road test: 1996 Honda Prelude VTEC

PreludeNot long after testing the (then) new McLaren F1 supercar – all £500,000 of it – the late, great LJK Setright was asked what the nicest car he’d ever driven was. A Honda Prelude VTEC 4WS came the reply – and having driven this you can see why. Although I’d maybe have to say that the likes of a Lotus Esprit Series 3 or an original 4-speed manual Jaguar XJ-S V12 might still have the measure of it, the fourth generation Prelude comes close…

This is a remarkable statement for what’s seemingly a bland, anodyne mid-priced Jap motor – but the little Honda is far from this. For many years it was the marque’s performance flagship, and this was no ordinary marque. When this car was launched in 1992, the company’s engines had won just about every Formula 1 Grand Prix of the modern age, and its motorcycles were all-conquering on the track too. Rarely – if ever – had a manufacturer been so successful in racing, and what’s more remarkable was that it was the maker of machines that Joe Public could afford…

The nineteen nineties was Honda’s high watermark. The brand had been in the ascendant since the sixties, and had cleaned up across the board. Its V-four motorcycle engines were sublime, and with 1986’s VFR750 Honda had the chassis to go with them. Its inline four cylinder car engines were the best in the world bar none – with three valves per cylinder being used since the late seventies, and by the early nineties sixteen valve double overhead cam motors with variable length inlet manifolds were routine. And in the Ayrton Senna-honed NSX, the company finally had a supercar to worry Ferrari.

Honda was an innovative, engineering-led powerhouse, with its avowed intention to make its cars and bikes better and more affordable by investing in leading-edge technology, decades before both its immediate competition and exotic, cost-no-object marques. If ever there was a company that could deliver engineering brilliance at a real world price, it was this.

The Prelude was – before the NSX – the highest expression of Honda’s automotive art. So the kitchen sink was thrown at it, so to speak. And in the fourth generation car, it reached a new high point, being the first to offer the (then) new VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control) engine and 4WS (electronic 4-wheel steering), two technologies that made pretty much every other car look dated. Enough has been written about the engine – suffice to say it puts out 185BHP from 2.2 litres yet is utterly forgiving and linear in the way it delivers its power. 4-wheel steering had been tried (and abandoned) by several Japanese and German manufacturers, but in the electronic implementation on the Prelude 4, it finally became the system Honda always intended. Largely ‘invisible’ on the move, it nevertheless confers razor-sharp responses (not even a Lotus can match it), and uncanny ‘on rails’ cornering the like of which only a handful of 2-wheel steered supercars can match.

Impressive stuff, but the genius of the fourth generation Prelude is that unlike many gimmick-laden Japanese cars, it feels beautifully balanced and ‘all of a piece’ to drive. The sophisticated, expensive-to-implement double wishbone front and rear suspension – a la Jaguar and Lotus – is masterful, giving superlative balance and stability, allied to a pliant ride. It integrates beautifully with the 4WS, which provides the grip and sharpness to exploit the revvy motor. The result is an eerily refined car that has near-supercar dynamics. The engine is almost unburstable, and emits a soul-stirring yowl when the VTEC system cuts in at 5,200RPM. Many power units would be screaming in pain at this speed, but the Honda is only getting into its stride – it comes alive to propel the car, missile-like, towards the horizon before bouncing off the rev limiter north of 8,000RPM.

Of all five generations of Prelude, the fourth is arguably the most interesting. This isn’t just for its introduction of VTEC engines and 4WS – stylistically it was a walk on the wild side, and presaged a lot of what Honda is now doing, twenty years later. The low slung, wide-track body is very rigid, and on its introduction looked shockingly modern. Unlike many Japanese cars the shape has aged well, and I like the playful touches such as the Jaguar XJ-S-alike rear lamp clusters. Inside, the ‘Tokyo-by-night’ dashboard is a joy, cleverly combining electro-flourescent ancillary gauges with backlit speedometer and tachometer – all of which are set into a central strip that runs the full width of the dashboard.

Here’s one Japanese car that hasn’t had a personality transplant then, combining an amazing engine, excellent dynamics, great build quality and (shock horror for a Jap car) real design flair. Right now, fourth generation Preludes are still in reasonable supply, but they’re not plentiful anymore – many having succumbed to the dreaded rust bug. Mint low mileage cars are going for £4,000, leggy but running examples – even the top-spec VTEC 4WS models – are as low as one tenth of this. Decent ones go for £1,500 or so, but likely not for long. Buy now while stocks last!

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