Comfort and convenience over style and fun-to-drive nature — it’s an industry trend that is nothing new, more recently seen with crossovers/SUVs overtaking sedans in popularity and several automakers discontinuing or planning to discontinue sales of sedans altogether in favor of CUVs and SUVs. But long before the age of the crossover, sedans were king, and reigned supreme through the 1980s and 1990s as coupes rapidly fell out of popularity. Two-door versions of popular sedans were lamentable casualties nonetheless, but the more tragic losses were the coupe-only vehicles, particularly performance-oriented ones that served as halo models for their given brand, such as the Honda Prelude.
The Prelude was in fact, for most of its 23-year existence spanning five generations, Honda’s “halo model” and flagship, showcasing the latest and greatest in technology, engineering, design, and performance, not to mention the highest price tag of any Honda, at least in markets where the Legend and NSX were badged as Acuras.
Introduced in 1978, the Prelude was initially based on the Accord, yet featured a more powerful engine, greater amount of standard features, lower curb weight, plus a 2.3-inch shorter wheelbase and 14-inch shorter overall length, for a long-hood, short-deck appearance. Reviews were overwhelmingly favorable, and sales in Japan and the U.S. were strong, solidifying the Prelude’s place at the top of Honda’s lineup, at least for the next two decades.
The Prelude’s second and third generations, which sported “Ferrari styling”, pop-up headlights, and more muscular proportions are often most memorable, with the second (1983-1987) generation proving the most popular, and the third (1988-1991) introducing four-wheel steering, something the Prelude would continue offering for the remainder of its life.
The Prelude took on a whole new look for its fourth generation, ditching its pop-up headlights and wedge-shaped styling for a sleeker, more understated appearance. Despite greater performance, enhancements to its four-wheel steering system, and a more luxurious cockpit with a high-tech looking full-width instrument cluster featuring translucent backlit gauges, sales were down considerably, largely a result of consumers shifting to four-doors, as well as SUVs.
Its fifth, and ultimately final generation saw the Prelude return to the more familiar look of its second and third generations, but the writing was on the wall. Sport coupes that emphasized performance over practicality simply weren’t high volume vehicles anymore. Versus selling over 70,000 units annually in the U.S. from 1985-1987, the Prelude never topped 20,000 units after 1993.
From a performance perspective, and its intended mission as a dedicated sports coupe, the Prelude very much still ticked all the boxes. All Preluded featured front and rear double-wishbone suspensions, 5-speed manual or “Sequential Sport Shift” 4-speed automatic with manual shift more, 16″ wheels, and four-wheel disc antilock brakes. North American models now featured a standard 2.2-liter 16-valve DOHC VTEC inline-4, making 200 horsepower at 700 rmp and 156 lb-ft torque at 5250 rmp, and posting zero-to-sixty times of under 7 seconds — quite impressive for the late-1990s from a naturally-aspirated I4.
Four-wheel steering was no longer an option offered in the North American market, though Prelude Type-SH (Super Handling) models added Honda’s advanced torque-vectoring technology, dubbed Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS), which would send more power to the outside front wheel during cornering to minimize under-steer during acceleration and over-steer during deceleration. Type-SH Preludes, however, were only available in 5-speed manual guise, no problem for most enthusiasts, yet a detrimental factor in the model’s overall appeal.
A possible result of the Japanese asset price bubble and Japanese automakers’ responding cost cutting, the fifth generation Prelude’s interior was rather plain and unremarkable. Fit and finish were nonetheless as good as, or better than any other vehicle under $30,000, yet when compared to the fourth generation Prelude’s interior, the fifth lacked any sort of “wow” factor.
Unlike the preceding two generations, the fifth generation Prelude’s center console and instrument panel did not seamlessly blend together, instead split by an empty vertical gap and an substantial amount of carpeted forward driveshaft tunnel for a look reminiscent of early-1980s Hondas. This is a more personal irksome matter, but nonetheless it made for a less-refined interior environment.
Comfort and convenience features were pretty expected standard fare for the Prelude’s segment and price class. Power windows, power locks, moonroof, air conditioning, leather-wrapped steering wheel, premium cloth upholstery, 6-way adjustable driver’s seat with adjustable lumbar support and 4-way adjustable passenger seat, 6-speaker AM/FM stereo with in-dash CD and cassette player were all included, among other features, with little in the way of available extra-cost options and upgrades.
Feature content, however, could not disguise the fact that the Prelude was one of a rapidly dying breed. Competitors, including the Mazda MX-6, Ford Probe, Volkswagen Corrado, and Nissan 240SX were all gone by 1998, although an even more concerning factor would come from right across the showroom in the form of the 1998 Honda Accord coupe.
No longer just an Accord sedan with two doors, the sixth generation Accord coupe now featured its own shorter wheelbase and dedicated exterior styling sharing no body panels with the sedan. It also featured an available V6 making identical horsepower and some 39 additional lb-ft torque to the Prelude’s I4, a more luxurious interior boasting significantly more passenger space and double the trunk capacity, plus optional amenities not offered on North American-spec Preludes including leather, power seats, and automatic climate control. A highly compelling alternative, the Accord coupe made the Prelude seem even more unnecessary and unneeded than ever, something even more meaningful when considering that Honda also offered the similar-sized Acura CL.
With sales continuing to slide, dipping to under 10,000 units in the U.S. for 2000, Honda announced in June 2001 that the Prelude would not return, marking an end to its storied 23-year history. Honda enthusiasts were left to find solace in models such as the Civic Si, Integra/RSX, and the newly-introduced S2000 roadster, while most Honda buyers continued to flock to more comfortable, family-friendly models. By contrast even the Passport SUV, a thinly-rebadged Isuzu, sold some 20,000 units that year, with the Odyssey and CR-V each selling to the tune of 120K units, and the Accord of course, topping 400K sales.
The Prelude was but one of many 2-door casualties, a trend that began industry-wise in the mid-1980s, and has continued through the present day with the most recent being none other than the Accord coupe. With its introduction preluding the beginning of the Great Decline of Coupes by just a few years, the name “Prelude” came to have more meaning than even Honda product planners could have anticipated.
Photographed in Hingham, Massachusetts – May 2018