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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.
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.