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.
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.