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1997 Honda Prelude

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — Honda started researching the

strengths and weaknesses of the former-generation Prelude in the

fall of 1992, about a year after it was launched. That's their

story, and they're sticking to it. As if they didn't already

know.

Hey, they're smart guys. They knew the Prelude was a terrific

performer, especially in handling. They knew the styling, inside

and out, would turn some people off. They also knew, if they

ever got into the back seat, that that car was a two-seater,

with a well appointed grocery bag compartment.

So, it hardly took a Nobel laureate to figure out the brief

for the fifth all-new Prelude: keep the handling; back off on

styling; increase practicality.

Gee, isn't product planning easy?

Visually, the 1997 Prelude looks more like a successor to the

third-generation car. Back is the somewhat formal three-box

coupe look; you'll not only see the one-before-last Prelude in

there, but possibly the Nissan 240 SX and, if you're really

imaginative (or have blurry vision) and take a rear

three-quarter angle, the old Ford Mustang.

Gone are the bishop'shat taillights, replaced by rectangular

strips that look like, well, the old old Prelude.

The one new dramatic styling detail is the bent-rectangle

headlights, whose outer covers look like those on the Pontiac

Sunfire, and which try not at all to conceal dual multifacetted

reflectors and three separate bulbs: parking lights, low beam,

high beam, the latter used at low intensity for daytime running

lights.

The jewel-like appearance isn't all show: Honda claims 60 per

cent brighter low beam, and 35 per cent brighter high. I haven't

driven the car at night, so we'll have to take their word for

now.

Under the skin, the new body is stiffer by 55 per cent in

bending and 24 per cent in torsion, remarkable given that the

old car was hardly a FlexiFlyer, and the new model is bigger,

with larger door openings, yet only 10 kilograms heavier.

Added reinforcements to suspension pickup points give Honda's

ubiquitous double-wishbone setup a firmer basis from which to

work. Revised shocks reduce impact harshness, while thicker

anti-roll bars improve cornering. Prelude adopts the

torque-sensing variable assist power steering used on other current

Hondas. Brakes are four-wheel discs with Honda's own

three-channel anti-lock control.

The previous Prelude fitted an average-sized adult like a wet

suit, larger adults not at all. Stretches in wheelbase (35 mm)

and length (80 mm) benefit rear-seat room. It's still unlikely

to become official car of the Toronto Raptors — the cushion is

low, so it's knees up, Mother Tabak. Toe room is scarce without

cooperation from the driver, who enjoys a standard manual

height-adjustable seat. But a short trip around town in the back

is now at least a prospect for adults; formerly it was

Torquemada the Inquisitor's favorite punishment.

The entire rear seatback folds forward, in case the

already-larger trunk, sufficient in itself to hold two golf bags,

needs supplementing.

There's more room up front as well. But the biggest news here

is a return to typical Honda instrumentation, following an

unsavory foray into electronics on the former car. The gauges

are analogue, big and boldly marked conventional, but

functional.

Minor controls exhibit typical Honda slickness — they say

they've improved these, but Honda is pretty close to the top

anyway. Unlike at least one current Honda, the switch for the

standard tilt-and-slide glass sunroof is not in its logical

location on the ceiling, but remains on the dash to the left of

the steering wheel.

The seats offer a nice combination of comfort and support. A

handsome, tough-looking but comfortable tweedy cloth is the only

upholstery available. Leather is not an option.

All 1997 Preludes share the same engine, the former

range-topping 2.2 litre twin-cam 16-valve four with VTEC (Variable

Valve Timing with Electronic Control). VTEC supplies two

different cam timing and profile programs: one that boosts

torque at low engine speeds and loads, the other to pump up

highend power. Stick your foot in it, and at around 5300 r.p.m.

you'll not only feel VTEC come in, but hear it, as the exhaust

takes on a snarly, metallic note.

Honda is being somewhat modest referring to this as basically

a carry-over engine; the block and pistons are all extensively

redesigned, with reduced engine noise the main objective.

Changes to valve timing and the exhaust system raise peak output

on manual transmission cars to 195 horsepower (automatics remain

at 190). Peak torque is down just a fraction to 156 poundfeet

at 5250 r.p.m., versus 158 at 5500.

Despite this lofty peak torque rev level, the engine is

decently flexible, although it prefers to have the daylights

revved out if it.

The five-speed manual gearbox is carryover. The

cable-operated linkage is not bad, but no Integra GSR when it

comes to feel, precision or quickness. Grippier clutch facing

material allows use of a smaller diameter clutch with no loss in

durability; reduced left-foot effort is the collateral benefit.

The big transmission news is an all-new four-speed electronic

automatic, with Sequential SportShift, yet another variation on

Porsche's Tiptronic concept.

