From the November 1998 issue Car and Driver.
First impressions can be confusing, and not just with people. Our initial impressions of the car are subject to change after 40,000 miles behind the wheel. For example, it was love at first sight with a certain European convertible a few years ago (hey, we don’t kiss and tell), but that romance soured after a long, troublesome stay with us. On the other hand, the Jaguar XJ6 (this we can tell) had us shaving our heads during our brief stay for the first road test of the 1995 redesign, but after 40,000 mostly pleasant miles in a long-term car, we no longer scoff at the Jag’s claims of reliability. better.
The current design Honda Prelude certainly left a good impression upon 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—is as thrilling as ever. . . We also like the Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS) on the SH model, which directs torque to the outside front wheels under hard cornering to reduce the numb understeer that plagues most front-drivers. In short, we named the SH model as a 10Best car. Five months later, it won the title of “Best Handling Car Under $30,000.”
But will our impressions change with time and miles? In April 1997, the Prelude SH that caught me arrived at our door with only 11 miles on the odometer. This car also leaves a good first impression. Inspection for defects showed only a loose shifter knob and a little too much grease on the door hinges.
After 1000 miles, we took it to the track. The Prelude sprints to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, passes the quarter mile in 15.4 seconds, and tops out at 138 mph. It can brake to a stop from 70 mph in 172 feet and corner at 0.83 g.
Initial log book impressions shine. “Driving properly,” said one entry. “Nice engine,” said another. Drivers praise the car’s sensitive and secure steering, its tight structure, and the coordination of its clutch and shifter, which work brilliantly with just a quick flick of the wrist.
The Prelude requires a service at 7500 mile intervals, which serves to change the oil and rotate the tires, but the filter remains in place until 15,000 miles, at which time various other functions are checked. At 30,000 miles, the air filter is changed again and adjustments to the drive belt and valve clearance are made. (The first major service comes at a long 90,000 miles, and new camshaft belts and spark plugs aren’t recommended until 105,000 miles.) As the Prelude approaches the 7500-mile interval, the little “maintenance required” window below the odometer turns first yellow, then red , as a reminder that it is time for service.
Our local dealer, Howard Cooper Import Center, in Ann Arbor, has a 10 day waiting list! So instead of taking our Prelude there for the first service it needed, we sent it to Rosenau Automotive Group in Inkster, Michigan. Rosenau has its own agenda for the 7500 mile service and charges us not only for oil changes and tire rotations but also fuel system additives and graphite oil treatment. It left an $87 smoking hole in our AmEx card. Even after deducting these unwanted items (as we always do for our service calculations in specs), the total still comes to $71.
It will be our only unpleasant service experience. Howard Cooper performed the remaining four services, all of which were performed more or less by the book, and cheaply, at $218, making the total services $289. That’s cheap for any car. (Our long-term Nissan 240SX costs $395, and our 35,000-mile Ford Probe GT costs $359 for service.)
We don’t need dealer help for anything else. Our only unscheduled service stop was at 14,630 miles, when daily commuter Larry Griffin could no longer tolerate tire imbalance during a 7000-mile trip. Ripley Firestone in Ripley, West Virginia, performs balancing on all four tires. Believe it or not, it’s only $19—our only repair charge.
Many of us have come to appreciate the Prelude’s understated and simple exterior. “Pretty sharp for a foreign car,” said a Ford F-150 driver at a gas station. The interior gets high marks for its functionality and low marks for its careful styling. If Honda executives are staring blankly after reading that sentence, we sympathize. The last generation Prelude had a more creative interior, and we complained about that too.
Most other complaints are of the Pecksniffian variety. Some people don’t like the “chaise longue” seating position, and shorter drivers can’t adjust the steering wheel high enough for comfort. The “Acoustic Feedback” system with AM/FM-stereo/CD player, standard equipment in the SH, is crisp and clear with the volume turned up. Turn it down, however, and it sounds more like one of those AM radios you get when you open a new checking account. Some thought the doors and trunk lid closed with a hollow, shrill sound that belied the Prelude SH’s $26,095 base price.
ATTS received mixed reviews. Berg: “I like the way the front end grips under power in rainy and wet corners.” Markus: “Does the fast, low-speed lane turn into an opening on I-696. I think the ATTS is still trying hard to go left when I’m steering right. Not what I expected.”
After 40,000 miles left, we returned the Prelude to the track. Acceleration to 60 mph takes 7.2 seconds, 0.3 seconds longer, but top speed is up a notch to 139 mph. Cornering grip improves slightly, and braking performance holds up, with impressive fade resistance after a few miles.
Towards the end of the test, the window weatherstripping wouldn’t stay in the slot on either door, and the floor mats developed an annoying tendency to slide forward, interfering with the driver’s pedals. Slight gear grinding accompanies most fourth to fifth gear shifts, possibly due to poor transmission synchronization.
But our passion for these sporty cars continues unabated. “One of my favorite long-term cars, second only to the Boxster,” wrote one test driver in the logbook. “Love driving this car,” wrote another.
Throughout its stay with us, the Prelude SH was a reliable, affordable and fun drive. Sometimes, a good first impression is right on the money.
Scheduled services: 5
Unscheduled services: 1
Operating Cost (for 40,000 miles)
Common usage: $0
Gasoline (@ $1.04 per gallon): $1651
Rants and Raves
Great engine, clean lines, but what about the interior? I recently drove an Acura NSX-T, two Civics, and this Prelude and couldn’t tell you the difference inside. For $26,095, you’d think the interior was as memorable as the exterior and engine. —Erik Davidek
An intelligent car, with instant throttle response, quick steering without jitters, quick progressive clutch take-up without jerks. This remains, in my book, the best of the two-plus-two hatchbacks, but without the hatch. —John Phillips
Powertrain and chassis dovetail well, otherwise everything is smooth. I would like a shorter and more precise stroke 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 powerful. Come on with the complaints! —Brock Yates
Does anyone else think the center tunnel is a bit big for the 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 passengers, 2 door coupe
Base/As Tested: $26,095/$26,095
DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block and head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 132 in32157 cm3
Power: 195 hp @ 7000 rpm
Torque: 156 lb-ft @ 5250 rpm
5 speed manual
Wheelbase: 101.8 inches
Length: 178.0 in
Curb Weight: 3038 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS: NEW
60 mph: 6.9 seconds
1/4-Mile: 15.4 seconds @ 90 mph
100 mph: 19.6 seconds
130 mph: 34.7 seconds
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 8.1 seconds
Top Speed (drag ltd): 138 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 172 feet
Road grip, 300-foot Skid Pad: 0.83 g
C/D TEST RESULTS: 40,000 miles
60 mph: 7.2 seconds
1/4-Mile: 15.6 seconds @ 90 mph
100 mph: 19.8 seconds
130 mph: 35.5 seconds
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 7.9 seconds
Top Speed (drag ltd): 139 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 171 feet
Road grip, 300 ft Skid Pad: 0.86 g
C/D OIL ECONOMY
Observed: 25 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City: 22 mpg
C/D TESTS EXPLAINED