Curbside Classic: 1994 Honda Prelude 2.2 VTEC – A Prelude Of Better Things To Come?

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I’m probably not the first guy to wax lyrical about how wonderful the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s were to Honda. Generally speaking, back then Japanese car makers were on a roll, but in particular this era was Honda´s “high-water mark”, and that reflected in almost every new model launched: the 5th generation Civic, the 4th generation Accord, the NSX, the 2nd generation Legend, and the car I want to talk about today, the 4th generation of the Prelude, a far more sophisticated and ambitious model than its predecessor. And a car I once owned.

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It sounds a bit strange now, but there was a time when young people bought small sporty coupés instead of SUVs, crossovers and that kind of thing. While European makers (and buyers) lost their faith in these coupés due to the rise of hot hatches, in America they still had a big market, so the Japanese kept making them. The 3rd generation Prelude was one of the most interesting, thanks to revvy engines, good handling and attractive but not boy racer-ish styling. Honda reliability was the icing on the cake.

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Although that 3rd generation was a nice car and even featured a curious four wheel steering system, Honda felt so confident that prepared a much bolder 4th generation. To begin, the new car was wider at 1,76 metres and was available with bigger engines, at the expense of penalizing sales in the domestic market. I´m not an expert on this subject, but as you probably know in Japan there are some strict rules that classify cars in three categories according to exterior dimensions and engine displacement. Car taxation depends on these categories, and the new Prelude, because of its width and bigger engines, entered in an upper category than the old one.

On the other hand, it was a lot more powerful thanks to the new H22 engine with the variable valve timing VTEC system (presented in the JDM Integra a couple of years before) in 2.2 litre size and 200 bhp (in Japanese spec; United States and Europe specs had 190 and 185 bhp, respectively). Another high was the 4WS system, more sophisticated thanks to electronic control, in contrast with the mechanical system of the old car. The typical Honda double wishbone suspension, that allowed so good handling and a low bonnet, and the typical Prelude space-inefficient interior, that practically rendered the car as a two seater, were retained.

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However, it didn’t retain the conservative styling. The 4th generation Prelude was a more striking car, probably showing the mood of the company in those years, and although it didn´t have the 2nd and 3rd generations’ pop-up headlights, that low bonnet and shark-like nose still attracted a lot of attention. Perhaps that wasn´t something that the usual Prelude European buyers appreciated (here, the Preludes were a bit expensive, so a lot of them were bought by mature, more affluent “empty nester” couples), but I´m sure that younger American and Japanese buyers were delighted.

Anyway, Honda knew they weren´t going to sell a lot of cars in Europe. The rear end always reminded me, of all things, the Jaguar XJS. Perhaps I must visit the optician. And regarding the interior, well, perhaps it´s the most controversial part of the car. Rather dark and made with unattractive plastics, that dashboard with a black strip that transformed into a instruments panel when you started the engine is a good conversation piece.

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Image: CAR Magazine, March 1997

I always liked the 4th generation Prelude since it was launched in 1992. A lot of years after I played with the idea of buying one, the main difficulty being to find a 2.2 VTEC in stock, unmolested condition. That´s not something easy, because while we don´t have too many “ricers” in Spain (any kind of Japanese car culture is rare here), the poor 4th Prelude has been one of the darlings of tacky car tuners. But a couple of years ago I had the chance to buy a VTEC, more or less stock, only a change of alloys away from being as stock as it left the Saitama factory in 1994. So I jumped in and bought one in Sebring Silver, with 195,000 kilometres on the clock. I figured if the well known CAR Magazine writer LJK Setright liked the Prelude because “no other car is as nice to drive”, sure it was good enough for me (he owned a 3rd, 4th and 5th generation).

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After years used to a Saab 9000 Aero and a Volvo 850 R, with their turbocharged engines and less than perfect chassis, driving a lighter, sportier car was a revelation. Not only due to a certain difficulty to get into and out of the car, but the rev-happy, naturally aspirated engine and sophisticated suspension made a completely different driving experience. Everybody talks about that VTEC moment when the rev counter needle passes the 5200 rpm mark and a rush of power arrives (nothing special if you are used to turbo engines), but for me the real surprise was the lightning throttle response. My mind thought “and now I´m going to go faster” and instantly the car went faster. It seemed the throttle went down the carpet even before my right foot pressed the pedal.

Regarding the chassis, I expected good handling but an uncomfortable ride; the reality was the Prelude had fantastic handling and really good ride. 4WS? Not as irrelevant as people say. A bit strange at first, in sharp bends it could felt like the car was over steering; but in truth, road holding was very safe. Steering was too light for my taste, though, and in the beginning of ownership, parallel parking was tricky thanks to 4WS (the car steered too much). A few weeks later, I had learnt to park the Prelude perfectly; the problem now was parking the Volvo…

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It was a shame that I had to sell the Prelude, only a year after buying it. And it was my fault. When I bought it, the former owner told me the timing belt had been changed five years before. Honda advises to change the belt after 100,000 kilometres or five years, so it seemed a wise move to do a belt service that included changing the balance shafts belt. I took the car to a retired mechanic living near my house that charged rather economical rates and had done a pair of things right before in the Volvo. When he finished the service, there was a strange whining noise from the belt area, and the engine was not nearly as smooth as before.

After a few test drives and complaints, the mechanic insisted everything was alright. Then I took the Prelude to another mechanic, this time a guy that someone I met in a Honda forum recommended me because “he used to work for a Honda dealer”. The car spent four days in his workshop and it came back exactly as it got in, although my wallet was a bit lighter. After that, my only reliable option was to visit a Honda dealer, that quoted me almost 1,000 euros for the timing belt change. Enough. At the moment I had some unexpected household expenses, and I decided to sell the poor Prelude (at a loss) to my friend Javier. The car travelled 900 kilometres by tow truck to his house, and after a good inspection, he found that the balance shafts belt was badly installed and way too tight. Soon the car was running like clockwork again. At least now he is enjoying the car, and I learnt a lesson about cheap and non-specialist mechanics.

I miss my Prelude. It was very fun to drive, although terribly impractical. But from the moment I bought it I knew our relationship was going to be a short term one (just I didn’t expect so short…). No matter. Recently I’ve bought another car, almost as fun, but a lot more usable, so perhaps I won´t miss it so much…