- A Honda Prelude concept was showcased at the 2023 Japan Mobility Show, and it serves as a warm-up to future Honda sports cars.
- The Prelude could potentially fill the coupe and RWD niches in Honda’s lineup, which it currently lacks.
By far, the biggest and most beautiful surprise at the recent 2023 Japan Mobility Show, held in Tokyo was the Honda Prelude concept. Honda’s president, Toshihiro Mibe, states the concept is a prelude to future Honda creations. The Japanese automaker revealed that the vehicle has a hybrid powertrain but didn’t divulge much else. From the car’s looks, it will likely occupy the sports coupe segment if Honda decides to produce it.
Honda currently doesn’t have a coupe in its lineup or an RWD car, niches that the Prelude could occupy. The Preludes Honda produced from 1978 to 2001 were FWD vehicles that competed with the likes of the Toyota Celica. The nameplate isn’t as popular as, say, the Integra that was introduced in the ’90s, a model that was revived in 2023. But nevertheless, it was an exceptional car that was often at the forefront of automotive innovation.
Using manufacturer data from Honda and information from trusted sites like Car and Driver, MotorTrend, and ESPN, we throw light on the Honda Prelude’s evolution through the decades and the legendary nameplate’s potential return.
The First Generation Honda Prelude Had Boxy, Low-Powered Beginnings
The 1978 Prelude had a boxy exterior and a 1.7-liter engine producing a measly 72 horsepower. It was paired with a two-speed automatic and later replaced with a three-speed ‘Hondamatic’ auto or a five-speed manual. It lay on a newly developed chassis but shared many parts with the Accord, including the brakes and suspension. The instrument panel had a quirky layout: Honda positioned the car’s tachometer within the speedometer.
Inside, the Prelude had room for four people, but there was extremely limited space for rear passengers, a trait it would pass on to future generations. The Prelude was an outlier in a lineup that included sporty little cars. It accelerated slowly, hitting 60 MPH in nearly 19 seconds, and featured a suspension setup not suited for sharp handling. The first-gen Prelude, therefore, served better as a cruiser than a sports car.
The Second Generation Prelude Debuted Pop-Up Headlights
The second-gen car which arrived stateside in 1983, was the first ‘true’ Prelude. It still had a boxy demeanor but was prettier and more angular than the first-gen model. Featuring pop-up headlights allowed Honda to lower the hoodline, giving the vehicle a slight wedge shape. Under the long hood lay a 100-horsepower 1.8-liter engine. Honda later introduced a 2.0-liter engine that put out 110 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque.
The new prelude was significantly faster than the model it replaced. The increase in power led to a dramatic improvement in acceleration: it hit 60 MPH in around 9.0 seconds. It was designed to be more agile than the previous generation. A double wishbone suspension setup, in the front and independent MacPherson struts in the rear turned the lightweight Prelude into a nimble machine.
Inside, the vehicle featured bolstered bucket seats to hold occupants in place during high-speed cornering. It was offered with a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. The car was also technologically advanced, featuring twin carburetors, eco-friendly CVCC combustion, and optional anti-lock brakes.
The Third Generation Prelude Came With Four-Wheel Steering And More Power
The 1988 Prelude was the most technologically advanced yet. It featured four-wheel steering, a feature Japanese manufacturers competed to perfect. The vehicle featured a mechanical 4WS system: a shaft from the steering transferred rotation to the rear axle. At high speeds, the rear wheels turned 1.5 degrees in the same direction as the front wheels, improving cornering stability.
At low speeds, the setup turned the rear wheels 5.3 degrees in the other direction as the front wheels turned, affording the vehicle a tighter turn circle. The Honda Prelude’s 4WS system was lighter, more reliable, and cheaper than the electronic systems introduced later by Mazda and Mitsubishi. Honda installed double wishbone suspension all around to further improve the car’s handling abilities.
With steering and suspension sorted, the Japanese automaker set about imbuing the Prelude with grunt. The base Prelude featured a 2.0-liter four-cylinder forcing 109 horsepower and 111 pound-feet through a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic gearbox. The top-range Si featured a 135-horsepower 2.0-liter engine.
In 1990, Honda introduced a 2.1-liter power unit, which increased its output to 140 horsepower. The third-gen Prelude was heavier than the second-generation model. However, it performed better thanks to increased power, a refined suspension setup, and a drag coefficient of 0.34. The vehicle also featured many innovative features, including:
- Power windows and mirrors
- Cassette/radio sound system
- Central locking
- Power steering
- Alloy wheels
Fourth Generation: The Penultimate Prelude Had A Curvaceous Design
The fourth-gen car was the most curvaceous Prelude yet: it ditched the angular design of past models and adopted curved panels. It also eschewed pop-up headlights, debuting with slim, wide lamps at the end of a long hood. The car featured a tall trunk lid and a sloped windshield. Honda would install a rear spoiler for $470 or if you opted for 4WS with the Si variant. It looked like a rear-drive sports car, but underneath, it was a trusty front-wheel-drive Honda.
Honda offered a variety of engines with the Prelude:
- A 2.2-liter 135-horsepower power unit for the S variant
- A 2.3-liter 160-horsepower engine for the SI and SE (1995-only variant)
- A 2.2-liter VTEC engine making 187 horsepower and 153 pound-feet
The VTEC, which featured variable valve timing tech, propelled the vehicle to 60 MPH in about seven seconds. Like previous generations, the car came with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. The Si had a lengthy list of standard equipment, including:
- Power steering and windows
- Dual vanity mirrors
- Air conditioning
- Driver-side airbag
- Cassette player
- Power sunroof
The fourth-gen Prelude has a bit of Formula history attached to it. In the early 1990s, Formula 1 organizers mandated race organizers to provide a safety car for each track. When F1 rolled into Suzuka, in Japan, the automaker nominated the Prelude (over the sportier NSX) as the race’s safety car.
The Fifth Generation Of The Honda Sports Coupe Was An Underwhelming Final Act
The Prelude’s styling changed slightly as the car moved into its final generations – it wasn’t as curvaceous as the model it replaced. However, it was still nice to look at. Mechanically, there wasn’t much difference between the fourth and fifth-generation cars. The only engine choice available was a 2.2-liter power unit churning out 200 horsepower. Models equipped with the four-speed automatic were rated at 195 horsepower.
(Specifications obtained from Honda)
Buyers could have the base model with an auto or manual gearbox; the high-tech Type SH variant only came with a manual. Honda abandoned four-wheel steering and introduced the Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS), an early version of torque vectoring. The system was designed to vary the torque sent to the front wheels depending on the steering angle and the car’s speed. It was an innovative way of combating understeer.
ATTS was only available on the Type SH (Super Handling) trim. Unfortunately, it was heavy, expensive, and unreliable, making it unpopular. The Prelude could no longer compete against the likes of the Fiat Coupe, Nissan 200SX, and Honda’s Integra Type R. Honda retired the nameplate in 2001.
Modern Prelude Showcased With A Sleek Concept Car
Honda showcased a sleek concept bearing the Honda nameplate in late October 2023. Despite the concept’s road-ready looks, there’s no guarantee the nameplate will return to our roads. If it does appear, it will have a hybrid powertrain. Unlike Preludes of the past, we don’t expect it to have a manual gearbox.
Honda’s electrification head honcho, Shinji Aoyama, indicated that Honda wouldn’t develop an artificial or simulated manual gearbox for its upcoming EVs. Alongside Honda CEO Toshihoro Mibe, Aoyama said Honda would find other ways to make EVs fun to drive.