A cutting-edge sport coupe. by Tony Swan
A year ago, we were all but certain that Honda's Prelude was about to join the ranks of the dearly departed. Like so many sport coupes, its sales were slow, and there was informed speculation of the Prelude's impending demise, even within American Honda, speculation that was magnified by Honda's typical tight security concerning future products.
Well, it's a year later and we're pleased to say that all the speculative doom-and-gloom, our own included, was wrong. There's a new Prelude for 1997, fifth generation in this popular series, roomier, more powerful and more technically sophisticated than generation four. In a word, better.
The Prelude has always served as Honda's techno-showcase, and for 1997 this creative engineering company has come up with yet another gee-whiz innovation to add to the mix.
Honda calls it the Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS), and it seems likely to take front-drive performance cars another step closer to parity with their rear-drive competitors in terms of absolute handling. ATTS distinguishes the standard Prelude from the SH model, our test subject.
Here's how it works. When a front-drive car hustles around a corner, its front tires have to perform an extra function--power transfer--that the front tires on a rear-driver don't. That's why even very good-handling front-drive cars like the Prelude are more prone to understeer than their rear-drive counterparts.
Understeer describes a car's resistance to turn-in. The faster the entry speed to a given corner, the more the car wants to go straight ahead.
ATTS addresses this trait through a clever set of mechanical functions that automatically transfers available engine torque--as much as 80%--to the outside front wheel, and also increases its rotational speed by as much as 15%.
Putting the extra power into the outside front wheel, which typically bears the heaviest load in hard cornering, compensates for the extra load and restores balance.
It's a typical Honda solution to a problem no one else has really managed to solve--and it works.
This is a slightly bigger Prelude. The wheelbase has been stretched almost an inch and a half, overall length has increased by 3.2 inches, height by an inch. It's also a smidge heavier, partly because of the dimensional increases, partly because Honda's chassis engineers have gone through the platform from stem to stern to increase overall rigidity. Dramatically.
We're impressed by the results, because the previous bodyshell was already one of the best in its class in terms of stiffness, which is the cornerstone of ride and handling development. Like the last generation, the new Prelude uses Honda's double wishbone suspension fore and aft, with disc brakes on all four aluminum alloy, which have increased an inch in diameter to 16 inches.
Honda's stylists seem to have looked to the third generation Prelude for inspiration in designing the latest. The roofline is more formal and the overall appearance more conservative compared to the swoopy lines of generation four. The most distinctive element is a pair of high-output vertically rectangular headlamps, remiscent of the new Mercedes SLK roadster.
The new Prelude comes in just two models--standard and SH--with one engine. This means bad news and good news. The bad news is that last year's less expensive (and less powerful) S and Si versions have disappeared from the lineup. The good news is that the surviving engine is the 2.2-liter dohc 16-valve VTEC aluminum four-cylinder, slightly uprated to a sizzling 195 horsepower for the new car.
Honda also offers a new automatic transmission option for the Prelude, a four-speed called the Sequential SportShift, that allows the driver to shift manually as well as operate in full automatic mode. Similar in concept to the Chrysler AutoStick, it adds more driving fun to automatic editions, but also adds weight and cost, and subtracts from all-around performance. Besides the extra mass, AutoStick editions also come to the party with five less hp.
The Inside Story
Anyone familiar with the previous Prelude will feel right at home in the new one. The cockpit still provides the same blend of sports car intimacy, supportive sport bucket seats, high quality materials and plentiful comfort/convenience amenities as its predecessor.
But there are also a couple of welcome improvements. Honda has put most of the new car's increased length to work in the rear seat area, which makes it useful as a people perch, rather than mere parcel shelf status. And there's also an extra cubic foot of space under the rear decklid, and the rear seatbacks now fold forward to expand cargo volume.
Just as welcome is the new dashboard and instrument panel, which reverts to a classic Honda gauge package rather than the peculiar, spread-out displays of the previous model. The slightly taller roofline affords more glass area, which improves driver sightlines in the rear quarters, and there are several bins and pockets for stowing small stuff, another typical Honda touch.
Standard equipment for the basic Prelude includes air conditioning, a 160-watt AM/FM/CD sound system, power moonroof, cruise control, driver's seat height adjustment, tilt steering with a leather-wrapped wheel, map lights, ignition switch light and power windows, mirrors and locks.
Besides ATTS, the SH version adds leather wrapping to the shift knob, and the rear spoiler with integrated LED brake light. The automatic, a $1000 option, is available only on the standard Prelude. And leather seating has disappeared from the option list, an effort by Honda--questionable, in our view--to keep prices down.
Safety features--ABS, dual airbags, side impact protection--are contemporary, but not extraordinary, though Honda has adopted a new Key Code security system, similar to the PASS-KEY system developed by General Motors.
Ride & Drive
Honda has developed many applications for its sophisticated VTEC--Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control--system, but the configuration employed in the Prelude is still the most stimulating. Using two sets of cam lobes per shaft--one set mild, the second aggressive--the mechanically activated system engages the second set of lobes at about 5200 rpm and voila!--we have liftoff.
In the lower gears, particularly, power comes on with a dramatic rush reminiscent of some turbocharged cars, transforming the engine from mild to wild. At maximum thrust, the little 2.2-liter engine propels the Prelude to 60 mph in about seven seconds, making an engagingly refined snarl while doing so.
The five-speed gearbox is precise, although the gear ratios aren't quite as close as they were in previous VTEC-power Preludes, probably for a little better fuel economy.
Honda's painstaking work with the chassis is immediately apparent in hard cornering, even in the basic car. And the function of the ATTS wizardry in our SH tester lends an amazing new dimension to front-drive motoring. When cornering speed increases, it simply makes the driver forget that understeer ever existed. Transitions are instantaneous, steering responses scalpel-sharp.
The only trouble with ATTS--and we're not at all sure this can even be classified as a problem--is that you have to drive the car quite briskly to experience its magic.
The only other mild negative to emerge from our Prelude driving experience was ride quality that is distinctly firm. This is a very sporty setup, and it doesn't let you forget its thoroughbred sinews for a minute.
Virtually written off for dead, the Prelude is back, and once again ranks at the head of the small sport coupe class. With prices starting at $23,595, it's far from cheap. But for the accomplished driver who appreciates refined, technically advanced sporting machinery with few compromises, the new Prelude is a must-drive.
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