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HONDA'S CIVIC DEL SOL IS FUN - BUT EXPENSIVE

There are two schools of thought about convertibles.

One says that a properly designed convertible must allow the front seat occupants to be buffeted with wind, to let nature's good air roar in their ears, whip their hair into knots and blow dirt from the carpet up into their eyes.The other opinion - the only correct and intelligent opinion - is that convertibles are to permit just a moderate breeze into the car, to give the occupants a breath of fresh air, tousle the hair and allow the majority of outdoors ambiance to be provided by the sun and sky above.

Fortunately, Honda is on my side. The new pop-top Civic del Sol, as the television ad cleverly portrays, allows a respectable whiff of wind but still lacks very little, except for an egregiously overpowered engine, when it comes to sportiness.

Technically, the del Sol is not a full convertible, but it's about as close as you can get. It has a slick, removable roof panel that stores in the trunk and a roll-down rear window, a worthwhile and fun innovation.

In Honda's lineup, this newly introduced two-seater replaces the CRX as the sporty Civic model. Like the CRX, the del Sol is compact, youthful, thrifty and nimble handling. Like all Hondas, it is intelligently engineered, pleasantly styled and carefully crafted.

And as with other Hondas, the Civic del Sol is on the upper end of the price scale for its class. The brilliant red del Sol Si I test drove had a sticker price of $16,700, but taxes and license and registration fees pushed the real cost to almost $18,000. This is an expensive toy.

Shoppers have a choice of two del Sols: the uptown Si version with a 125 horse, 1.6-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder engine, and the base model del Sol S with a 1.5-liter, 16-valve four with 102 horses. These days, the smaller engine would be considered puny for any car with sporting pretensions, but the del Sol is a light vehicle and not much oomph is required to get it going.

Still, the Si version is preferable, not only for the larger engine but for the four-wheel disc brakes, cruise control, 14-inch alloy wheels, power mirrors and power steering. Both del Sols have driver's side airbags. Anti-lock brakes are not available.

The interior is stylish and functional, for the most part, but Honda has glitzed up the floor carpeting with red zig-zags that are in questionable taste. Cloth on the bucket seats is cheap looking but seems durable. Neither a remote trunk release, nor decent sun visors, nor adequate side view mirrors are provided on the Si - notable omissions on a car with this price.

On the road, the del Sol feels similar to Nissan's NX 2000 and the Mazda MX-3, which also have a jaunty, young look but also have token back seats, or at least something that can be used by a third passenger in a pinch, or used for bags of groceries. The del Sol does have a spacious trunk fitted with a locking rack for the roof panel, which can be removed quickly and stowed in the trunk but might prove awkward for a short or weak person.

The del Sol is adept at diving into corners and sneaking through traffic, and is entertaining to run quickly through the gears. It's lively and well balanced, with just enough exhaust rap when it's wound out, and just enough tightness in the suspension, to announce that this isn't your mother's Civic.

As an open two-seater priced in the $14,000-$17,000 range, the del Sol begs comparison with the popular Mazda MX-5 Miata. Both score high in quality and entertainment value, but the Miata is a true sports car, with rear-drive and all its handling advantages, a full convertible top and more sophisticated styling. With a big trunk and front-drive, the Honda is more practical.

Consumer information

Base price: $15,000

Options on test car (including air conditioning, stereo radio-cassette, floor mats): $1,404

Freight: $310

Total: $16,714

Approximate tax, title, license: $1,165

Sample financing: Down payment $3,576 (20 percent), 48 months at 7.75 percent interest. Payments $348 monthly. EPA gas mileage: 29 city, 33 highway

Consumer information on the 1993 Honda del Sol Si was provided by American Honda Motor Co. and a credit union.