Leave the shifter in drive, and it performs like a normal yet

outstandingly quick and smooth automatic. "Grade Logic"

software, as on Accord and Civic, detects when you're going

uphill (result: no speed increase; wide-open throttle) or

downhill (result: no speed loss; closed throttle, and/or brake

pedal application). In either case, it may hold third gear (for

added climbing power and engine braking respectively), and

eliminate the hunting between third and fourth that plagues many

autoboxes under these conditions.

It can also predict if you're in a hard corner, and suppress

upshifts that might upset the car.

If you want to stir the gears manually, slide the shifter

leftwards into a small fore-and-aft slot. Push forward to

upshift, pull back to downshift. Hit the rev limiter? That's

your problem, buddy — move the lever! (Porsche's Tiptronic, and

Honda's own similar system on the Acura NSX, will do this for

you.)

But if you try a downshift that would exceed the rev limit,

the transmission won't do it until revs drop sufficiently. Thus,

you get a kind of pre-selector action happening. Shift now, but

get the gear only when the car is ready for it.

It will also catch first gear automatically if you come to a

stop, regardless of which gear you're in at the time. Manually

selected shifts are reasonably quick without being too abrupt.

On a car like Prelude, which emphasizes performance but which

also attracts buyers who aren't foot-to-the-floor-all-the-time

types, this kind of automatic makes a fair degree of sense.

It also maintains Prelude's tradition as a launching pad for

new technology. But the main story here is the availability of

something called the Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS),

standard and available only on the SH (for, no kidding, Super

Handling) model.

ATTS is sort of an intelligent differential that can

determine, via sensors measuring throttle position, steering

wheel angle, lateral acceleration and yaw, or turning speed,

when the car is hammering through a hard corner. Under these

conditions, a typical high-powered front-driver will spin its

inside front wheel, leading to understeer — the car plows toward

the outside of the corner.

A conventional limited-slip differential will lock the two

front wheels together, reducing wheelspin but often making

understeer even worse. A traction control system will brake the

inside wheel, and/or reduce engine power, curbing the symptoms

but not increasing the cornering power of the car.

ATTS activates one or more of a series of hydraulic clutches

connected to a planetary gearbox fitted downstream from the

differential that can actually spin the outside front wheel up

to 15 per cent faster than the inside wheel. You might question

using a tank or a bulldozer as an analogy for a sports car, but

this effect works like either of those machines to power the

'Lude around the corner.

I normally avoid cliches like the plague, but Prelude SH

really corners as if it were on rails.

I found the only bend in the entire Niagara Region that could

adequately illustrate how this works (head north toward the

dump; otherwise, you're on your own, and the cops may already be

there).

Now I barely understand how a regular differential works, let

alone this thing. But work it surely does. I normally avoid

cliches like the plague, but the Prelude SH really does corner

as if it were on rails.

Not that the base Prelude is a slug. But the slightly softer

ride quality and larger body make the new car feel less like an

apexstrafer than the former one. Boy racers can always opt for

after-market wheels, tires, springs and shocks.

Prelude buys into Honda's new corporate philosophy of

equipping cars the way most buyers want them. With the

yen-dollar relationship being what it is, they can't avoid a high

price. So they figure they better at least give the customer the

kitchen sink.

Thus, all Preludes come with air, sunroof, power windows,

locks and heated mirrors, trick radio with Auto Feedback Control

and CD player, heated front seats, cruise, and an engine

immobilizing anti-theft system.

In addition to ATTS, the SH adds slightly revised front

suspension, a quicker steering ratio, and a rear deck spoiler

with LED centre high-mounted stoplight. It's available only with

manual transmission.

The base car lists at $27,300, with automatic $1,200 more. The

SH is $31,300. Four grand sounds like a lot for a bit more

cornering power, but Honda Canada is only getting about 90 of

these in 1997, and many of their technofreak customers will

want to be the first and only on their block with one. Base

manuals and autos will be roughly a 60/40 split.

In the past 10 years, the "small specialty" market segment

that Prelude contests has shrunk in half. The fewer the

customers, the broader the appeal a car must have to attract

enough buyers to be viable.

The former Prelude was aimed at a very small niche (call it

crevice marketing) those who valued handling above all.

The new Prelude may not be as finely focussed, but Honda has

managed to design a car that can be more things to more people,

without serious compromise.

Performance and handling are still first-rate, yet the car is

more usable on a daily basis. It represents good value against

competitors like the Nissan 240SX, Ford Probe, Mazda MX6 and

Eagle Talon. Honda should have no trouble meeting its 1,800 cars

per year target.

My question: What will it be like as a race car? And will we

ever find out? auto writers invited to a test site, prepared

this report based on sessions arranged by the automaker.

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