol that is mixed with gasoline today- alcohol has a lower heat value, therefore, one gallon of alcohol will not create as much ‘work’ as one gallon of gasoline. Currently, the mix is 10% alcohol (look at the pump the next time you are at the gas station). This is significant and has led to many debates about where we are headed with ethanol. Another factor is the upgraded emission control requirements. More government/EPA regulation has required automakers to add emission controls that improve the exhaust, but work the engine harder (alcohol has been added to gasoline for this purpose as well). Well, I was looking for more substance on this subject matter when I stumbled on this article- I guess I should start writing articles myself if this meets the expectation of what is being ‘published’ today.

  5. ndpara says:

    Good point, however look at the Smart car up in Canada, 3 cylinder turbo diesel that gets 60-75 miles pr gallon, yet the same car sold here in the states only gets 30’s to 40’s. Why you may ask, no one will ever really know the truth, the cars sold in the states have a 4 banger gas engine. Is it because we are a greedy country the needs more horsepower. So many answers so little time, you decide.

  6. Eric Johnstone says:

    The 3 cylinder Smart car available in Canada is a diesel – not gasoline. To compare with the US 4 cyl gasoline engine is not a fair comparison either. As I understand it, the US has tougher particulate emission standards than Canada or Europe, which makes it difficult for car makers to sell diesel engines in this country. There is also the cost of diesel, which has been very expensive in the last few years, offsetting the cost per mile. I don’t know how the diesel Smart car performs compared to the gasoline engine, but I believe you will find people that would gladly trade performance for mileage. The people that want performance would not buy a Smart car anyway – gasoline or diesel, so I think that point is moot.

  7. Personne says:

    “The 3 cylinder Smart car available in Canada is a diesel – not gasoline.”
    I beg to differ, since my wife owns a gas-powered 2008 ForTwo (super unleaded only) which replaced a 2005 diesel-powered one.

    As you can expect it is more responsive and a bit less noisy, though I didn’t mind the first one as we never once experienced trouble starting it in the winter. It’s hard to make direct comparisons between the two because diesel prices skyrocketed and never came back down to the lower figures we used to see when we drove oil; suffice it to say that the curent one drinks exactly half of what my 3l V6 Mazda Sportwagon does.

    Mercedes plans to bring back the diesel in 2010 after passing conformity to the the new emission requirements – which barred the older version imports.

  8. Mike McCloskey says:

    i still have an 89 crx it still getts over 50 mpg on regular gas. my problem with this is other small cars arent doing well compairativly. the yaris only gets 34 on the hwy and weighs 500 lbs more than my crx. this means that over the last 20 years there has been no improvment in the auto industry. i would think that large companys with r&d teams could make some headway over 20 years its pathetic.

  9. Dave W says:

    Great article!! I have been thinking about my old crx. I am 6 foot four and 300 lbs I fit easily. I was shocked by the gas prices of last year. If I get the HF model and add synthetic oil, bosch platinums, KnN filter and maybe a good muffler and header($300-400), I should be able conservatively to get 55 plus on the freeway. I have seen lightweight pulleys that claim to drop 1 mpg per pulley, there are three for the crx, which conservatively I would say might get me to 57 plus mpg. Then if I add lightweight seats ($400 at least) I maybe able to get to 60 mpg. The seats are expensive though for a max of 80 lbs less. Good point, why are all these new cars getting such crappy gas milage? The prius is a joke!! compared to a stock crx hf and some cheap mods. Why cant someone produce a crx type vehicule with a carbon fiber body or fiberglass(vw manx fiberglass bodies that sat 4 were $1500 or less) as a technology or cutting edge car for those of us that like to save money on gas?

  10. Oscar says:

    I realy love te article, i own a CRX Im trying to keep it because the gas millage that car does is good and its a realy fun to drive it. I was thinkin why they dont make another CRX not CRZ, not insight (i dont know why all the hybrid cars look so ugly),they should do a light weigh turbo Diesel CRX, thats a realy good idea, without luxury stuf (like old times optional Luxury), with all the safety matters.

  11. Lyn says:

    The 1988 Honda CRX HF got 60+ on the highway not 50, and it was never rated for 50 mpg highway, it was rated for 54 but got much much better. Honda was crazy for discontinuing the car, It had guts, styling, fuel economy that still to this day can’t be beat

  12. Dustin May says:

    The number I used is from fueleconomy.gov, the EPA’s website for comparing the fuel economies of different cars. The EPA cycle changed a few years ago, and they adjusted vehicles older than that to bring them in line with their expected performance on the new cycle, based on baseline tests run with various vehicles.

    As always, your mileage may vary!

