on the run: Honda heaven

Often, when I buy an old car – especially in ‘distressed’ condition – the first few months are spent fighting to keep it on the road, as one bit after another inevitably fails. My eighteen year old Prelude on the other hand has been bafflingly reliable. Despite having rear arches that look so bad that you’d have thought the car would have been scrapped years ago, the thing has soldiered on through hail and rain seemingly impervious to all going on around it. Rather than needing nurture, it has chugged on in the face of adversity, using no oil or coolant and without the slightest whiff of smoke from the exhaust…

This is all the more amazing, considering that when I got it, there was a long list of reasons why it should never start again. The oil had just been changed, but was still black as coal and about as viscous – which makes you think the last lot inside must have been there since the Dark Ages. The coolant – what little there was of it – had lost its colour and had all sorts of scunge floating around. So these were the first to get changed, with Forte Motor Flush and Coolant Flush being deployed to help things along. Full synthetic oil went in the sump, and suddenly the engine wasn’t sounding like a bag of spanners, and didn’t go black for at least a week afterwards! Fresh Honda coolant went in the rad, but this is getting progressively dirtier as bits that the flush couldn’t quite dislodge are finally making their way into circulation. I’ll do another change before winter.

Next on the emergency list was the front brake discs and pads. The car had just passed an MOT when I bought it, but the pads were on their way out and the rotors were rusted to hell and warped so you got bad brake shake every time you hit the stoppers. Mintex items went on, and now descending from speed is an altogether more confidence-inspiring process. I’ll be fitting new rear discs and pads soon too, as these weren’t much better, and new braided hoses and fluid – as in my experience this makes a big improvement to stopping.

The other part of the equation was to remove the corroded ‘Sawblade’ alloy wheels, and swap them out for a replacement set. The old ones had tyres of varying brands and ages, the ‘new’ ones all have about 5mm of tread and are identical types – this makes a big difference to the ride. Still, they’re obviously a good few years old and are just stop-gaps before I get some decent rubber (and refurbished alloys) fitted next month. I’m looking to Continental tyres, as they ride beautifully and steer well, but might go Japanese and get sporty Bridgestones which grip brilliantly. Thing is, even on the existing rubber, the car grips great – doubtless thanks to four-wheel steer…

Given that there was no record of any cambelt change, off the car went to Performance Autoworks in Fairford – happily it’s just up the road from me, and they’re universally praised. They did a top job – including the valve clearances, which had likely never been done either – and the result was a faster, smoother and quieter engine whose VTEC ‘yowl’ was restored. Previously it sounded like a bag of nails in a cement mixer. Rich also dropped in a set of NGK Iridium spark plugs, which shouldn’t need touching for several years.

More odds and sods; I dropped a K&N panel filter in which has given a subtle power boost, most noticeable in the mid-range where the car feels a little weak-kneed compared to the cars I normally drive. The interior was given a full valet, which has removed the horrible fug of smoke from the last owner, making it feel fresher and newer, and I’ve dropped in a Sony stereo and fixed the electric aerial – a lot of oil and some judicious yanking with pliers restored it to its former glory.

It’s way nicer to drive now – and characterful too. The first thing you notice when you’ve got over the dazzling electroluminescent dashboard, is how smooth it is for a 4 cylinder car – the engine runs like a Swiss watch and is very silky at idle. Next, you’re surprised by the ride, which is surprisingly supple and forgiving on the poorly surfaced roads of Wiltshire. That’s down to the double wishbones front and rear, which track so much better than McPherson struts that the rest of the world uses (Jaguar, Ferrari, Lotus notwithstanding). Although tight and taut, it’s gently damped and very pliant over minor surface imperfections – it sometimes reminds me of my old Jaguar XK8, which although not the best riding Jag is still high praise indeed in the great scheme of things.

The second of three ‘standout’ features is the four wheel steering. It’s an eerie sensation driving a car with this, because it behaves very conventionally up to a point – so you just don’t notice it. It’s only when a sharp change of lane is required, or rapid action to avoid something in/on the road, that you remember you’re in a 4WS car. How so? Well, because the car changes direction like a video game, being instant and consequence-free. This is unlike so many passive rear steered cars that it’s quite a shocker for the uninitiated. Actions that would leave you in a ditch in a 2WS car don’t so much as fluster this all-wheel-steering machine. Like many newcomers to 4WS, my first few weeks with the system were spent throwing the car into right-angled bends at silly speeds, laughing as the car goes round without any fuss. For a great view of the system in action on a third generation Prelude, click here.

Finally, that 2.2 litre VTEC engine is a thing of loveliness and awe – but it’s just not quite as tractable as many engines. Low end power is poor, mid-range is weak, and then – kapow – around 4,000RPM there’s a growl than gets louder then turns into a yowl at 5,000RPM. Then the VTEC kicks in, and there’s a punch in the chest when it hits 5,200 and screams all the way up to 8,400RPM, whereupon it dutifully bounces off the rev limiter. Who said Japanese cars are boring?

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