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1988-1991 Honda Prelude 4WS

Img_4108 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.

Red 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.

Img_4109On 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.

Enginelandscape1Base 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.

Img_4105The 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.

2693261039_8d5feaae72_b 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.

Img_4104 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  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


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Well, it worked:
The first thing I did upon finishing this article was to see if there are any in my area, and how much they cost...

A coworker of mine had one of these, albeit without the 4WS option. It definitely fell in the "ridden hard and put away wet" category - I'm not sure how many miles it had by the time I saw it, but it was definitely in the "requires scientific notation to express" category.

They're nice looking cars, and definitely have performance chops. What kind of spoils them for me is that, when these cars came out, I was a kid living in Southern Cal, and just about EVERYBODY got one of these. They were almost Camry-ubiquitous. Of course, that Honda was able to make a mainstream car into a respectable performance vehicle is a credit to their engineering and manufacturing departments, but, in a way, they were the first car to exemplify the "if everybody's special, then nobody is" quote from The Incredibles. This was the car that proved it was possible for everybody to have a "special" car, instead of tolerating some mediocre soul-sucking jalopy that could barely move out of its own way on the freeway - though we all get better cars because of that, it also means that cars are, in a way, nowhere near as interesting anymore.

Great write up Rob. This has to be one of the all time great cars and few people know how amazing it is. The R&T slalom numbers were only limited by the stock 14-60 tires. With sticky fat 15 or 16's there's I'm pretty sure that there is nothing that can touch this car. We are talking super car slalom times - or better.

The low speed tail on butter sensation is odd - but rapidly becomes part of the fun of the car. Once used to it any other car would feel strangely lacking.

The thing that struck me about the stock 89 I drove was how fast it set up for a turn and how completely neutral and controlled it was. No need to push or pull, no secondary effects in the suspension as it takes a set for a turn. A quick adjustment of the wheel and you are set. Then it is as if you were on rails. Neither the tail nor the nose need any jostling or excessive management.

I did not get to run this in any canyons. I got some very fast sweepers. I got some tight curves and challenging transitions. But I can imagine it in my favorite canyons, and I can't think of anything better for those roads. It would be nimble beyond belief for hair-pins. Stable and neutral on sweepers, and agile but not at all finicky on sharp bends and transitions.

Above all it does this with comfort for a 6'3" frame. The visibility is terrific. The sun roof is of course standard and perfect. For taller drivers the only mod I would suggest is if you can drop the seat by an inch or so you will improve the upper edge of the windscreen visibility.

I understand the that 90 and 91 had very hard cylinder walls that made the consume a little more oil than the previous years, but they also resisted wear.

The only problem is finding one. If you can - if its not rusted out. Buy it! Great great car. You really nailed all the details in this post. Lucky bugger!

I owned an '87 (Gen 2) and a '94 (Gen 4) and wish I had both of them back. The '87 was the most fun I've ever had in a car; it handled like nothing else, even without 4WS . The '94 had a much more powerful engine, and lots of toys, but the best part of it was the electroluminescent dash. I'd go on dates and people's eyes would bulge out when the ignition key was started. The dash started out black, then the needles on the gauges would light up bright red, all the warning lights would come on, and the gauges would illuminate. It was like a four wheel Christmas tree. Come on Honda, get your act together and give us a new Prelude

Very nicely done--both the car and the writeup. Since your training is in design, you picked up on the importance of a lot of interesting design-geek details that the rest of us would miss.

Maintenance-free mechanically-linked 4WS: sweeeeeet. Why is this not standard equipment on every small two-seater in the world?

Nice!! I love the 2nd and 3rd generation Preludes! I always wanted one. I remember when the 4WS Preludes were introduced. I think the only other production car with 4WS was the Mazda 626 at the time. It had an electronically controlled setup. I currently own a '93 Integra LS which I love. If I had the money, I would collect Preludes and Integras.

You might like this Telegraph article from the brilliant LJK Setright. I've put the link on on this comment if the one below doesn't work

"An appearance in Honda New Zealand advertisements [inc one featuring the Prelude] in the 80’s meant many Kiwi’s were familiar with Setrights distinctive appearance, if not his status as a writer. Apparently this caused some controversy in the auto publishing industry, questioning his impartiality, but anyone who read his work would know he admired Honda engineering long before doing this."

