5 Reasons this classic Honda Prelude was such a gem – and still is
Honda's very own low rider, the 1988-91 3rd gen, was a Prelude to greatness
Shahzad Sheikh – AKA Brown Car Guy – is an automotive journalist with three decades of experience on various titles including the Middle East edition of CAR Magazine and Used Car Buyer.
Thirty years ago I remember ripping a couple of other car pictures off my wall to make space for a poster of this, the third generation Honda Prelude. Yes okay, I didn't have much of a social life back then. Actually I still don't. But I did (and do!) have an outstanding taste in cars, and in a decade that gave us some of the choicest motors ever – see my previous feature on the best cars of the 1980s – this sensationally sweet offering from Japan was a definite peak for the Prelude nameplate.
I've driven and owned many Hondas in the intervening years, but somehow this particular vintage of sports-tourer coupe had escaped me, until the nice people at Honda UK revealed they actually had one that they might be inclined to let me drive. I fainted. And whilst I was on the floor, sent up an enquiry as to which feet I had to kiss in order to finally get some alone time with an old poster wall flame. Turned out an email request would do.
So why is this precocious Prelude a car that, if you're fortunate enough to be able to do so, you should immediately seek out, buy, own, drive and keep safe? Oh, I'll tell you why...
1. It's a sleek sensation!
It's such an exquisitely slender shape – and it has pop-up lights! That long, low bonnet was truly exceptional in its day and resulted in the driver having a great view of the road despite being sat so close to the ground. You got a low centre of gravity and a drag coefficient of just 0.34 - the same as a Ferrari F40!
How did they do this? Well apart from not having to worry about leaving enough space between the bonnet and the top of the engine for pedestrian safety – that legislation came later – by simply tilting the engine backwards by 18 degrees.
Clever right? But not half as clever as what comes next.
2. It introduced four-wheel steering
The first time four-wheel steering was offered globally on a mass production car was on this generation Prelude. The system was mechanical utilising a planetary gearbox and a slider operating the rear tie rods. It steered the rear wheels by up to 5.3 degrees in the opposite direction to the fronts when you spun the steering for tight corners, parking or doing a U-ey. It would feel a little like the car was pivoting around you.
Meanwhile at smaller steering inputs the rears would turn up to 1.5 degrees in the same direction as the fronts, for better stability and composure when flitting between lanes on a motorway for example. And it worked. When Road and Track magazine in America did their standardised slalom test, they found the Prelude to be quicker than anything they'd ever tested before. And before you quip that was because they only drove yank tanks, that included the likes of Porsches and Ferraris.
The 4WS was reliable and the take-up in Japan was huge – initially Honda expected to sell 30 per cent of Preludes with it, in fact it was 80 per cent. The only downside was that the shaft running to the rear axle intruded on interior space, leaving a bump in the middle of the rear seats. Mind you, even without 4WS, you still got the bump.
3. It's delight to drive
The car I'm driving is not a 4WS version. Honda UK wanted one, but when this low-mileage original 1989 example with a 5-speed manual was found, and it only needed exterior cosmetic work to get it pristine and immaculate, it was snapped it up.
It has a 2.0-litre single overhead camshaft 12-valve four-cylinder engine with dual carburettors, producing 114bhp and 157Nm of torque endowing it with a 0-62mph time of 9.8 seconds and a top speed of 117mph (115mph for the 4-speed auto). The 4WS version gets a fuel-injected 2.0 16-valve achieving 150bhp and 180Nm with 0-62mph acceleration in 7.9 seconds and 130mph.
Do I feel short-changed behind the wheel of this coupe? Not a chance. Forget the on-paper figures, in several hours on the motorways and b-roads around North Wessex Downs, it never actually felt slow. The only time it droned was during cruising when it could've done with an overdrive sixth gear.
Off the line you don't have to work the engine, unlike the later Honda VTEC units, this 2.0 does its best work between 2500-4500rpm. And on the go it's very much a momentum car; use the super-slick, sweet-shifting gear change, work that perfectly weighted clutch, and keep it in prime torque zone. Plan ahead, keep your transitions smooth, and you'll make quick work of the tightest of roads.
It feels small, light too, so while the brakes need a bit of effort, believe in them, especially as it has discs all round (the 4WS also had ABS!). Understeer is astonishingly subdued, the steering weights up and turn-in is sharp. The controlled composure and lack of lean and pitch is most impressive for a car of this era. What a joy to peddle.
4. It's practical
Despite the diminutive footprint, it boasts room aplenty, even for this lanky six-footer, with great all around visibility due to those thin pillars. The elegantly-designed bucket sports seats are as perfect to sit in as they are to behold, and the instrumentation and switchgear leaves me wallowing in Honda nostalgia – even if I do keep flicking the wipers on instead of indicating.
The boot is spacious but the rear bench is not, trying to squeeze myself in almost resulted in personal injury. There's central locking, power windows, electric aerial and a radio cassette player – wish I'd brought my Rick Astley tapes! And it has pop-up headlights that rise and drop crisply – this car looks like a time-warp special that left the showroom last week, not three decades ago.
5. Because you can't!
It's a head-turner – you become attuned to other cars gradually gliding into your lane as the drivers do a double take and then want a closer look. Don't blame them – old Honda Preludes simply aren't seen that often.
But finding a third gen is harder than tracking down a Ferrari Dino, especially if you're after a 4WS, and double especially if want that with a manual box. That said, tatty cars could be had for as little as £2-4k but will need work. Expect to outlay £5-10k for good examples and £10k-plus for the best cars. Values will only go up as these become ever-harder to source.
Yes folks, this will be an investment. But one that feels quite contemporary and eminently daily-driveable. Oh, and did I mention it has pop-up lights?!
You do know it has pop-up headlights right?