Is this the best small sport coupe you can buy?
The answer to that question depends on how much you want to spend. And how you define the word best.
Turbocharged versions of the Toyota Supra, Nissan 300ZX, Mazda RX-7 (which is turbo only) and Mitsubishi Eclipse/Eagle Talon twins all offer more power and quickness. And with the exception of Eclipse/Talon, all have rear-wheel drive, making even the non-turbo versions a little more agile in terms of absolute handling.
But the Supra, 300ZX and RX-7 are all far more expensive than even the top of the Prelude line. The Prelude price range puts it into the same league as less expensive entries such as the Eclipse/ Talon, Ford Probe, Mazda MX-6, Toyota Celica and Nissan 240SX.
Measured against the Probe, Talon and the others mentioned, the Prelude is a standout. Like just about every Honda made, it's a superb piece of engineering - innovative, competent and beautifully finished.
So if you're after real sport-coupe virtues - precise handling, lively performance, distinctive good looks - and $30,000 represents the absolute limit of your budget, the Prelude is tough to top.
Our model, the Prelude VTEC with anti-lock brakes (ABS) and leather trim, sells for close to $26,000.
Whether it's the base S model, Si model or the VTEC, the Prelude looks like it means business. One of the keys to its purposeful appearance is the relationship of wheelbase to overall length, a Honda trademark. The Prelude's front and rear overhangs are shorter than those on most sport coupes, putting more of the car's mass between the front and rear wheels.
Beyond that, the prelude's track - the width between the wheels - is wide and the car is only 50.8 in. high. It's a look that says the car is ready to race, with the handling to back it up.
There are three engines available in the Prelude family, all 4-cylinders and all jewels. The Prelude S is powered by a 2.2-liter SOHC 4-cylinder rated at 135 hp. The Si gets a 160-hp 2.3-liter DOHC engine, while the 2.2-liter DOHC VTEC puts out a phenomenal 190 hp.
A word about Honda's VTEC technology: VTEC stands for Variable-valve Timing and lift Electronic Control, and its net effect here is to provide two engines for the price of one - docile for normal cruising, fierce when the tachometer hits 5200 rpm. And it achieves this without the complications and drawbacks that go with turbocharging.
Prelude transmission choices include a 5-speed manual, standard for all models, and an optional 4-speed automatic for the S and Si.
There are two keys to the prelude's excellent handling. First, a strong chassis, arguably the best in its class. Second, the prelude's independent suspension system, which uses honda's excellent double wishbone control arms at all four corners rather than the MacPherson struts that are on most competing sport coupes. The benefit is better control in hard cornering.
All Preludes are equipped with a very good 4-wheel disc brake system, and ABS is standard on the Si and VTEC.
About the only significant change to the Prelude lineup for 1995 is the absence of the 4-wheel steering option previously offered on the Si, and the addition of an SE model in late spring that has the luxury features of the VTEC model, minus the VTEC engine itself.
Like all sport coupes, the prelude's interior is snug and driver-oriented. Typical of Honda, the controls are exceptionally well-located - there's no hunting around for anything.
Our only reservation about the prelude's instrument package was in regards to its design. The major gauges - speedometer and tachometer - are electro-luminescent analog dials, placed squarely in front of the driver.
But other instruments - the digital coolant temperature display, for example - are spread across the dashboard. honda's reasoning: Spreading some of the instruments across the dashboard gives the passenger greater involvement in the driving experience. Although this arrangement doesn't create any problems - the ancillary gauges are readily visible - it looks peculiar and the rationale behind it is odd at best. We expect to see a more traditional layout in the next generation of the Prelude.
The seats in any of the Preludes are attractive, well-shaped and comfortable, but the deep leather buckets in our test car were exceptional. In addition to lateral support worthy of a race car, they offered sufficient adjustment to fit a wide range of body types. Considering the cost of the VTEC model, about the only thing missing in our test car was power adjustments.
There's enough legroom up front to suit anyone on the low side of 6-foot-6. If You're taller than that you could run into clearance problems with the steering wheel, although the standard tilt feature helps.
Like so many cars in this class, the so-called 2+2 coupes, the Prelude's rear-seat legroom is all but nonexistent. The essence of 2+2 is that the rear seats are designed for occasional seating, and we always wonder what the occasion could possibly be. For the sake of the rear-seat passenger, we hope the occasion will be brief.
If a truly useful backseat is an important consideration, this isn't the car for you. The same goes for all of the prelude's competitors with the exception of the new Dodge Avenger/ Chrysler Sebring.
Standard equipment in the base Prelude goes beyond the bare essentials, including civilizing extras such as an AM/FM/cassette sound system, air conditioning, power assists, cruise control and - get this - a power sunroof.
Safety features are current but not as exceptional: dual airbags and side-impact protection, plus the standard ABS in the Si and VTEC.
We've had a chance to drive Preludes on racetracks, as well as on the normal mix of public roads, and the experience has always been stimulating. With its precise steering, crisp response and superb braking, the Prelude still sets the handling standard for front-drive sport coupes, even over the new Eclipse/Talon.
There Isn't much distinction in handling between the Si and the VTEC. But there's a substantial distinction when the VTEC engine revs up to its magic number: 5200 rpm. That is when the tiger comes out and horsepower soars, accompanied by an eager snarl from under the hood.
The VTEC engine hustles the Prelude from 0 to 60 mph in about 7 seconds, and is capable of 140 mph, assuming you can find a proper place for this kind of exercise. Pretty good for 2.2 liters.
Fuel economy is good, provided you're not exercising VTEC magic all the time; then the system gets mighty thirsty.
Ride quality is smooth in all three Preludes, though it's a little stiffer in the Si and VTEC editions. Even so, the ride in a Prelude VTEC is more supple than some of its popular competitors: the Probe GT, for example, or the Talon TSi.
The Honda Prelude, especially the VTEC, is a little more expensive than some popular small sport coupes such as the Probe or Celica. But this is an exceptional car - brilliant in concept, outstanding in execution and virtually unbreakable.
If you want to save about $3000, the Si might be the better buy. Its performance is brisk and there's little to differentiate the Si and VTEC in terms of handling.
Regardless of model, we think there should be a Prelude on every sport-coupe shopper's list. This car is the standard by which the others are judged.