From the November 1996 issue of Car and Driver.
Honda’s Prelude has suffered from a touch of split-personality disorder these past few years. Despite its undisputed appeal—particularly the VTEC-engined model—the Prelude has had to endure styling better suited to the twenty-something crowd combined with a price more appropriate to boomers with trust funds.
Add the recent sales trend of moving away from coupes to sport-utility vehicles and minivans, and you can see that the prognosis has not been great—even for a car good enough to garner three 10Best awards in a row. Last year, Honda sold 12,517 Preludes, down from 15,467 the year before. Compare those figures with sales of 36,040 Preludes in 1992 and annual volumes of more than double that from 1985 through 1987, and a precipitous sales slide is evident.
There isn’t much Honda can do to dissuade customers from crossing over to other types of vehicles, but the company knows how to make an improved car. So for 1997, the new coupe will be available as two models—the Prelude and the Prelude SH—and both will be powered by the top-drawer 2.2-liter VTEC engine, which now musters another five horsepower (thanks to a new exhaust header and revised valve timing) to peak at 195 horsepower at 7000 rpm. The more pedestrian engine variants available on ’96 Preludes didn’t make the cut.
In tailoring the look of the car to fit a more upscale buyer, this new Prelude has styling that evokes the very successful third-generation Prelude (which old 52,541 units in ’88), but with distinctly modern touches. Among them, unusual double-decker headlights with compound reflectors, and flat-planed body panels that remind you a little of Nissan’s 240SX at first sight. Soon afterward, though, the car assumes its own identity and presents a crisp, well-proportioned if slightly conservative aspect to the outside world.
Inside is a new instrument panel as tidy and functional as in any other Honda. The instruments are grouped ahead of the driver, and the rest of the panel is sleek and straightforward. It’s a welcome replacement for the controversial wide strip of instruments found in the previous model. The overall mood inside is rather dark and somber except in green cars, which get a two-tone black-over-ivory upholstery treatment. Interior room has been improved so that the rear seats—unlike those of the previous model—are genuinely usable by adults for short trips. We discovered this when our six-foot-two photographer occupied the rear seat for some down-the-road shot and then declined the opportunity to return to the front seat for the rest of the trip.
The base car will be priced at about $23,000 (in the same ballpark as the former mid-level Si model), which isn’t bad considering the now-standard VTEC power and good equipment levels. In fact, the base car has just about everything the SH model has. What differentiates the $26,000 SH model is a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob, racierlooking alloy wheels (of the same 16-inch size), and a handling package that includes firmer springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars as well as a stability-enhancement yaw control system known as the Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS).
ATTS has a hydraulically controlled planetary gearset mounted to the conventional differential and a controller that monitors speed, steering angle, lateral acceleration, and yaw rate. There are other sensors that help determine whether the vehicle is following the driver’s intended course. When more yaw is needed in a turn, ATTS directs more torque to the outboard front wheel. This increases the yaw rate, enhances steering response, and puts more driving force on the outside front wheel, where it can best be exploited. To reduce the sensation of torque steer at the wheel, the lower control arm was replaced by two ball-jointed links, reducing the kingpin offset from 43 millimeters to 25.
Honda has facts and figures that demonstrate the virtues of ATTS in reduced steering input, reduced understeer, reduced yaw on a trailing throttle, and so on, but we really couldn’t detect the system’s operation. On the road course at Seattle International Raceway, the SH model handled more responsively than the base car, resisted understeer better, and generally felt more at home. But the upgraded suspension tuning of the SH model had a lot to do with it, so we still aren’t completely convinced that ATTS is worth its added cost and 44-pound weight penalty.
We’re also disappointed that the ATTS mechanism doesn’t perform the traction-control tasks it might reasonably be expected to do. Even with ATTS, the Prelude can still spin a wheel on ice and become stranded, just like an open-diff Chevrolet Caprice.
Other than the aforementioned SH electrickery, both Prelude models share standard-equipment air conditioning, an anti-theft immobilizer, an acoustic-feedback sound system (with a built-in microphone that compares the sound with the original signature and then initiates electronic corrections), and ABS. And both models enjoy the structural upgrades that inevitably attend new Hondas: in this case, thicker metal at load-bearing areas, additional welds, reinforced floor and rear bulkhead structures, and a steering-column support that runs from one A-pillar to the other. The result: bending- and torsional-rigidity improvements of 55 and 24 percent, respectively.
These contribute to reduced noise, vibration, and harshness, as do the double layer steel construction of the rear wheel housings, the urethane foam and high-density sound-absorbing sheets applied to various points in the body, and the addition of a rubber-suspended dynamic damper behind the front bumper that substantially lowers low-frequency vibration at idle.
All these improvements produce a peculiarly serene driving experience, one that contrasts markedly with the uninhibited howl of the four-cylinder engine at 7500 rpm (which is most enjoyable with the windows open). But the best thing about the new car’s level of refinement is that it has not dulled the communication you expect from the wheel and shifter of a Prelude. Indeed, this new Prelude makes the previous car feel a little squashy and imprecise by comparison, and we expect to see a dramatic improvement over the last car’s back-of-the-pack 53.8-mph emergency-lane-change test result (C/D, June 1994) the next time we compare members of the sports-coupe class.
For some reason, the new Prelude did not meet the previous model’s straight-line performance, running to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 15.6 seconds at 91 mph. That’s down from 6.5 seconds and 15.1 at 93 mph in our June 1994 comparo. Perhaps the engine on our prototype Prelude was still green, or perhaps it’s the new car’s additional 130 pounds that made the difference. We’ll test a production car in the near future.
For those drivers who will pass on the Prelude’s celebrated gearshift mechanism, there is an enticing consolation prize on ’97 cars with automatic transmissions. It’s known as Sequential SportShift. Similar to Porsche’s Tiptronic and Chrysler’s AutoStick, Honda’s manumatic allows manual override of the four-speed automatic transmission when the selector is slid across from D into an adjacent gate, where forward movements prompt upshifts and tugs rearward produce downshifts. Unlike some other systems, SportShift automatically resets to first gear at a standstill and will not automatically upshift before the engine runs into the rev limiter. If you want to run 200 miles in second gear with the tach bouncing off the limiter at 8000 rpm, it’s your call. (Note that peak output for SportShift Preludes is 190 horsepower, as the torque characteristics of the previous VTEC engine were deemed more suitable for the automatic.)
All in all, the new Prelude continues to offer the attractive blend of virtues we’ve always liked: a screamer of an engine inside a nimble-handling, user-friendly coupe with a dash of Honda quality added to the mix. Now, if we can just pry all those broody boomers out of their minivans.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io