by Mitch McCullough
Still racy after all these years.
Base Price $23,500
As Tested $26,415
This fifth-generation Honda Prelude is starting to show its age. Completely redesigned for the 1997 model year, its styling no longer cuts an edge in a trendy, fashion-conscious segment and the interior is not state of the art.
But the Honda Prelude remains a top contender among the hot sport coupes. This car a blast for people who enjoy spirited driving. Its twin-can VTEC engine sounds great and revs like there's no tomorrow. The handling this car offers is world class. Roomy, powerful, technically sophisticated, it remains the best Prelude Honda has ever built.
The two primary decisions you need to make when choosing a Prelude are: whether you want the automatic, and whether you want the SH model's high-tech handling setup. Fortunately, you can't make a mistake here because all three are brilliant cars - for different reasons. All come with the 200-horsepower VTEC engine. They all share one level of interior trim, so there are no base or upscale models and there are no options.
Equipped with the 5-speed manual, the Prelude retails for $23,500. With the 4-speed Sequential Sportshift automatic, it retails for $24,500. The Type SH, which comes with Honda's Active Torque Transfer System, goes for $26,000 and is only available with the manual gearbox.
Honda's stylists seem to have looked to the third-generation Prelude for inspiration in designing this fifth-generation model. 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 vertically rectangular headlamps, reminiscent of the Mercedes SLK roadster. The Prelude's quirky styling has not improved with age. The SH comes with a rear spoiler that is available as an accessory for the other Preludes.
Underneath is some fine engineering: Honda's high-revving 2.2-liter twin-cam 16-valve VTEC aluminum four-cylinder engine delivers 200 horsepower. A four-wheel double-wishbone suspension, powerful four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and 16-inch alloy wheels are all standard.
Like the exterior, the interior is beginning to look a little dated. Anyone familiar with previous Preludes will feel right at home in this one. The cockpit provides sports car intimacy, supportive sport bucket seats, high-quality materials, and plenty of comfort and convenience goodies. The Prelude provides surprisingly good long-haul comfort: We drove a Prelude SH more than 6000 miles in just seven days during Car and Driver's One Lap of America marathon.
This fifth-generation Prelude is longer than previous-generation models and Honda has put most of the increased length to work in the rear seat area, making it a viable place to move people. The Prelude offers decent trunk space and the rear seatbacks fold forward to expand cargo volume.
The dashboard and instrument panel features a classic Honda analog gauge package, rather than the peculiar displays stretched across the dashboard of the previous generation. 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, a familiar Honda touch.
Standard equipment for the basic Prelude includes air conditioning, a 160-watt AM/FM/CD stereo, 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. Type SH adds a leather shift knob. Leather seating is not an option, an effort by Honda to keep prices down.
Safety features - ABS, dual airbags, side-impact protection - are current, but not extraordinary. Honda has adopted a new Key Code security system, similar to the PASS-Key system developed by General Motors.
The Honda Prelude offers an excellent driving experience. The VTEC engine sounds great in the upper rev ranges, growling with gusto and revving freely past the 7,000-rpm redline. This car loves to be revved and will put a smile on any enthusiast's face. Stand on it and the power comes on with a dramatic rush reminiscent of some turbocharged cars, particularly in the lower gears. At maximum thrust, the little 2.2-liter engine propels the Prelude from 0 to 60 mph in about 7 seconds.
Honda has developed many applications for its clever VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control) system, but the configuration employed in the Prelude is the most stimulating. Using two sets of cam lobes per shaft - one set placid, the second aggressive - the hydromechanically activated system engages the second set of lobs at about 5200 rpm.
The 5-speed gearbox is precise, although the gear ratios aren't quite as close as they were in the previous VTEC-powered Preludes. Compared with some of the newest sport coupes, the shifter feels a little long.
The optional automatic transmission is a four-speed Sequential SportShift. It allows the driver to shift manually as well as operate in full automatic mode. Similar in concept to the Chrysler AutoStick and Porsche Tiptronic, it adds more driving fun to automatic editions, but also adds weight and cost and subtracts from the all-around performance. While 5-speed Preludes rev to an exhilarating 7000 rpm, AutoStick models rev to an almost as exhilarating 6600-rpm redline; as a result, AutoStick comes with 195 horsepower and the same amount of torque. (AutoStick is not available with the Active Torque Transfer System.)
Honda significantly increased the rigidity of the Prelude when it was redesigned in 1997. This improvement is all the more remarkable given the previous body shell was already one of the best in its class in terms of stiffness; chassis rigidity is a key element to greatness in ride and handling. Honda's painstaking work with the chassis is immediately apparent in hard cornering. Transitions are crisp, steering responses scalpel-sharp.
The biggest decision when buying a Prelude is whether to shell out the extra $2,500 for the Type SH, which comes with Honda's Active Torque Transfer System. You have to drive the car quite briskly to experience the benefits of the system, which is transparent during normal driving conditions. On the one hand, this system can best be justified by an enthusiast who loves winding roads. On the other hand, it benefits drivers with average skills more than those with the skills of a Juan Montoya. Turn the steering wheel and the car will go where it's pointed.
The Prelude has always served as Honda's technological showcase and this is most obvious in ATTS, as it's called. This system moves front-drive performance cars another step closer to parity with their rear-drive competitors in terms of absolute handling. Here's how it works: When a front-drive car hustles around a corner, its front tires have to transfer power to the ground as well as steer the car. That - plus the pronounced forward weight bias that goes with having all the powertrain stuff up front - is why front-wheel-drive cars such as the Prelude are more prone to understeer than rear-drive cars. Automatic Torque Transfer makes the car easier to drive quickly and helps reduce understeer. (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 engine torque to the outside front wheel, while increasing its rotational speed. Transferring as much as 80 percent of the power into the outside front wheel, which typically bears the heaviest load in hard cornering, compensates for the extra load and restores balance. The effect is sometimes compared to that of a bulldozer, which can turn the right tracks faster than the left tracks when it turns left. It's a clever Honda solution to a problem no one else has really managed to solve - and it works.
For the accomplished driver who appreciates refined, technically advanced sporting machinery with few compromises, the new Prelude continues to stand at the head of its class.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.