This quote is from my own LJKS Obituary at;

Excellent first post! I too immediately hit up auto trader looking for a good, low-mileage example. I found one, but it's an auto - euhhh. Anyway - I will keep my eyes open - I'd love a cheap little 'toy', and could easily sell the wife on such a thing...

My high school sweetie had an 88, 2.0, non-4ws. I loved that car and probably put at least 10,000 miles on it myself - often with 150+ lbs of scuba equipment in the trunk. She had over 250k on it when she somehow caught it on fire (she had a weird ability to do that - it was the second car she torched while driving)...

Seems to be affordable:
Interesting, good stuff there.

I mean your article, not the craigslist ad ;)

Great post, my first car back in 1996 was ALMOST a 1991 Prelude Si 4WS in this funky brown color:

I loved how it drove and have never seen another that color since. My dad finally talked me out of it that it was too nice for a first car, and in retrospect he was probably right. I settled for a much cheaper VW but still have a lust for this generation of Prelude in top shape.

If you want to really salivate, check this one out:
It was just sold to a local buyer for $6000, and IMO worth every penny.

@ David: Well, the preludes of this vintage are approaching collector status very quickly, both my accord and my prelude will be eligible for collector plates next year. Which is weird. But what I'm trying to say is that now, most people have moved on. While they were originally "played out" in your area, I doubt that is the case now. The vast majority are in disrepair, have horrid modifications, or have rusted beyond all recognition. Driving a clean one definitely sets you apart on today's roads.

@ Clancy: The point of this article was that you don't need to find a low mileage example. The yellow one that I picked up had 135,000 miles on it, and was in fantastic shape. Again, with hondas like this, mileage doesn't really matter. Maintenance and care do.

@ Shawn: Yeah, but that was an automatic. I saw that auction, and it really sucks that something that nice has an auto. That completely kills any sort of car lust for me. Small cars should have 5spds, period.

Wow, an LJK Setright mention. I didn't expect that!

"... the Americans are hopelessly vulgar and meanly engineered ..."

Sounds like LJK. :-)

The Prelude has aged really well. I never liked it when it was new - it just seemed to easy, too clean, too sleek, too short on character. Now, of course, its wedgy lines are very pretty, very nicely executed. And there's something about those late 1980s early 1990s Honda interiors that just feel right, with great visibility, good comfort, without being overly fancy.

These were often dubbed the best-handling front-wheel drive cars of the time.

I'm not sure a Prelude would be at the top of my list if I was shopping for a used sports car, but it certainly would be on the list, something that wouldn't have been true 15 years ago.

rob the SVX guy: "Driving a clean one definitely sets you apart on today's roads."

Indeed. My wife's '91 (she is the original owner):
It has over 160K miles on it. She is constantly being asked if she is interested in selling it. For the record, the answer is a sweet but emphatic, "NO." And to think that at the time she bought it she was also considering a Ford Probe. The horror!

Good piece, rob.

Chris Hafner: "The Prelude has aged really well. I never liked it when it was new - it just seemed to easy, too clean, too sleek, too short on character. Now, of course, its wedgy lines are very pretty, very nicely executed. And there's something about those late 1980s early 1990s Honda interiors that just feel right, with great visibility, good comfort, without being overly fancy."

I think you hit it Chris -- the design is so CLEAN, and the interior is so comfortably thought out. Interestingly, when we recently rented a new Accord for a road trip, my wife hated it. Coming from her Prelude perspective, the interior was clunky and the visibility poor.

One more thing: don't you just love pop-up headlights?!!!

OldCarGuy: "And to think that at the time she bought it she was also considering a Ford Probe. The horror!"

If the Prelude has aged well, the Probe has aged really, really badly.

OldCarGuy: "One more thing: don't you just love pop-up headlights?!!!"

Yes, yes, and absolutely yes. Even when I had to get out of my Celica and beat on the headlight to get it to pop up, I still loved them.

