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Introduced in 1979, the Honda Prelude was the company's first attempt at building an exciting car that still held true to the core Honda values of intelligent design and reliability. Over the next two decades, the two-door sport coupe would become the primary performance car in the Honda lineup. Although it was outfitted with relatively powerful engines in later generations, the Prelude was not a muscle car. It was built around handling and drivability, while providing enough power to remain competitive.
Over its life, several new technologies for Honda were pioneered on the Prelude, such as fuel injection, four-wheel steering and Honda's Active Torque Transfer System. The Prelude was also the first Honda model to get VTEC, the company's variable valve timing engine technology.
Though the Honda Prelude was very popular throughout the '80s, consumer interest waned in the '90s. Eventually, the Prelude was trapped in an under-$30,000 no-man's land. For a sporty front-wheel-drive coupe, it was just too pricey, and it didn't have sports car looks or a sufficiently premium feel. By the turn of the millennium, the sport coupe market was a shadow of its former self. Honda dropped the Prelude without a replacement after the 2001 model year. As a pre-owned option, however, the rewarding and reliable Prelude merits serious consideration from driving enthusiasts on a budget.
Most Recent Honda Prelude
If you're searching for a used Honda Prelude, you'll likely be encountering the fifth and final generation, which was sold from 1997-2001. It was larger and heavier than any of the previous models. It was also the most dynamic. There were two trim levels: base and Type SH. Both got a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine with VTEC and a standard five-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic was available as an option on the base model. Initially, the engine put out 195 horsepower, but in 1999, Honda bumped maximum power up to 200 hp in the manual-transmission models.
Both trims were equipped with a generous array of standard features that included 16-inch alloy wheels, ABS, cruise control, a sunroof, air-conditioning and full power accessories. The main difference between the base model and the Type SH was the addition of Honda's Active Torque Transfer System, an electronic system that distributed torque to the outside drive wheel in cornering situations. Its purpose was to minimize understeer and thus mimic rear-wheel-drive cornering characteristics.
In road and comparison tests, our editors found the Honda Prelude Type SH to be one of the best-handling cars in its class -- truly a driver's car. It was nimble and well balanced, while also maintaining a decent amount of ride comfort. There was just enough engine performance to be sporty, with the VTEC four performing a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation in feel and sound above 5,200 rpm. Zero-to-60 times were in the low 7s. In 1999, the Prelude won Edmunds.com's Editors' Most Wanted award for Best Sport Coupe ($10,000-$25,000). In 2000, it won again for Best Sport Coupe.
Despite being a great-performing car, the Honda Prelude was lacking in other areas. The interior boasted high-quality materials and construction, but it lacked the visual pizzazz buyers had come to expect from a car with a $26,000 price tag. Honda maintained a conservative approach here, filling the cabin with a monochromatic color scheme and Accord-like gauges and controls. The front seats, though comfortable, weren't available in leather and had limited adjustability. The rear seats had minimal legroom. The fifth-generation Prelude has aged well, however, as that restrained interior design now seems classier and less dated than brash designs like the contemporary Toyota Celica.
Past Honda Preludes
The other Honda Prelude one should consider is the fourth-generation model, which was sold for the 1992-'96 model years. A complete overhaul of the previous model, this Prelude was slightly shorter, much wider and a far better-handling car. The S trim featured a 135-hp 2.2-liter SOHC four-cylinder. The Si had a 160-hp 2.3-liter DOHC four-cylinder with a healthy 156 pound-feet of torque. From 1993 on, the fourth-generation Prelude could also be had in range-topping Si VTEC trim, which brought a 2.2-liter 190-hp DOHC four equipped with Honda's electronic variable valve timing (VTEC) system. A four-wheel-steering system was available in 1992-'93, though only on the Si model.
In general, the fourth-generation Prelude earned favorable commentary in reviews at the time. It offered excellent handling, and nearly all who drove it liked the power of the VTEC-equipped engine. Criticisms were mostly directed at the car's odd interior design. A sweeping blacked-out instrument cluster extended across the entire dash, and few found the mix of analog and digital gauges appealing.
For more on past Honda Prelude models, view our Honda Prelude history page.