  13. Oliver Kuttner says:

    I really appreciate the article and take this opportunity to ask those interested at our project at Edison2Com. we are developing the car in the other direction to less is more as a simple yet safe platform. Here I will differ with the author in saying that it is not the safety that makes the light car impossible. For that matter there is a study which compares highway deaths per 100,000 vehicles sold and it comes out with the finding that the ill handling heavy SUVs fare much worse (because they are in more accidents (with the exception of a few teen marketed cars like the Dodge Neon.
    If weight made safety impossible then how do racing cars offer such safety in more demanding situations…. I know many reasons including belts etc.
    The point of the article is correct we need to go to less weight. We need to solve the obstacles. Some of this we are attempting to do.

  14. mike says:

    Oliver brings up a good point. Why not start with a very light car and build an interior cage much like a roll cage or crash cage. This could be hidden from view with some smart use of plastic trim pieces and could be relatively lightweight.

    I always see commercials saying which unibody flexes at what points better than whoever else’s car. It doesn’t make sense, that thin steel is still going to be smashed to bits when hit in an odd position no matter if you have a full frame suburban or yaris or whether you have airbags or not.

    I say build the car first then build the safety cage to fit inside the car, this would also limit the rampant ugliness in jelly bean cars today. Please don’t let wind resistance matter more than my car looking like a slick terd! (The new 370z comes to mind, it looks like crap, literally)

  15. steve in w ma says:

    This article stikes a chord with me. I foolishly did not buy the creampuff 87 Corolla 5 speed (with AC!) that fell into my lap last summer. I got between 42 and 48 mpg overall in it during the 2 weeks I had it, plus it was a blast to drive because it felt pretty well connected to the road.

    Basically, my impression is that the American public wants power, not fuel efficiency, and also they want “safety”–but not the kind you get from actually learning advanced driving techniques such as emergency lane changes, threshold braking, road awareness, and setting your mirrors properly for your blind spots. Probably 3/4 of the people I ask don’t even know if their cars have ABS, and very few of those people actually know how braking works and why ABS is different.

    People say they want safety but not the active kind that they have to exercise their brain to get , but rather the passive kind that you buy as “features” in the car. I’m not knocking safety improvements, just saying that most people don’t actually look in the mirror first like they should when it comes to car safety, and only then look to the car and the manufacturer.

  16. Jim says:

    The antiquated Fossil fuel industry runs the US government from top to bottom. Illegal oil wars & stifling MPG is just the tip of that VERY corrupt iceberg! Period!

  17. jason says:

    im pumping life back into a 91 crx and with stock motor and temp. 4 sp sence 5 spd in shop im loven the 45miles per gallon major diff. from the 2.o that seems to suck fuel crz eee ill stick with the hazzard of the crx better body lighter and i could up the proformance and still gett killer fuel milage it might be a death trap but ill take my chance fuel price aint gona do nothen but claim.

  18. Indy says:

    It’s my understanding that the old Honda’s got great gas mileage because they used a technique known as “lean burn” which uses much less fuel than the conventional method. Unfortunately, this apparently leads to more pollution exiting the exhaust pipe, so lean burn was abandoned. For the most part, the only difference weight makes in MPG is in the stops and starts. Theoretically, if 2 cars are identical, except for weight, they should get the same MPG when they’re driving down the highway. Granted, the heavy car will require more gas to go up the hill, but it’ll also require less gas to go back down the hill too. Just my 2 cents.

  19. kEITH says:

    In 1986 I bought a brand new 1986 Honda CRX hf – personally I got 63 miles to the gallon – highway – no A/C and a 5spd trans. AMAZING!!

  20. peter says:

    That is nonsense. Two cars with the same engine, driving down the road. It is obvious that the lighter car will get better mpg, as it has less mass to propel, therefore its engine does not have to work as hard, therefore it needs less fuel.
    I have a 91 C R X and I love it. It handles great, rides comfortably, is a blast to drive and gets amazing fuel economy
    It has 190,000 miles and still has original clutch. Reliability is rock solid.
    Honda still hasn’t made a car that comes close.

  21. jer says:

    I would put my 1989 Honda CRX up against ANY car today in terms of MPG and fun factor in driving. I own many cars (duramax diesel 2500hd, expediton, colorado, taurus, F350, corvette, kia minivan, dodge 1500, dakota). Yet I LOVE my little CRX and drive it 99% of the time. Apparently others do as well since I am CONSTANTLY asked if I want to sell (even notes on my window while parked). You really think a new Prius (with all the safety ammenties claimed) would help you survive against a “normal” car head on collision. NO IT WOULDN’T nor would a little cheap car nowadays. BUT…. Few crashes are car vs car. Most are lost control and hitting other items such as road signs, personal property etc and most are at low speeds. These tests are biased to try to fool consumers into buying high priced CHEAP ass cars. I paid 500 for my little beauty and unless you can bring me a HUGE wad of cash I will never sell my little sweetie.