Why do you say AVOID for the 92 Accord? Really it has most of the advantages of the Prelude of the same era, 2700 lbs., and has a little more room. And the 92 did away with the horrid motorized seat belts.

Brian: No it doesn't. You're thinking of the 3g Accord, which was produced from 86-89. That is the one that looks like this prelude, is about the same size, etc. The 4th generation accord, produced from 90-93, is a horrible, HORRIBLE car. I learned to drive on one. It's a lot bigger, a lot heavier, it has a very firm ride, yet it plows in corners. It doesn't have double wishbone suspension. And most importantly: It's absolutely hair pulling to work on. You see, the wonderful 4th generation Accord (and I think 5th and 6th) all have "Bearing over rotor" technology. It was easier to press the bearings into the rotor, then assemble it, so if you want to do brake work, you need to disassemble the front suspension, ruining your balljoints. Then you need to get the bearing pressed out of the rotor, and get it pressed into your new rotor. What takes 15-20 minutes per side in my 3g Prelude, 3g Accord, or SVX is impossible to do in your driveway with the 4th generation Accord. I hated that car.

I just bought an 89 2.0si 4WS with 150,000 miles, no rust, great body, good paint, everything works, for $2000 in downtown San Fran!
What a steal.
Only problem is it vibrates some on acceleration. I bought it anyway because I figured it was struts or something and will be worth repairing whatever it is... engine is strong and the chassis is tight otherwise.
Thanks for your post!
- Ian

The first car I ever bought with my own money as a youngster was a then 10-year old 1985 Prelude. Three cars later, it's still far and away my favorite. A friend of mine had a beautiful cherry red 1988 Si (which he lately totaled - moron) in high school, and I absolutely loved that car. When I finally had the money saved up, I was determined to buy one. Got it for $2500 cash - base model, dark blue with a gray interior, and a sunroof. From the moment I first drove it I was hooked - even though it wasn't a powerful car, it was so light that it felt very quick in traffic. The popup headlights were indeed cool as all get out the first time I flipped them up. The handling was terrific - it was a godsend in LA traffic. The mileage was excellent, the interior was comfortable (except for the ridiculous back seat - even children would be cramped back there), and it was extremely reliable. I drove it for 5 years and about 80K miles, until a timing belt went and the engine was basically destroyed. By that point, rust was creeping up and there were leaks in the trunk and the rear floorboards.

I don't think I'll ever own a car that is more fun than that Prelude was.

I have an 89 Prelude SI with 4WS and I love it.I've had quite a few cars and it is by far my favorite.If you run across one,BUT IT.:)

But it?

I just want to say "Thank you!" Your article is both enthusiastic and informational. I just traded in my 1993 Nissan 300ZX for a '90 Si 4WS Prelude with 105k miles. I owned a 90 CRX some years back and was looking to find another one, but after reading your article I figured one of these would be nice to try. Let me say, the similarities with the CRX are striking, but I'm quickly taking to the Prelude. I can't yet say I like it better, but it might be more sentimental preference for the CRX than anything else. Coming out of the Z, the Prelude didn't have the same off-the-line thrill, but quickly made up for it in every other way. If only it a cup holder...

Thank you so much for the extremely informative article! I have been looking for a second car for quite a while now and found an 88 prelude 4ws on my local craigslist. It seemed interesting so I googled it and found your article. Needless to say, after reading it I absolutely HAD to take a test drive. Coming from a guy that owned two 2nd gen RX-7's and a Toyota Supra this car blew me away! It was all I could do to keep from smiling when I got back from the test drive. (I didn't want the seller to know just how much I enjoyed it so I had room for negotiation). Long story short, I bought it and drove it home the next day and haven't looked back since! Seriously this has to be one of the best kept secrets in the used car markets.

The popup headlights were indeed cool as all get out the first time I flipped them up. The handling was terrific - it was a godsend in LA traffic. The mileage was excellent, the interior was comfortable (except for the ridiculous back seat - even children would be cramped back there), and it was extremely reliable. I drove it for 5 years and about 80K miles, until a timing belt went and the engine was basically destroyed. By that point, rust was creeping up and there were leaks in the trunk and the rear floorboards.

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