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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.