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Retro Review: Honda Prelude

The Honda Prelude is the often forgotten sport compact car that fits between other historic nameplates like the Integra and Civic.

Another Honda Favorite

2001 Honda Prelude - hondanews.com

2001 Honda Prelude – hondanews.com |  Shop Honda Prelude on Carsforsale.com

The Honda Prelude is a sport compact that is well known for punching way above its weight class. Its history dates back to 1978 when it was introduced to the world as a 2+2 coupe with a small but punchy four-cylinder engine. During its life, the Prelude was a hotbed for Honda’s innovation and technology. It survived through five different generations that lasted until 2001 when less than 10,000 were sold and the car ended its production run. Today, it is a well-loved and remembered sports car that never found the grand success of other Hondas like the Civic or the Accord. Here’s a deep dive into how it earned that status.

An Answer to the Celica

1979 Honda Prelude - hondanews.com
1979 Honda Prelude - hondanews.com

When Toyota released the Celica it proved that Honda was missing a gap in the market. To answer the bell they took the running gear from the Accord and developed a smaller chassis that would ultimately become the Honda Prelude. Each corner had the same independent suspension and braking from the Accord, but they didn’t just stop there. Honda also added a bevy of advanced technology for the time.

Thanks to the lighter weight and more svelte proportions, the Prelude was automatically a good driver. The 72-horsepower engine wasn’t exactly fast, but it was mated to a great five-speed manual in most cars. This recipe set the stage for what was to come. No, the original Prelude didn’t sell well, but it sparked a fire that would burn for many decades.

The Prelude Comes Into Its Own

1985 Honda Prelude - hondanews.com
1985 Honda Prelude - hondanews.com

When Honda redesigned the Prelude for 1983, they wanted to make the car look sleeker and sharper. To do that they lowered the hood and rear decklid. Of course, that gave them less space under the hood for components. The old-school MacPherson suspension at the front had to go. In its place came a double-wishbone setup on the Honda Prelude. That single change pushed the car much further ahead, but Honda wasn’t done there. The engine was also upgraded to make at least 100 horsepower. In 1987, Honda added the first Prelude Si which made 110 horsepower. Technologically, the Prelude still had room to grow though.

Third Generation Honda Prelude

1990 Honda Prelude Si - hondanews.com
1990 Honda Prelude Si - hondanews.com

That’s where the third generation started to change the game. Honda outfitted the new car with wishbone suspension on all four corners. It got disc brakes all the way around too and under the hood, power was boosted to 109 horsepower. In addition, the Honda Prelude used four-wheel-steering for the first time. This trick steering system would turn the rear wheels in the opposite direction at low speeds to allow for easier parking, but turn them in the same direction at high speeds to make for better cornering. By 1991, the Prelude was making up to 140 horsepower and was one of the most powerful Hondas on sale.

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Fourth Generation Honda Prelude

1993 Honda Prelude S - hondanews.com
1993 Honda Prelude S - hondanews.com

The vast majority of Honda Prelude lovers today though will call out the fourth generation as perhaps the most iconic. For the first and only time in its history, Honda abandoned the squared off-sharp styling of previous generations and created a coupe with the same basic proportions, but with a much more curvaceous body. The horizontal tail lights were gone in favor of curvy vertical units. This design change signified a big shift under the skin too.

For the first time a VTEC motor was found under the hood. In 1993, it was making 187 horsepower and 153 lb-ft of torque. That number was astonishing at the time and combined with the advanced suspension and four-wheel-steering to make the Prelude one of the best sports compact cars in history.

The Last Honda Prelude

1998 Honda Prelude Type SH - hondanews.com
1998 Honda Prelude Type SH - hondanews.com

Finally, in 1997, Honda released the final generation of the Prelude which would build on all of the previous success with even more performance. It didn’t really emulate any single generation of its precursors at all. The car was more angular than the fourth-gen, but not nearly as razor-sharp as the rest of the family. The approach seemed more balanced too. Honda quit offering multiple engine choices and stuck with the H22A4, a 2.2-liter four-cylinder with 194 horsepower and 156 lb-ft of torque. It sent that power to the front wheels through a four-speed auto or a five-speed manual.

A special SH trim level stood for Super Handling and it couldn’t have been more on the nose. Honda fitted something called the Active Torque Transfer System to the Prelude SH. ATTS could sense which wheel was on the outside of a corner and then send power to it. That helped the Prelude handle better than ever. Nevertheless, the market had spoken by 2001. Very few Preludes were sold as SUVs, crossovers, and trucks were taking over.

What the Prelude Stands for Today

Modified Honda Prelude - Fitment Industries on youtube.com

Modified Honda Prelude – Fitment Industries on youtube.com |  Shop Honda Prelude on Carsforsale.com

It’s very hard to find a Honda Prelude that hasn’t been modified to the moon these days. That speaks to the kind of car they were and the buyer they attracted. People were blown away at how practical and how fun the Prelude was. Many owners upgraded parts and pushed the limits of performance even further. Honda has never returned to the sport compact space in the same way. Sports cars just aren’t as profitable and the market has made that clear. Nevertheless, we can’t help but appreciate the legendary performance and abilities of the Honda Prelude.

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Stephen Rivers

Stephen Rivers is a car enthusiast who loves all things built with passion, extending to nearly all car cultures. After obtaining an occupational studies degree in sports medicine, Stephen turned his attention to sports cars. He was employed as an auto shop manager, spent time in auto sales, and worked as a software developer for a racing company, but Stephen began writing about cars over 10 years ago. When he's not in front of a computer screen, he's racing his own Bugeye Subaru WRX in as many autocross and rallycross competitions as he can.

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