road test: 1989 Honda Prelude 2.0i4WS

Honda Prelude 3GMaking a high end supercar isn’t easy, but making a mass market one is hard. Getting a machine to deliver high performance – with suspension, chassis and brakes to back it up – across a production run of many hundreds of thousands, and to keep it reliable and out of the repair shop is a challenge beyond the wit of any normal motor manufacturer. But then again, Honda is not this…

The company’s story is well known by now – small engineer/inventor starts own business, supplies parts to big name brands, grows, makes own motorbikes and cars, dominates the world – that sort of thing. But any sober look at this amazing success story shows us that the brand succeeded because of its passion for – engines. Yes, there have been times in the company’s past, especially in the earlier days, when it almost saw making motorbikes and cars as a necessary evil in order to sell the engines it so loved.

The first Prelude was a product of the nineteen seventies, the company’s first sports coupe and its premium, flagship car. Despite being able to build the world’s most technologically advanced motorcycle in 1978 – the across the frame six, 1000cc CBX monster – in car terms Honda was still regarded exclusively as a maker of what the Yanks called ‘compacts’, little rice-burners without enough room to fit a fridge-worth of shopping into. So the appearance of the first generation ‘Lude (as its owners lovingly refer to it) was an important marker for Honda to set down; it declared the company’s intention to make high performance cars – and by the standards of the age the Prelude was just this.

By the time the third generation car appeared in 1987, this sub-brand had done much to create its very own market segment, one which straddled what was left of the small sportscar market (the ageing Fiat X-1/9) and the premium sports coupe (Porsche 924). Honda’s formulation was to offer the performance of both with the running costs of neither, and throw in its legendary reliability too. It was a winning formula in the US, which as a country likes little coupes, and the (then) new third generation Prelude looked set to soar.

Nice as the first and second generation cars were, the third was an important point for the marque, for a number of reasons. It was Honda making it clear to anyone who’d listen, that its engineering wasn’t just strong, but superlative. This new car was – in its day – a technical tour de force that rival manufacturers struggled to emulate, let alone surpass…

First was the body. Although its boxy, ‘folded paper’ lines are currently out of fashion, back in the day it was pure futurism. In the eighties, it was (rightly) believed that a fast car should be easy to drive, and for it to be so it had to be easy to see out of. And Honda worked hard to give the Prelude an exceptionally wide field of vision, which coupled with a low, Ferrari-like, bonnet line (necessitating pop-up lights) made it look as crisp as a fresh banknote out of one of those new-fangled cash machines.

Set under this disappearing bonnet was a transversely mounted, reclined by 18 degrees to fit, Honda B-series 2.0 litre double over camshaft engine – the largest that could be accommodated in Japan’s ‘affordable’ car tax bracket, pushing out a screaming 150BHP. And of course it did it with typical Honda grace – as smooth as a Swiss train but with a yowl that reminded you just who were Formula One racing’s most successful engine supplier. It was full of clever touches, from the sophisticated multi-point PGM-EFi fuel injection and four valves per cylinder, to a variable length intake manifold that actively managed the airflow to optimise torque. Other manufacturers would copy these in whole or part eventually, but none could make their power units quite as sweet or reliable.

With a futuristic bodyshell and engine, Honda needed to back it up with a great chassis. The body was stiffer than it looked (those skinny windscreen pillars are narrower than the mark 2 Prelude, but the body is still more rigid), and for the first time it got double wishbone suspension front and rear. The delights of this configuration won’t be lost to drivers of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Lotuses and Jaguars – and of course racing cars – which all share this layout. Suffice to say unlike the MacPherson struts of its rivals, this way of doing suspension keeps the wheel and tyre perpendicular to the road across a far wider range of circumstances. The result is more grip and a less choppy ride. Drive the Prelude, and you instantly feel this.

However, the real jewel on Honda’s crown was the world’s first implementation of four wheel steering (4WS) on a mass production car. It was an all-mechanical system that gave the car remarkable handling – so much so that the new Prelude beat the latest Ferrari through Road and Track magazine’s slalom test! It used an ingenious hypocycloid planetary gearset turned by a central shaft connecting to the front steering rack, which let the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the fronts with small steering inputs (of up to 1.5 degrees) and in the opposite direction during large steering inputs (up to a maximum of 5.3 degrees). This made for faster turn-ins and greater stability during swift cornering, but at low speeds – when parking for example – the wheels would turn in the opposite direction to give a remarkable, London taxi-like, turning circle.

At the time the third Prelude was being designed, it was the most expensive car Honda had ever made. And it shows in the build quality, which for the mid eighties is excellent, easily as good as anything the Germans were doing. The quality of interior plastics and trim is superb, and the car has a wonderfully solid but delicate feel with only gentle inputs required. Reliability was needless to say peerless, and overall the car has a quality that both earlier and later Preludes can’t match. The same design team went on to do the NSX, and the DNA shows in the drive – it’s a lovely machine across the board.

Sadly, third gen Preludes are relatively thin on the ground now – many European ones having been scrapped simply because they’re no longer fashionable. More survive in the southern American states, their paintwork practically burnt off the body in the sun, but the model is still rare considering its longevity and quality – such is the fickleness of fashion!


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