When considering the great driver’s cars of the 80s and 90s, does the Honda Prelude get the credit it deserves?
When people think of the great sports cars from Japan, many were produced in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and had names such as Supra Mark IV, SkyLine, Mazda RX-7, Nissan Z-Car, and many others. Why is the Honda Prelude not on that list, and is it a vehicle that should be on that list?
The Honda Prelude had all of the elements that defined the greats from Japan. It was a two-door, front-engined sports coupe, light, and had decent driving dynamics. Most importantly, several generations came with legendary Honda reliability.
The first-generation Honda Prelude
The Honda Prelude was produced between 1978 and 2001 and spanned five generations. Targeting Toyota Celica, Nissan Silvia, and Mitsubishi Eclipse buyers, it was succeeded by the Honda Integra DC5, or Acura Integra in the United States. Almost 20 years later, some of these cars have a much larger and more loyal following than the Honda Prelude.
The first generation Honda Prelude, built between 1978 and 1982, was probably the least sporty of the Preludes. It shared many suspension components with the Honda Accord, including the four-wheel independent struts, brakes, and the engine. However, the chassis was created exclusively for the Prelude drawing upon Honda’s experience with sports cars like the Honda S800 and 1300 Coupe.
The second-generation Honda Prelude
While the first-generation Honda Prelude was well-received by the motoring press, it was not a strong seller. Fortunately, this was not to be the case with the second-generation Honda Prelude.
Produced between 1982 and 1987, the hallmark of the second-generation Prelude was the Honda Prelude Si. The second-gen Prelude was defined by a tall “greenhouse” design, low-slung hood, and pop-up headlamps, characteristics that would define future generations of the Prelude.
Available with either a manual or automatic transmission, the second-generation Prelude came with four engine options ranging from 1.8 to 2.0 liters. The top-of-the-line engine was the 2.0 liter 16-valve, inline 4-cylinder engine putting out 110 horsepower. Comical by today’s standards, keep in mind that the Prelude had a curb weight of just over 2,000 pounds, which made for a fast and agile sporting experience.
The second-generation Honda Prelude was a much better seller than the previous model, particularly amongst younger women in the United States. My then-girlfriend, now-wife, drove a 2.0-liter Honda Prelude Si. Overall, we owned it for about five years. During that time, we never had a problem with it. In fact, towards the end of our ownership, the timing belt snapped when I was driving it. Driving at about 50 miles per hour, I remember hearing a “snap” following by painful mechanical sounds as the vehicle coasted to a stop. Thinking the engine was toast, I remember my shock of my mechanic telling me that everything looked fine. All that was needed was a new timing belt.
The third-generation Prelude
Produced between 1987 and 1991, the third generation Honda Prelude was introduced in the United States as a 1988 model. It incorporated evolutionary styling from the second-generation Prelude it replaced and shared several design cues with the Acura NSX, released in 1989.
The most significant feature in the third-gen Prelude was 4-wheel steering that was available as an option. It was not only a first for Honda but also for the automotive industry as a whole as it was the World’s first mechanical four-wheel steering system available in a mass-production passenger car.
Whereas the B20A was just one engine out of four available within the second-generation Honda Prelude, it powered several variants of the third-gen Prelude.
The third-generation Prelude was a hit with the automotive press who awarded it third-place by the judges of the European Car of the Year award. It was also very well received by Road and Track magazine and Wheel’s magazine, who awarded it Car of the Year in 1987.
The fourth-generation Prelude
Produced between 1991 and 1996, the fourth-generation Prelude went away from pop-up headlights. It was also available with several new engine options ranging from the base “F22A1” engine producing 133 horsepower found in the model “S” to the “H22A1” producing 187 horsepower found in the “VTEC” model.
The fourth-generation Prelude also saw the replacement of Honda’s record-breaking fourth-generation four-wheel-steering system with an electronic version. The result was an experience that was like driving on “rails.”
As the performance and size of every preceding generation of Prelude, Honda updated the brakes of the top-of-the-line VTEC. The front rotors were increased from 10.3 inches in diameter to 11.1 inches in size, as were the rotors, brake calipers, and pads. Several suspension parts in the fourth generation Prelude were replaced with parts from the fifth-generation Honda Accord parts bin.
The fifth-generation Prelude
Produced between 1997 and 2001, the fifth and final generation of the Honda Prelude retained the same layout as the fourth-generation Prelude and had a 63/37 weight distribution. In the United States, the fifth-generation Prelude was only available in two models, a “Base” model and Type SH, short for “super-handling.” It also borrowed the square body style and low, slung hood of the second and third-generation Prelude.
The highest performing Prelude was, of course, a Japanese domestic model (JDM) fifth-generation Prelude called the “Type S.” Equipped with a 2.2L H22A VTEC engine producing 217 horsepower, the “Type S” came equipped with a high-performance exhaust system and an Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS). As with all performance-oriented cars from the era, it came with a 5-speed manual transmission.
Unfortunately, the Honda Prelude Type S was never sold in the United States. As a result, you will need to wait another two years before you can import one into the United States under the NHTSA 25-year exclusion rule.
Wrapping it all up
During its time, the Honda Prelude offered a cutting-edge driving experience. performance. Almost 20 later, it is naturally a little dated relative to contemporary offerings. However, it continues to have a small following of loyal driving enthusiasts.
What is a pristine, low-mileage fifth-generation Honda Prelude worth these days? A 1998 Honda Prelude SH with 59K miles changed hands-on Bringatrailer.com in 2017 for $9,200.
Will we ever see a sixth-generation Honda Prelude?
With the current pandemic and the economic slowdown to follow, I think that it is unlikely. The auto industry is facing a dramatic slowdown and I think that it will be a very long time before we see an economic recovery. Additionally, consumers in the United States are opting for utility over experience and are buying SUVs and pickup trucks in record numbers. As a result, I think that it is unlikely that we will see a return of the Prelude. Hopefully, I am wrong.