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Completely redesigned last year, the Honda's hot rod enters 1998 unchanged except for the addition of one new exterior color. Nothing unusual in that. Manufacturers rarely make many changes in the year following a major redesign.
But that doesn't tell the whole story. Just two years ago we thought this car was a goner. Like so many sport coupes, its sales were slow, and there was informed speculation of the Prelude's impending demise, even inside American Honda.
Well, we're pleased to say that all the speculative doom-and-gloom, our own included, was wrong. The new Prelude, the fifth generation of this popular series, is alive and well. It's roomier, more powerful, and more technically sophisticated than generation four. In a word, better.
The Prelude has always served as Honda's technological showcase. In this newest Prelude, Honda's creative engineering people have come up with yet another gee-whiz innovation to add to the mix.
Honda calls it the Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS), and it takes 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, which was our test subject.
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-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 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.
It's a clever Honda solution to a problem no one else has really managed to solve--and it works.
The latest generation Prelude is slightly larger than the previous generation. The wheelbase has been stretched nearly 1.5 inches, overall length has increased 3.2 inches, height by 1 inch. It's slightly heavier, partly because of the dimensional increases, partly because Honda's chassis engineers have reinforced the platform to increase overall rigidity.
We're impressed with the results. This improvement is all the more remarkable given the previous bodyshell was already one of the best in its class in terms of stiffness, and this rigidity is the cornerstone to greatness in the ride and handling development. Like the last generation--and all other Hondas, for that matter--the Prelude uses Honda's double wishbone suspension fore and aft, with powerful disc brakes all around. ABS is standard equipment, and 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels replace the previous 15-inch wheels.
Honda's stylists seem to have looked to the third generation Prelude for inspiration in designing the latest 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.
Unlike the previous generation, the Prelude is available in only two models. The less potent (and less expensive) S and Si versions have disappeared. The surviving engine is the 2.2-liter dohc 16-valve VTEC aluminum four-cylinder, with a new block and a slight increase in output, to 195 horsepower.
Honda also offers a new automatic transmission option for the Prelude, a four-speed called Sequential SportShift, that 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. AutoStick editions come to the party with 190 horsepower and are not available with ATTS.
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 plenty of comfort and convenience goodies.
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 a mere parcel shelf. Cargo space has been increased 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 analog gauge package, rather than the peculiar displays stretched across the dashboard 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 stereo, power moonroof, cruiser 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 is a $1,000 option.
And leather seating has vanished from the option list, an effort by Honda to keep prices down.
Safety features--ABS, dual airbags, side impact protection--are current, but not extraordinary, though Honda has adopted a new Key Code security system, similar to the PASS-Key system developed by General Motors.
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 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 from 0 to 60 mph in about 7 seconds, making an engagingly refined snarl while doing so.
The 5-speed gearbox is precise, although the gear ratios aren't quite as close as they were in the previous VTEC-powered Preludes.
Honda's painstaking work with the chassis is immediately apparent in hard cornering, even in the basic car. Transitions are crisp, steering responses scalpel-sharp.
Automatic Torque Transfer makes the car easier to drive quickly and helps reduce understeer. However, you have to drive the car quite briskly to experience it.
Just as impressive as its handling and power, the Prelude provides surprising long-haul comfort. Editor Mitch McCullough and I drove a Prelude SH more than 6000 miles during the seven-day One Lap of America marathon hosted by Car and Driver magazine last summer.
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 $23,695 for the standard car, it's not cheap. You could buy a Chevy Camaro Z28 coupe for less. But 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. And we beat a bunch of Camaros on the race track during One Lap.
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