  22. Patricia Jones says:

    I had a Honda CRX-HF. I am not sure which year I purchased it either 1984 or 1985. It had a 16 valve engine. I got 80mpg going 80mph driving between ST Louis and Denver on
    I-70. I bought it because it was advertised 63mpg Hwy. I put over 230,000 miles on it and only had to change tires and 3 headlamps and of course oil changes. It was the BEST car I ever had. I am one of those who believe in the conspiracy theory. When I talked to Honda they said it’s pick up 0-60 was too slow. So they discontinued the engine. I don’t think so– It was too good of a car for that. AND the car was stolen from me by a Ford Deaqler in Chicago, I took another car for a test drive and when I got back to the dealers’ lot (decided to keep my CRX_HF) my car was gone off the lot nowhere to be seen. Of course I complained and all they said they could do is fire the salesman.

  23. keith says:

    The problem is the government! They love making laws and thats what they’ve done here. The safety laws cause so much extra weight the mileage goes down. I would never buy a new car now days. I drive a 1993 Geo Metro. It has a 1.0L Suzuki engine and gets 45 in the city and 50 on the highway! The other day I saw a really nice looking Honda CRX and am interested in getting one now. I think the HTSA should only give ratings and advisements to the public about cars not laws telling us what we can or cant drive. WE can make our own decision.

  24. Jim says:

    Greetings, I’ve been a driver of a 1988 Accord for the past six years. Before that I drove a 1989 Accord up to 316000 miles with only minor hitches later in life. Both were LXi models, which sport a 2500 lb weight with a full tank of fuel, a 1200 watt amplifier, a 12″ sub in a sealed box, college books for 4 classes, a Krammer stratocaster, and my fat a** sitting in it (plus all the wrappers from meals over the past year). Out of the box fuel economy from my experience was averaging 34 MPG on my 58-mile round trip daily commute. I still drive the 1988 and it’s been a real honey of a car. All the extra weight you were referring to (airbags, ABS, traction ctl) makes up for the lack of attention one pays to the road when using the rest of the extra weight you were referring to (cup holders for starbucks, center consoles for DVD’s, DVD player to keep the kids from singing traveling songs, power adjustable seats) and result in the fewer injuries from the likely higher quantity of accidents associated with these “amenities”. We really need to reconsider what we need in an automobile. I am not knocking the hybrid technology – I owned a 2004 Prius, and as far as I’m concerned it was one of the best automobiles I’ve ever driven – I just am wondering how well that technology would perform without all the extra junk, height and width. Keep the shape and lose some drag by reducing its cross section. Reduce weight by keeping only the necessities. The prius transmission is very simple and soundly designed – now you can make it smaller and lighter, along with the engine, and still have as peppy a car and all the while further improve on fuel economy. We need to get back to necessities…thanks for a great read.

  25. James says:

    I think there is more to it than just weight. If anyone has ever watched Top Gear on BBC, they have done field studies on mpg where they would take a few cars including the Jaguar XJ6 TDVI (which is a 6 cylinder twin turboed diesel) on a 750 mile trip. The plan was to use only one tank of fuel of roughly 22 gallons. thats an average of 34 miles. Thats incredible out of a twin turbo!!! Bring that car to America, I assure you it wont produce that great of mph! If you even compare other cars in Europe that are brought to America with different engine options, you will see that Europe has cars with 50 mpg on a normal engine (including a Subaru Impreza) when we are lucky to even reach 30 mpg in America. Its not just the weight! Its also the regulations that America puts on their cars! Dont mislead your readers!! Do some homework before printing!

  26. another james says:

    the car pictured is an 84 CRX HF, not an 89. please get your pictures right if you are going to go on and on about a car. the 1.3 HF was rated at 67 MPG HIGHWAY. with a 3 barrel carburetor!! i bought one at 250k miles and rebuilt the carb and had no problem getting to 80-90 mph on the highway. and i will never sit in the back of a prius again, id rather climb in the hatch of a CRX. the prius was just as cramped…

    • Jerry says:

      Yes, I have a friend who regularly got over 80 mpg in his CRX. He’d still have it if he didn’t have two kids now.
      The Prius back seat can’t be compared to the CRX. My Prius is comfortable and easily fits three in the rear, with plenty of legroom. The CRX is less than comfortable. I’ve traveled for a short distance in the back of one.

  27. Rob says:

    Can anyone tell me why the diesel cars are rarely mentioned when it comes to mileage?
    Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and other manufacturers make a clean diesel in 2013 that gets over 65 mpg much better than a hybrid.