Honda shot for the moon with the fourth-gen Prelude

Honda

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.

Oh look, there’s the magical center channel speaker we never got in the US. (Shakes fist at Japan Inc.) Honda

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.

 

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Comments

    I love my 4 gen Prelude!
    Well, it is heavy modified but when i take it to the car shows the people are all over it and saying- ooo, its a Prelude!!!
    I bought 5 gen for my son too… just in casa😉

    Just bought a 2000 prelude with 216xxx on odometer 5spd a/c blows cold for 1000 dollars bought off original owner runs drives etc has oil leak and I’m going to do timing belt water pump cam and crank seals next week in it then drive it

    This would be my least favorite generation as I like the previous generation 2 & 3 more and the 5th generation being my favorite. These were always great cars, I was sad to see them go away.

    Thanks for a great Prelude-spective Sanjeev! As you might guess, I have one of these jewels in my possession. It is a ‘95 VTEC model in Canadian market trim, called the Prelude SRV. The beautiful sweeping lines are deeply embellished in the design language of this car. It could be released today, 28 years later, and would look just as fresh and modern. Honda arguably over-delivered on fit and finish, materials quality and bold but tasteful styling in a car that was mechanically superior to its competitors. Today, it’s just as fun and exhilarating to drive as ever. The only things I want for it is a good set of high performance summer tires for its 15” rims, and more time to get out and drive!

    Thank you for your kind words, it means a lot coming from a passionate owner like yourself! My time with these Preludes was very limited, but you hit the nail on the head when you said it “arguably over delivered on fit and finish” and that spoiled me for many future products from Japan that were similarly pricey, but just didn’t feel as good.

    I also lament the loss of good summer tires for many 15″ wheels, but to be fair, I’ve tried some amazing performance all seasons that probably perform better than the stock tires did when new. They are good enough, unless you’re gonna go nuts and build a big-power VTEC motor.

    Test drove one of these and a Civic Si back to back in 95 when I was in college. I remember liking the exterior style of the Prelude, not liking the odd dash, and feeling like the Civic was faster.

    Yet to really drive the one I’m restoring but always liked the styling and mild decadence of them. Was surprised how well the intimate interior reminded me of my CRX. I feel 1st Prelude was often misunderstood as a lightweight, but surprisingly refined economical personal coupe, even if it made little sense alongside the vastly more practical Accord Hatchback of similar size and ability which was to evolve into the Integra.
    It grew up and it’s sibling rivalry gave it a unique an subtle character which made it an even more exotic and niche product as American designed & built Civic & Accord Coupes forced it into a corner to prove it’s worth and their lower costs ultimately defeated it.

    Might have been a better article if the author did some actual research, even if only scanning through Wikipedia. While the first-generation Prelude borrowed styling and mechanical bits from the Civic and Accord, by the second generation the Prelude was introducing new features to Honda, some of which spun out to other models. Far from the Prelude looking like an Accord Coupe knockoff, the 1987 Accord Coupe borrowed much of its styling from the outgoing second-generation (’83-87) Prelude, even as third-generation Preludes (introduced in Japan in mid-1987) got lower and wider.

    The fourth-generation cars were indeed a bold jump, and in retrospect may be the defining Prelude, but at the time the motoring press panned both the interior and exterior styling, and the market seemed to agree. That prompted the next generation’s return to a more traditional look. Nor are the fifth generation cars “larger and heavier” than their predecessors — in fact, the last two generations are very similar except for styling. (The small dimensional change was largely for a bigger trunk…again responding to press and market complaints.) Four-wheel steering was dropped in North America mid-way through the fourth generation due to lack of customer interest, but was available through the end of the model line in Japan and some other export markets, as were a larger array of engines and other goodies (like a limited-slip differential) North American cars didn’t get.

    Ultimately, what killed the Prelude was Acura: the ’95 Accord Coupe got the Acura Legend’s V6 for those craving an Accord to show off at the golf course, and Honda continued to develop the Acura Integra as a performance car — no accident that Integra Type-Rs replaced Preludes in series such as World Challenge. The market couldn’t sustain all three, and the Prelude was the niche car, with fewer components shared with other Hondas.

    Separately, any autocrosser can tell you there’s a wealth of 15 and 16-inch performance tires on the market, so finding good tires to fit a fourth or fifth-generation Prelude requires no compromise.

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