1988-1991 Honda Prelude 4WS
About a year ago, I was searching for a car to replace my unloved 1992 Accord (AVOID), and I needed something reliable, relatively cheap, and easy on gas. Since I've had an extremely good experience with my 1989 Accord, I set out to find a Honda product that was made in that same time period.
Hondas of this vintage are cheap to run, reliable, and efficient, but what really makes them desirable is the fact that almost all models, from the base CRX to the larger Accord, have double-wishbone suspension.
While browsing the local classifieds, I came across a car that fulfilled all of my needs, fit within my budget, and shattered my expectations of just how good a small, older car could be.
The Prelude was a front-wheel-drive sports coupe produced by Honda from 1978 to 2001. With every generation, it grew larger, heavier, more powerful, and more refined. As attractive as the last-generation Prelude is, it's not what I was shopping for. It is a bit on the heavy side, a bit too big, and a bit out of my price range.
I've always held the third-generation Prelude
in high regard; it's rather light and small, the styling is similar to
my Accord, and some of them came with a four-wheel steering (4WS)
option. When I spotted a clean-looking example on Craigslist, equipped with the
infamous 4WS option, I jumped on it.
The third-generation Prelude looked similar to the previous generation but received a mild restyling; the exterior got about three inches longer and lost some of the gray plastic trim surrounding the headlights. Another unique aspect of the third-generation Prelude is its visibility. Thanks to very narrow, high-strength steel roof pillars, you're able to see 326 degrees around you, which is rather unprecedented.
On the inside, the interior is typical no-nonsense
Honda design. Everything is well laid out, easy to read, and easy to
reach. The seats are quite firm and supportive, with adjustable side
bolsters. Once you have them adjusted, you really feel like you're "in"
the seat, so you get the sense that you have plenty of grip for
high-speed cornering. Air conditioning, power windows, a moonroof,
cruise control, and power locks provide plenty of creature comforts.
The most important change from the previous generation is under the
skin--the Prelude now had double-wishbone suspension at all four corners.
What's so great about all this double-wishbone foolishness? The vast majority of vehicles have a traditional MacPherson strut suspension design, where the wheel is located with a single suspension arm and the compressible strut/spring assembly. In contrast, double-wishbone suspensions use two links to locate the wheel. This translates to a more precise wheel position and a better-handling vehicle. A side benefit is that, since there is no need for massive shock towers, the hood and cowl can be lower, which increases visibility and lowers drag. Another way Honda achieved such a low hood is by tilting the engine toward the rear by 18 degrees. Combined with the compact suspension design, that change helped Honda hit a coefficient of drag of .34.
Base models had a 105-horsepower twin-carb 2.0-liter SOHC engine, but the Si came with a 16-valve fuel-injected DOHC four cylinder that makes 135 horsepower at 6,200 rpm. That isn't a whole lot by today's standards, but then again, this car only weighs about 2600 pounds. Straight-line performance isn't incredible, but it is very satisfying thanks to a redline of 7,200 RPM and a visceral engine note that is similar to a sportbike.
Although this engine is old enough
to predate Honda's VTEC technology, it has a similar "kick" at
about 3,500 RPM. That sudden burst of power is the result of a
dual-stage intake manifold; at higher RPM an additional 51-mm runner is
opened with a vacuum servo. Also contributing to the driving experience
is the shifter. It is cable operated, so the shifting is far smoother
than a traditional shift linkage, and the design of the shifter itself
places it close to the steering wheel. Combined with a short-throw
design, shifting is very fast and snappy.
The most defining aspect of this car by far was the $1,300 four-wheel steering option, a first for a production car. Today, many question the system's reliability, as many 4WS vehicles have had issues with leaking hydraulic hoses, problematic electrical components, and alignment issues. Luckily, this generation doesn't suffer from any of these problems because the 4WS system is entirely mechanical. The steering rack has a small output shaft that runs beneath the car to a secondary steering rack, located between the rear wheels. It's easily identifiable; it looks like a small differential. With nothing to leak and no connections to become corroded, this 51-pound system will last the lifetime of the car with virtually zero maintenance.
The mechanics are simple, but the operation is anything but. The system is steering-dependent, which means
that the rear wheels initially turn with the front wheels. This
eliminates body roll and increases stability while changing lanes well
above posted speed limits. However, if you continue to turn the
steering wheel, the rear wheels revert back to nuetral, and then turn
in the opposite direction of the front wheels. This drastically improves
the car's maneuverability in sharp corners, regardless of speed.
Imagine your rear wheels coated with butter, and the rear of your car
slipping outward in a controlled fashion. Nothing is actually slipping
at all, but it's a very strange sensation when you aren't used to it.
Combining the elements of relatively low weight, decent power, amazing suspension, and four-wheel steering, the third-generation Honda Prelude was a world-beater in the handling department. Road & Track tested it in 1988, and the Prelude flew through the 700-foot slalom at 65.5 mph--faster than any other production car available. Even today, that time is still very respectable, faster than the Mazda RX8, the Acura NSX, the Lotus Esprit, the C5 Corvette, and even the Dodge Viper GTS. The scariest thing is this was all achieved on the stock 195/60/R14 Michelins.
I knew the handling on this car was going
to be pretty incredible when I bought it, but once I got used to the
odd sliding sensation of the rear wheels I was absolutely blown away.
After a few weeks of throwing it around right-angle corners at 40 mph, I did
what any logical enthusiast would do--added more grip. I had a set of
15-inch alloys from a 1994 Acura Integra GS-R laying around, so I had them
wrapped in Dunlop Direzza tires with an AA traction rating. The car's
handling abilities went from fantastic to completely, totally
insane. Now I'm not sure where the limit of grip is, but it lies far
beyond the limits of my bravery.
After owning this car for roughly a year, I'm very satisfied with it. It drinks fuel at a respectable 27-33 mpg, and it's very reliable, comfortable, and cheap to maintain. Like anything else, it does have a few downsides. For one, the rear seat is just for show. I cannot imagine any use for it, other than maybe a possibly a child seat--rear legroom does not exist. The Si was designed for performance, so fifth gear is not very steep and highway trips become relatively annoying. I have read that some people have swapped in the fifth gear from an Accord transmission, but that sounds complicated enough that I'll wait until I have a real garage. The sound system was also extremely disappointing. I quickly remedied that with a Sony MP3 CD player and a new set of cheap 6.5-inch speakers.
By far the biggest
downside to owning a car like this is getting stuck in traffic or
driving on straight roads. Here in southeastern Wisconsin, we lack
entertaining roads; most are straight, flat, and boring,
which fails to take advantage of this vehicle's amazing capabilities. One other
thing to consider is that the age of this car places it firmly in the
deepest valley of depreciation, so in the years to come, it will only
start to appreciate. In the past year, even though we've put over
15,000 miles on it, the Blue Book value hasn't moved at all.
Overall, the car is absolutely fantastic. These models are getting harder to find in decent condition, but if you keep your eyes open you'll start running across quite a few. If you find a clean example, go for it. You'll be rewarded with a vehicle that's on the brink of becoming a collector car, has established itself as an extremely reliable form of transportation, and, in my opinion, is one of the best performance bargains available today.
The yellow '89 Si is mine, and I found the photos of Uklude's beautiful 91 Si on Flikr. The engine shot is from racinghonda.com. Below I've attached two videos. The first one shows the 4ws system in action, the second should give you an idea of how well this thing handles.
--Rob the SVX Guy
PS: Be gentle, it's my first post. :P