From the November 1998 issue of Car and Driver.
First impressions can be misleading, and not just with people. Our early impressions of cars are subject to change after 40,000 miles behind the wheel. For example, it was love at first sight with a certain European convertible some years ago (hey, we don’t kiss and tell), but the romance soured after its troublesome long-term stay with us. On the other hand, the Jaguar XJ6 (this we can tell) had us tearing out our hair during a brief stay for its first road test of the 1995 redesign, but after 40,000 mostly pleasant miles in a long-term car, we were no longer scoffing at Jag’s claims of improved reliability.
The current-design Honda Prelude certainly left good impressions at its introduction in the fall of 1996. Its engine—a 195-hp, 2.2-liter four-cylinder with variable valve timing and a soaring 7400-rpm redline—was as thrilling as ever. We also liked the Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS) on the SH model, which directs torque to the outside front wheel under hard cornering to reduce the numb understeer that plagues most front-drivers. In short order, we named the SH model a 10Best car. Five months later, it won the title of «Best-Handling Car for Less Than $30,000.»
But would our impressions change with time and miles? In April 1997, an arrest-me-red Prelude SH arrived at our door with just 11 miles on the odometer. This car left good first impressions, too. An inspection for flaws revealed only a loose shifter knob and a tad too much lubricant on the door hinges.
After 1000 miles, we took it to the track. The Prelude leapt to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, sped through the quarter-mile in 15.4 seconds, and topped out at 138 mph. It could brake to a stop from 70 mph in 172 feet and corner at 0.83 g.
Early logbook impressions glowed. «Drives quite rightly,» went one entry. «Lovely engine,» chimed another. Drivers applauded the car’s sensitive and secure steering, its tight structure, and the coordination of its clutch and shifter, which worked wonderfully with little more than a quick flick of the wrist.
The Prelude requires service at 7500-mile intervals, which works out to an oil change and a tire rotation, but the filter stays put until 15,000 miles, at which time various other functions are inspected. At 30,000 miles, the air filter is changed again and adjustments to the drive belts and valve clearances are made. (The first major service arrives at a distant 90,000 miles, and a new camshaft belt and spark plug aren’t recommended until 105,000 miles.) When a Prelude nears a 7500-mile interval, a little «maintenance required» window beneath the odometer turns first yellow, then red, as a reminder that it’s time for service.
Our local dealer, Howard Cooper Import Center, in Ann Arbor, had a 10-day waiting list! So instead of taking our Prelude there for its first required service, we shuttled it to Rosenau Automotive Group in Inkster, Michigan. Rosenau had its own agenda for the 7500-mile service and charged us for not only the oil change and tire rotation but also a fuel-system additive and a graphite oil treatment. It left a smoking $87 hole in our AmEx card. Even after subtracting these unwanted items (as we always do for our service tallies in the specifications), the total still came to an eyebrow-arching $71.
It would be our only unpleasant service experience. Howard Cooper performed the remaining four services, which were all done more or less to the book, and inexpensively, at $218, making for a service total of $289. That’s cheap for any car. (Our long-term Nissan 240SX cost $395, and a Ford Probe GT we had for 35,000 miles cost us $359 for service.)
We didn’t need a dealer’s help for anything else. Our only unscheduled service stop came at 14,630 miles, when daytripper Larry Griffin could no longer tolerate a tire imbalance during a 7000-mile trip. Ripley Firestone in Ripley, West Virginia, did the balancing act on all four tires. Believe it or not, the price was just $19—our only repair charge.
Many of us came to appreciate the Prelude’s understated, simple exterior. «Pretty sharp for a foreign car,» mentioned one Ford F-150 driver at a gas station. The interior received high marks for its functionality and low marks for its cautious styling. If Honda execs contemplate hara-kiri after reading that sentence, we sympathize. The last-generation Prelude had a more creatively sculpted interior, and we complained about that, too.
Most other gripes were of the Pecksniffian kind. A few didn’t like the «chaise longue» seating position, and shorter drivers couldn’t adjust the steering wheel high enough for comfort. The «Acoustic Feedback» system with AM/FM-stereo/CD player, standard equipment in the SH, was crisp and clear with the volume cranked. Turn it down, however, and it sounded more like one of those AM radios you get when you open a new checking account. Some thought the doors and the trunklid closed with a hollow, tinny sound that belied the Prelude SH’s $26,095 base price.
The ATTS received mixed reviews. Berg: «I love the way the front end tucks in under power on rainy, wet corners.» Markus: «Did a quick, low-speed lane change into an opening on I-696. I think the ATTS was still trying hard to go left as I steered right. Not what I was expecting.»
After its 40,000-mile stay, we returned the Prelude to the track. Sprints to 60 mph took 7.2 seconds, 0.3 second longer, but top speed increased a notch to 139 mph. Cornering grip improved slightly, and braking performance held, with impressive fade resistance after so many miles.
By the end of the test, the window weatherstripping wouldn’t stay in the slots on both doors, and the floor mats developed an annoying tendency to slide forward, interfering with the driver’s pedals. Slight gear grinding accompanied most fourth-to-fifth-gear shifts, perhaps due to a weak transmission synchro.
But our enthusiasm for this sporty car continued unabated. «One of my favorite long-term cars, second only to the Boxster,» wrote a test driver in the logbook. «Love driving this car,» wrote another.
Throughout its stay with us, the Prelude SH was a reliable, inexpensive, and fun drive. Sometimes, good first impressions are right on the money.
Scheduled service: 5
Unscheduled service: 1
Operating Costs (for 40,000 miles)
Normal wear: $0
Gasoline (@ $1.04 per gallon): $1651
Rants and Raves
Wonderful engine, clean lines, but what’s up with the interior? I’ve recently driven an Acura NSX-T, two Civics, and this Prelude and could not tell you the difference from inside. For $26,095, you would think the interior would be as memorable as the exterior and the engine. —Erik Davidek
Such a quick-witted car, with instant throttle response, fast steering that isn’t nervous, progressive clutch takeup that’s fast without being abrupt. This remains, in my book, the best of the two-plus-two hatchbacks, but without the hatch. —John Phillips
Powertrain and chassis dovetail nicely, if not altogether seamlessly. I’d like shorter, more precise strokes for the clutch, shifter, throttle, and brakes. Plus a 2.5-to-2.8-liter V-6 for more low-rev punch. —Larry Griffin
The A/C blower on low is still too energetic. C’mon with the complaints! —Brock Yates
Does anyone else think the center tunnel is a bit big for a front-driver? —Phil Berg
This is my next used-car purchase. —Christian Spencer
1997 Honda Prelude SH
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 2+2-passenger, 2-door coupe
Base/As Tested: $26,095/$26,095
DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block and head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 132 in3, 2157 cm3
Power: 195 hp @ 7000 rpm
Torque: 156 lb-ft @ 5250 rpm
Wheelbase: 101.8 in
Length: 178.0 in
Curb Weight: 3038 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS: NEW
60 mph: 6.9 sec
1/4-Mile: 15.4 sec @ 90 mph
100 mph: 19.6 sec
130 mph: 34.7 sec
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 8.1 sec
Top Speed (drag ltd): 138 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 172 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.83 g
C/D TEST RESULTS: 40,000 miles
60 mph: 7.2 sec
1/4-Mile: 15.6 sec @ 90 mph
100 mph: 19.8 sec
130 mph: 35.5 sec
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 7.9 sec
Top Speed (drag ltd): 139 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 171 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.86 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 25 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City: 22 mpg