Vintage Reviews: Car And Driver’s 1997 New Car Issue – Asian Brand First Drives

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The November 1996 issue of Car and Driver also served up “Short Takes” and “First Drives” on some of the new products arriving for 1997 from Asian makes, including the Honda Prelude SH, Mitsubishi Diamante, Hyundai Tiburon and Mitsubishi Mirage.  Was there anything to catch your fancy?

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American Honda was starting to stumble a bit with nomenclature in the 1990s, primarily at Acura (CL, TL, RL blah, blah, blah), but also in some ways even at Honda. Thankfully Honda’s sporty coupe still wore the Prelude name, but added SH to designate the new “Super Handling” edition.  The problem with SH for me is that I’ve always heard it used as a “polite” abbreviation for s**t.  The Prelude SH*t is not so good.  To be fair, Toyota is equally guilty of bad acronyms: Toyota Racing Development being shortened to TRD (aka turd) is no better.

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As Car and Driver points out, this 5th generation Prelude bore a striking resemblance to the 3rd generation (1988 – 1991).  I owned (and loved) a 1988 Prelude Si, and this car really does look like an update on that design, both inside and out.  I also owned (and liked) a 4th generation 1992 Prelude, which I thought was beautiful and flowing outside, but the interior and dash were bizarrely Buick Regal-like.  No question the 1997 car was certainly a conservative return to the classic Prelude “look.”  Problem was, who wanted a car in 1997 that looked like one from the 1980s?

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Contrary to C&D’s assertion that Baby Boomers needed to be pried out of minivans so they could get a sporty Honda coupe, the real issue for the Prelude wasn’t family haulers, it was SUVs and the emerging Cute-Utes.  These vehicles featured the newly stylish “off-road” looks, and that was the statement buyers increasingly wanted to make with an “image” vehicles.  Sporty was “out,” go-anywhere functionality was “in.”  Screaming V-Tec engines and excellent handling weren’t enough to compensate.  Also, the $26,000 ($39,912 adjusted) price tag placed the Prelude in a pricey and very small market segment.  Little wonder, then, that this generation of Prelude would be the last.

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The Diamante was a good example of the homogenization in the Japanese market.  Yes, it was better than its predecessor, attractive in an anodyne way, comfortable enough to be a Lexus ES, but… snooze.  The market leaders from Toyota, Honda and Nissan could still get away with utterly boring near-luxury sedans from their upscale divisions, but pretenders in that segment, like Mitsubishi, were toast.  At this point, buyers wanted a recognizable brand name on their premium pablum.

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During the 1990s, Hyundai seemed to simply copy Japanese designs that were a few years old, much like the 1970s for some of the Japanese makes (Toyota, Datsun especially) that seemed to copy (on a smaller scale) recent U.S. designs.  Unlike the Japanese in the 1970s, Hyundai’s reputation for quality was still dirt.  These cars sold on low price and were seen as pretty disposable, even when new.  Not much different than the Scoupe that the Tiburon replaced.

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Here’s another completely forgettable Japanese car from 1997.  The most memorable aspect of the car from what I can see is the seat upholstery, and not necessarily in a good way…  One point in the Mirage’s favor: even the least expensive (Mirage started at $12,000–$18,421 adjusted), most forgettable Japanese cars were still quite competent.  However, just as with the Mitsubishi Diamante, many buyers were more attracted to the more established brand names in small cars from Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

What a difference a decade makes.  In 1987, the most excitement in the U.S. market seemed to be coming from Japanese brands.  However, through the 1990s, Conservatism and cost cutting had crept in and the products were far less exciting, though still excellent in many ways.  For well-priced, well-built cars in 1997, it was hard to beat the Japanese brands, and they happily increased their stronghold on car buyers in the middle of the American market.