It's no secret that the market for sport coupes has been shrinking. The combination of high insurance costs and America's dizzying love affair with sport-utility vehicles has taken the starch out of sporty car sales, and a number of manufacturers are re-examining their product priorities relative to this once-healthy segment.
Honda is one such manufacturer, and the Honda Prelude is the car that's imperiled as a result.
Originally introduced in 1979, the Prelude has gone through five evolutions, the most recent--and dramatic--coming along in 1991 for the 1992 model year.
The latest redesign transformed the Prelude from a pleasant, but rather tepid, compact that was easily outperformed by Honda's smaller CRX-Si, to one of the stars of its class.
The Prelude's handling set new standards for front-drive cars in its price/size category, and when the 190-hp VTEC version came along for 1993, it offered performance that rivalled the Nissan 300ZX.
To see how the latest Prelude was holding up versus competing makes that have undergone more recent makeovers--the Eagle Talon/Mitsubishi Eclipse twins, for example--we checked out a '96 Prelude Si, which falls in the middle of the model range.
The Prelude's design was a radical departure from Honda's conservative styling philosophy when it made its appearance in late '91, and it still stands out from the crowd today.
The low nose, low roof, high tail and wide stance give this car an exceptionally aggressive appearance.
The Prelude is about average in size compared to the other leaders in this class--a tad smaller than the Ford Probe, a little bigger than the Talon/Eclipse.
Unchanged for '96, three versions are offered, with incremental jumps in performance for each.
The basic S model, with a base price of $19,960, offers Prelude style with a milder level of suspension tuning and relatively modest power from a 2.2-liter single overhead cam 16-valve 4-cylinder engine.
The $22,655 Si offers 160 hp from a 2.3-liter twincam 16-valve 4-cyl., and a more aggressive suspension setup plus better brakes. Although it's not the fastest of the Preludes, some members of the racing fraternity think the Si offers the best balance of the trio.
However, the $25,880 Prelude VTEC is definitely the tiger of the family. The 2.2-liter VTEC (for Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control) 4-cyl. belts out 190 hp, and bigger brakes provide extra stopping power.
All the Preludes have the advantage of Honda's double wishbone suspension at all four corners--which is more sophisticated than the more common MacPherson strut setup--and all benefit from an exceptionally stiff unitbody, the fundamental cornerstone of good handling.
Honda markets the Preludes as packages, starting with the well-equipped base car and building to the better equipped VTEC edition.
A standard Prelude includes an AM/FM/cassette stereo, power mirrors and windows, a power sunroof, power antenna, cruise control and split-folding rear seatbacks.
The Si adds alloy wheels, antilock brakes, air conditioning and power locks. Stepping up to the extra muscle of the VTEC also gets you leather interior trim, map lights and a rear spoiler.
A 5-speed manual transmission is standard equipment on all models. Opting for a 4-speed automatic transmission adds $800 to the S and Si. Owing to its peaky power traits, the VTEC is offered only with a close-ratio version of the manual transmission.
The Prelude offers the snug sense of intimacy that we usually associate with 2-seaters. And typical of Honda, all controls and instruments are located where they're easy to see and/or use.
Driver sightlines aren't quite so typical of Honda designs--the sizeable rear roof pillar creates a small blind spot in the rear quarters, although the good-sized exterior mirrors keep this from being a problem.
Forward vision over the sloping snoot is excellent.
Excellent also applies to the bucket seats. Upholstered in a high grade cloth, the seats in our test car had a nice range of adjustability and very good lateral support--just what you'd expect of a car with outstanding handling credentials.
While the Prelude's interior is generally exemplary among cars in this class, two elements have drawn consistent criticism since the most recent redesign.
The first is rear seat legroom, which is scant, even for a small sport coupe. Accommodating adult-size people in the rear seat requires exceptional cooperation from the folks up front, and even the rear seat passengers are likely to emerge with cramps and unhappy faces.
The second complaint is of a cosmetic nature. In an effort to make the front seat passenger feel more involved in the driving, the Prelude design team scattered some of the secondary instruments across the dashboard. The idea is commendable, but the execution hasn't played well at all.
Like every new car sold in this country for 1996, the Prelude is equipped with side impact protection and dual airbags. And as we noted earlier, ABS is standard on the Si and VTEC models.
Honda places a premium on handling in all its products, but few are as surgically precise as the Prelude, particularly the Prelude Si and VTEC. Although our test car exhibited traces of understeer--the tendency for the car to continue straight when it's pushed too hard in a corner--it was easily controlled by a slight lift on the throttle, bringing the nose of the car back on line.
Understeer is common to all front-drive cars, but the Prelude's suspension system minimizes it more than most, if not all.
The power rack and pinion steering complements the Prelude's gunfighter reflexes with a light touch, yet very good communication to the driver concerning where the front wheels are pointing.
Considering its athletic nature, the Prelude's ride quality is remarkably supple, something that can't be said for some sport coupes. The basic S model is the most civilized member of the tribe in this respect, but there's nothing harsh about that behavior of the Si or VTEC, even on rough surfaces.
While spring rates aimed at ride comfort also yield some body roll in maximum cornering situations, it's well controlled and difficult to perceive from inside the car.
Something else that's hard to perceive inside the car is noise. The VTEC engine emits a sophisticated snarl when it hits the edge of its power zone--from 6200 rpm on up--but Preludes are otherwise remarkably quiet as sport coupes go.
Wind noise is all but absent, even at high speeds, and there's enough elasticity in the suspension bushings to keep road noise transmission--through the suspension components--at a minimum.
Braking performance is the final key component in a world class sport coupe, and the Prelude family--particularly the potent VTEC--is among the best of its breed.
All three models have disc brakes on all four wheels, a better bet for fade resistance, and as noted the Si and VTEC include antilock as standard equipment.
Because of its higher top speed potential, the VTEC also has larger front rotors with bigger calipers and pads.
A sport coupe should deliver both style and performance, and the Prelude provides far more than the minimum daily requirement of both.
Although cars like this have to cover basic automotive missions like comfortable commuting and errand-running, their primary function is to get their owners' adrenal glands pumping.
The Prelude Si and VTEC are particularly good at this.
It's true that the Prelude has a tiny back seat, but that's true to some degree of all cars in this class and we constantly marvel at folks who buy a Prelude, Probe, Eclipse or the like and later start griping about the back seat space.
The Prelude is designed to provide mechanical sophistication and high-quality assembly in a stimulating personal transportation package. And that's precisely what it does.
True, it can't carry a little league team or two weeks' worth of groceries, and high ground clearance and 4-wheel drive just aren't part of its game.
But no sport-utility vehicle on earth can deliver this kind of handling and excitement. Come to think of it, neither can most other cars.