Honda shot for the moon with the fourth-gen Prelude
The more time you spend digging into automotive history from the 1990s, the quicker you realize how the Japanese bubble economy was more than just a time of increased stock valuations and easy credit from lending institutions. All this money and promises of good times for the foreseeable future meant that Japanese automakers were beyond motivated to make amazing cars (examples here, here, here). They also had the nerve to put these excellent cars into production, many of which are now appreciating classics in today’s classic car landscape.
The bubble economy was a rising tide for all boats, be it cheap like a Civic or a top-shelf Acura NSX. Likewise, the fourth-generation Honda Prelude (1992–96) saw a lift in terms of performance, styling, and fit and finish. VTEC became a thing for a Honda engine, and the previous generation Prelude’s manual 4-wheel steering was given an electronics-laden upgrade. A radical interior shared little with other Hondas, and had a six- or seven-speaker audio system to make that cabin even more pleasurable. Well except in Japan, where the Prelude got an eight-speaker audio system, complete with a center channel speaker. So lavish was the eight-speaker system that it got us wondering: Did the bubble economy give us a theatrical experience before Best Buy offered it for your home?
No longer a blocky 2-door notchback with styling heavily dependent on its Accord Coupe brother, the 1992 Prelude was a fastback with a presence unmatched by any other car in Honda’s lineup. It looked more like the Acura Legend‘s athletic offspring. Heck, even the exterior door handles were unique, no small feat for a cost conscious company making a low volume sports coupe. But that attention to detail and a spare-no-expense attitude is what made the Bubble Era so special.
And then there was that upscale interior. The seats were delicious, especially when wrapped in that charcoal black leather with gathered inserts. The dashboard swept expansively from corner to corner, with gauges recessed into its upper cave. Interior polymers felt more like the skin of an organic being. The experience was, again, more akin to an Acura Legend. The Prelude had come into its own. Except it got even more expensive, and this was still the Arrogance and Accords era of the Honda dealership retail experience.
Perhaps the Prelude grew too big for its own britches, and the soft styling wasn’t to everyone’s tastes. Not to mention the Accord coupe was more practical, similarly equipped, and had a more usable back seat. The Civic Si fared similarly well in the bubble economy, and likely provided more thrills for less money than the Prelude. No wonder Honda couldn’t break the six-figure sales mark after four model years. (A disappointing 98,627 units found homes, a far cry from the 160,909 sold in three years of third-generation Prelude production.)
Prelude sales slumped stateside while an economic bubble burst in Japan. It’s the sad reality of automotive hubris, but this Prelude was a delightful interlude in the brand’s history. It represented everything Honda could do with a mainstream grand touring coupe, and Motorweek noted how the 1992 Honda Prelude Si was both stunning to behold and a radical departure from the previous model. They wondered aloud if “new and different do not necessarily mean better”, a query that the market would eventually answer with a resounding “no.”
Even when handicapped with an automatic transmission, Motorweek got the Prelude Si to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds. When tackling the slalom course, the electronically controlled rear wheel steer system made the Prelude contradict the notions we’d expect from a front-wheel-drive chassis. ABS brakes were still a more premium, uncommon feature back then, and the Prelude’s stoppers gave a modern performance in this metric. Just don’t call this ABS system by the old ALB moniker, as that went the way of the Betamax and the Laserdisc.
This Prelude had an optimism in its advancements, an unbounded spirit that faded a bit with the fifth-generation (1997–2001) Prelude. That’s because the next Prelude went back to being boxy, with an interior that felt far more Accord-like. It was even bigger and heavier than the previous Prelude, but wisely ditched the all-wheel steering setup for an impressive torque-vectoring front end (called Super Handling) that has proven itself to the point of mainstream popularity in these modern times.
Yet the last production Prelude still feels like a step back from the bubble economy model it replaced. Those door handles were still unique in the Honda hierarchy, but their look was just as toned down as the rest of the design. The understatement didn’t stop the sales figure’s downward spiral, and this famous Honda sports coupe died in 2001. Let the more upright Accord coupe gobble up what’s left of its market share, proclaimed Honda!
But the story doesn’t end in 2001, thankfully: There’s a new Prelude hybrid in the works. The modern powertrain ensures this car’s DNA is relevant to a modern audience, even if it lacks the iconic nature of VTEC engine timing. When it arrives on our shores, the Prelude’s latest iteration shall be even more monumental than the fourth-generation’s move upmarket. Honda clearly wants a premium priced performance coupe in its ranks, which is nice to see these days. They’d be forgiven for making CUVs like the Pilot, CRV, HRV, and Passport and never looking back. But no, they want to make a bold introduction to something that we can really sink our teeth into.
A foreshadowing to greatness, if you will. And thank goodness for that.