Honda’s fifth and final generation of the popular Prelude coupe was much more conservative-looking than its predecessor – both inside and out.
For serious sales and marketing reasons, the swoopiness of the Gen IV Prelude was replaced by more staid lines, intended to appeal to the changing tastes of coupe buyers. The clean, uncluttered lines are improved somewhat by the spoiler and bodykit on the high-performance VTi models but remains at odds with the unusual – bordering on ugly – headlights which can at best be described as distinctive. Inside, the swansong Prelude is better packaged than previous models with good leg and headroom up front, enough room in the rear for occasional passengers and more boot space too. The quality of construction of the conservative cabin is excellent although comfort from the firm, smallish seats is mediocre. The instrument binnacles and centre console are conventionally styled and could be from any mainstream Honda. Kicking off the range is the Prelude 2.2 Si with a 2156cc 118kW four-cylinder engine. With a five-speed manual gearbox, it’s usefully quick, hitting 100kph in under nine seconds despite a kerb weight of 1255kg. Its twin-cam 16-valve motor revs freely beyond 6,000rpm and delivers peak torque of 201Nm at a high 5200rpm.
Next up is the 2.3-litre VTi model with a 16-valve VTEC engine with variable valve timing producing 143kW at 7000rpm and slightly more torque than the Si – 212Nm at 5250rpm. Like the Si, it has a five-speed manual gearbox as standard (in each case, a Tiptronic-style auto was a $2000 option) and is front-wheel drive with double wishbone suspension front and rear. When the cars hit the local market in 1997, the Si was priced at $38,000 and the VTi manual cost $43,000. Top of the range, however, was the manual-only VTi-R Type SH with ATTS Active Torque Transfer System. It constantly monitors inputs such as wheel speeds, steering angle and G-forces to assist cornering by applying more power to the outside driving wheel. ATTS made the VTi-R SH the obvious enthusiast’s choice and bumped the new car price up to $47,000. The sprint to 100kph took 7.5 seconds. All models received a fair amount of standard equipment including 15-inch alloys, air-conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, a four-speaker stereo, twin airbags, ABS brakes and cruise control. The sports kit was fitted to the pricier VTi models which also benefited from interior extras such as leather trim for the gear lever and steering wheel and carbon fibre trim in the doors.
Thanks to Honda NZ’s value-for-money pricing policy from the 1997 launch of the Prelude, the capable coupe sold well and buyers seemed to approve of the conservative styling. Many Preludes have been imported used from Japan, so the marketplace offers a real mixture of specifications. But the Prelude’s excellent build quality and mechanical integrity mean there are plenty of excellent examples around at tempting prices.
On the road
Jump into the Prelude’s low-slung and you may be wriggling around for a while to get comfortable. The front seats are very sturdy but not well shaped, afflicting tall drivers in particular. Once underway, the smoothness of the engine and transmission are immediately apparent. Some transmission whine is noticeable in lower gears but is usually drowned out by a fairly high level of road noise. The manual shift is precise while the semi-automatic is effective but ranks second-best.
The entry-level 2.2 Si offers commendably flexible performance but is not terribly inspiring. The steering is consistently weighted but ultimately not as communicative as that of some rival coupes. Spirited driving in the Si will result in gentle body roll and gradual understeer.
In the VTi and VTi-R, the extra lift on the inlet valve camshaft doesn’t occur until over 5000rpm with peak power produced at 6000rpm. The engine sounds great at high revs when VTEC starts sucking in the extra air and it screams away past 7000rpm. Whereas the VTi copes well in laying down the power in a straight line, it struggles to contain the understeer on snaking roads. The ATTS-equipped VTi-R SH does, however, holding the chosen line relentlessly through bends and tight corners, almost banishing understeer, the bane of quick front-drive cars. The range-topper is not without its faults though – the dynamic ability is compromised by a very harsh ride at town speeds and a chorus of often harsh road noise.
What to look for
The Prelude has a deserved reputation for durability and even high-mileage cars which have been driven hard will be in sound condition provided they’ve been serviced regularly, preferably at a Honda workshop. The engines, especially the VTEC motors in the VTi models, rev to the heavens and will do so for many years without complaint if they receive quality oil changes on a regular basis. VTEC failures are virtually unheard of. Brakes and clutches give out in time, according to mileage and how hard a car is driven, but again durability is the keyword. The tiptronic-style auto transmission is also respected but is not as bulletproof as the manual gearbox. But, as always, buyers should proceed with caution and cherry-pick a car with a complete service history and a glowing inspection report.