Disneyland Autopia: We drive the new Honda-powered cars

Gallery Disneyland Autopia Photo 8

6.5 hp never felt so thrilling

For millions of drivers around the world, the Disneyland Autopia was their first time behind the wheel of a more or less real “car.” Maybe it was your first time, too. Anyone who could reach the pedals could strap into one of the fiberglass-bodied, gasoline-powered two-seaters and haul keister at 6.5 mph around one of the four “scenic miniature motorways” that take up close to a third of the park.

Autopia was one of the original attractions when Walt Disney opened the doors to The Happiest Place on Earth on July 17, 1955, and it is still popular today. It’s even a featured attraction at Disneylands in Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong. There is a fundamental and very strong desire among people around the world to drive a car, and that desire starts at a very young age.

Now, after a five-month shutdown for refurbishment, the original Autopia at the original Disneyland is open once again, and we were among the first to experience it.

Ride sponsor Honda is financing the remodel. The process includes repainting all 96 Autopia cars in several different Honda colors, from Kona coffee metallic to white diamond pearl. There are also Honda badges front and rear on all the cars. New tires are part of the deal, too, as well as new engines. Gone are the old 286cc Kawasaki mills, replaced with Honda’s own iGX series of engines (remember, Honda makes everything from business jets to weed wackers, so a small engine is just another product in a big portfolio of mechanical wonders). The 270cc iGX270 makes 8.5 hp at 3,600 rpm and 14.1 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 revs. The new powerplants are no rattly lawn mower polluters from the ‘50s, either: They include everything from variable-timing digital CDI ignition to CARB and EPA certification. Honda says the engine is “…one of the best in the business. More power. Quieter performance. Lower fuel consumption. Lower emissions. Better features. Exceptional performance. Honda’s GX series lives up to the legend, and then some.”

The fiberglass cars themselves haven’t changed since 2000, when then-sponsor Chevron introduced the current three models: Suzy the cute VW Beetle convertible, Sparky the sports car and Dusty the off-roader (we were always partial to the faux Corvettes from the Atlantic Richfield sponsorship days). The cockpits of these racy vehicles have to accommodate just about every size modern human, which is to say they have to be very big. The ginormous bench seat could probably hold a horse, and the seat belt, with its plastic buckle, serves more as a reminder to remain seated at all times than to keep a body in place during a crash, of which there were many per lap. While the original cars from 1955 had no crash absorptive qualities, those cars were soon splintered to smithereens. The impact-protective fronts and rears on the current cars could hit a brick wall and be none the worse for wear.

Autopia engine

Not that you’d hit very hard. Maximum speed is governed at 6.5 mph, no matter how hard you stomp on the single, center-mounted (and parent-reachable) gas pedal. We know, because we just drove one. Step on the gas, the centrifugal clutch engages and off you go, more or less. Steering is, as it always has been, among the worst in automotive history. It seems not only purposely vague — as if to challenge the driver’s concentration — but diabolical, as if the amount of free play on center had been determined by the personal injury attorneys association of greater Anaheim. There is a guide rail down the middle of the track, so you can’t steer off into the weeds, but neither can you steer straight. It’s part of the ride’s charm.

The scenic portion of the attraction is still under development. Honda promises greater amusement here in the form of various pro-Honda billboards and other decor. In fact, the whole ride is still under development, so keep coming back every couple months (at $105 admission!) to see what comes next.

You could be forgiven if you’d expected more from a Honda refurbishment. Should there be a more sophisticated powertrain on these cars? Say, electric drive? Yes. The Autopia in Disneyland Hong Kong gets electric drive. Considering that there is already that metal center rail, how hard could it be to construct some sort of slot car-like inductive charging for an electric motor? That’d certainly be cleaner, emissions-wise, and quieter. Of course, all it would take would be one inebriated guest from Palooka, Texas, to step out of the ride and fry him or herself on the third rail and that would be the end of Autopia (the People Mover, the Sky Buckets and even Tinker Bell, you may have noticed, all fell victim to various government safety regulations).

But this is more about getting kids behind the wheel, a tradition that has carried on for 60 years. And we’re certainly in favor of that. So cash in your bonus check, bring the kids down and take a couple laps. Tell them Soichiro sent you. They won’t have any idea what you’re talking about.

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