It’s great to drive, but the new Prelude just doesn’t look the part. By Stephen Sutcliffe
On the face of it, the latest Honda Prelude is enough to put fire in the belly of any self-respecting European car nut. As an object to behold, it is sufficiently odd to make one wonder just what has happened to the Japanese, who not so long ago were heralded as the forthcoming force of contemporary car design, thanks to products as excellent as the Lexus LS400, Toyota MR2 and Honda CRX.
The problem with the Prelude is, of course, the way it looks. At best it is disappointingly styled. At worst it is plain ugly. For a coupe, sins come little more cardinal than this.
This is a pity because, once you have forced yourself to peer beyond the mis-proportioned nose and dumpy, saloon-like profile, what you will uncover is one of the most convincing and rewarding affordable coupes currently on sale.
Despite its technical trickery, such as the electronic four-wheel steering and VTEC variable valve-timed engine, the Prelude is an absolute hoot to drive, toting the sort of performance and handling responses normally only associated with cars originating from Italy, not Japan.
Also, unlike not only its predecessor but also most other £20-25k Coupes such as the Alfa GTV, Ford Probe and Toyota Celica, the Prelude has enough space in its rear seats and boot to make even some saloons seem cramped. BMW’s iconic 3-Series springs to mind as the most notable example.
The reason Honda has shifted direction with the Prelude and gone down a more conservative route regarding the styling and packaging, is simple enough. The company realised that coupe buyers want more space and practicality these days – commodities the strikingly styled old car sorely lacked. But it also knew there was little or nothing wrong with the way the previous Prelude drove and performed. Hence the mechanicals have remained largely unfettled.
That’s no bad thing as far as the top specification 2.2i VTEC model (£22,295) is concerned. As before, there is a storming 183bhp on tap at the front wheels. And as before the noise, character and response from this ultra-smooth four-cylinder engine is wondrous.
A Fiat Coupe 20v Turbo may be a little swifter than the Prelude VTEC theoretically, hitting 60mph in a shade over six seconds compared with the Honda’s seven, and running on to a top speed of 150mph as opposed to 140mph. But on the road, such is the Prelude’s stirring nature, there is considerably less difference between them than such statistics suggest.
This is especially so when the road turns twisty and the discipline becomes one of handling, rather than straightline speed. The Prelude is one of those all-too-rare front-wheel-drive cars that feels better planted to the road the harder it is driven.
Understeer in the dry is genuinely difficult to induce through fast corners, such is the level of grip afforded by the fat Michelin Pilots. Yet arguably the most remarkable feature in the Prelude’s repertoire is that all this is achieved with a degree of ride comfort than no Fiat Coupe or Alfa GTV can hope to emulate. It’s just a shame refinement is spoiled by the disturbing levels of road roar on coarse surfaces.
If the exterior styling is disappointing, inside it is plain dull. Although well-organised, the dash and facia design could emanate from any car in the current Honda line-up. Surely Honda could have been a little bolder than this?
In the end, the latest Prelude is too much of a mixed bag to warrant a universal thumbs up, despite being a cracker to drive. A blend of good looks, polished dynamics and useful practicality seems to be a combination that eludes Honda in this instance. Perhaps the company’s designers should take a good long look at the Fiat Coupe.