The cars we loved.
The late 80’s early 90’s was a great time for sport coupes, especially from Japan. One of the best was the Honda Prelude. Long before the NSX, the Prelude held down the banner of Honda’s sports /GT car. It gradually rose from homely beginnings in 1978 to evolve into an attractive (if not a bit bland) by its third generation in 1988. The 88’ models were a slight evolution of the previous year, with less angularity. More importantly, power was up with two engines as before. The least powerful was a 2.0 SOHC unit with two carburetors and was used in base S models. It produced around 100 hp, almost as much as the 87’ Si. The new Si model used the same 2.0L but with dual overhead cams and Honda’s then new electronic fuel injection system called PGM-FI. The new configuration produced a modest 135 hp. All Preludes retained front wheel drive and the double wishbone independent suspension that allowed it to sport a sleek, rakish front end. The low and wide Prelude would continue with pop up lights, a feature introduced in the second generation cars. Visually, the Prelude looked very much like a slightly lower wider version of the Accord coupe.
The Prelude like Honda cars in general were basking with praise from the press and public during the 80’s and 90’s. In some ways an analogy to Apple computers is fitting. The Prelude might not have offered as much power as other coupes, but the high level of quality and thoughtful design made it worth the higher price to many motorists. And like many Apple products, they were of higher quality than of most other competitors. The gap might have been big enough to promote smugness (for Apple ), but Honda continued to improve the Prelude as the rest of the automotive field was rapidly catching up.
The Prelude in many ways was the best sports coupe you could buy because like many Honda’s it did so many things well even though it may not have excelled at any particular performance measure. It’s suspension was world-class and allowed the Prelude to match or exceeded slalom figures of far more expensive cars like the Lotus Esprit, Chevrolet Corvette and the occasional entry-level Ferrari. A 1987 Car and Driver test of the 88’ model confirmed as much, establishing the Prelude Si as a performance bargain.
Part of this handling ability was attributed to practical uses of technology. Four wheel steering (4WS) turned the rear wheels ever so slightly in the opposite direction of the front to assist in the cornering process. The feature had become one of many technology acronyms making their way on the sides and rear decks of Japanese cars. Like many cars with 15’ wheels, the thinner tires on the Prelude benefited from 4WS, but cars without it performed nearly as well. Stopping was equally important to Prelude performance. An anti lock braking system called ALB by Honda, became an option as well. When fully loaded, a 89’ Si could approach $18,000, making it the most expensive in its class.
Despite its cost, the Prelude lacked the flash other sport coupes. Cars like the Berretta, Probe, Eclipse and Celica all looked like they could go faster (and many did), but they lacked the high level of refinement seen in the Prelude. Few chances were taken in the looks department. In a nod to the conservative nature of Honda, many early 3gen Si models came with 15′ wheel covers! The take no chances approach continued inside. As with all Honda cars of the time, the Prelude interior was a straight to business affair, yet among the best in its class. It’s well placed controls were easy to see and reach. Materials and workmanship set standards that many are still aspiring to. The restrained look has worn well when compared to the wildly futuristic look of the Probe GT of the period. A refresh in 1990 changed bumpers and tail lights, giving the Prelude a cleaner look. A new all-aluminum 2.1L engine replaced the old 2.0 to become the standard Si power mill. At 140 hp, it offered more power, better engine response and higher fuel economy than the old engine. Base S models now got fuel injection and produced 5 more horsepower.
Restraint was not as noticeable when driving the Prelude hard. Although it may have been underpowered next to turbocharged and V6 competition, it handled curves and bumps with a sophistication that could only come from a double wishbone setup. The light weight (around 2600 pounds) combined with the engines smooth power delivery, made the Si the most fun to drive on all types of road surfaces. America for the most part had only two models to choose from, but a special edition car called the SiStates was briefly made available in here. This formally Japanese market only model had its own engine, a 145 hp version of the 2.0. In addition to a leather wrapped steering wheel, it featured more sound deadening and insulation. All SiStates model came with ABS, 4WS and a limited slip differential.
The Prelude has gone upmarket with each new generation, but before the NSX arrived in 1990, the Prelude was the best handling car from Honda (sorry CRX fans). At about the same time the Prelude went into a holding pattern. Although performance (and price) went up, it was no longer the leader in its segment. It remained a well-built and refined sport coupe, but was priced out of the market for most coupe buyers. The third generation cars represent the Prelude at its lightest and most comfortable. They are a good compromise between the rawness of earlier cars and the plushness of newer ones, with Honda quality and reliability. The mechanical sophistication of these cars has made them popular with tuners and those looking for an economical fun to drive second car. Good examples are becoming rare, as rust and abuse have taken its toll on the available stock. Happy hunting.