Monday, February 22, 2016

Cars We Still Adore: The Honda Prelude, especially the third generation BA series

One car that I wish Honda would bring back is the Prelude. The Honda Prelude is a two door coupe that was produced by Honda from 1978 until 2001. The two-door coupe was developed from the Honda Accord and spanned five generations.

The first (1978-1982) was one that basically looked like it had the front end of a first generation Accord and something else at the rear. The second (1982-1987), was a much nicer looking car that took after the third generation Accord but with pop up lights. The third (1987-1991) was an evolution of that design and actually looked like it took some cues from the Honda NSX (or the other way round). The fourth (1991-1996) , had a totally different hawk like look which some say was the best of the lot. The final, fifth generation one actually tuned down the looks a little and was conservative but had the same high tech outlook that made the third and fourth generation cars a pleasure to drive.

Today I shall talk about the third generation version, the BA series of Prelude. This car featured evolutionary styling from the previous generation of the Prelude. However, it shared design cues from the then upcoming  Honda NSX which was launched in 1989. This wedge shaped Prelude featured a 0.34 drag coefficient, usage of high tensile steel especially in those slim roof pillars (not many cars had slim pillars that were actually strong in those days) and in the late 1980s, a technological feat where the Prelude had the available option of one of the first (mechanical) four wheel steering system to be made available in a mass-production car. This was not an exotic. It was a Honda.

The third-generation Prelude was exclusively powered by variants of the Honda B20A engine, a base carbureted version with a SOHC 12-valve valvetrain, or a DOHC variant with Honda's PGM-FI fuel injection and 16 valves. But note that this isn't really the same engine as the famous B20B engine that most Honda VTEC enthusiast sing glorious tunes about. This was the base engine but internals were not the same. It made 114hp/157Nm in twin carburettor Prelude XX form up to the 160hp/178Nm Prelude Si form. The B20A engine was actually quite a good pre-variable valve timing (VTEC) engine and in those days, you could milk a fair bit from it (I know tuners used to get  200hp from it easily).

But the actual fun thing about this Prelude is not how fast it can go. 0-100kmh could be done in somewhere around or just slightly under 7.5 seconds for the 2.0Si manual (about 8.5secs for the automatic). Its maximum speed was around 210kmh. So it was merely a quick car. Not very fast but just quick enough to be sporty. What really mattered was the handling and the drive experience. 

The cabin was a nice place to be in. Plastics were of high quality and the seats, grippy yet comfy.

To be seated in a full specced version with four wheel steering is to experience surprisingly sharp handling and a butt to the ground skimming experience. This BA series Prelude used a mechanical four wheel steering that actually pointed at the same direction the front wheels were pointed up to a certain point of steering lock - 245 degrees of steering rotation actually. Cross into 246 degrees and the rear wheels would actually steer up to 5.3 degrees opposite from where the front wheels are turning (i.e if front wheels are going left, the rear wheels face to the right) and this actually makes the Prelude have an extremely small turning circle or radius. 

Note the angle of the rear tyre is slightly canted inwards.... compared to the front tyre facing outwards into a corner

You have to actually drive it to feel the difference. This Prelude (and ones that came after this - I also had a chance to drive the fourth generation one decades ago) had crisp handling. It may have looked long and low, but it turned like it was on rails The rear end of the Prelude was so responsive that you thought you were driving a smaller, shorter car. Parallel parking was a bit of a learning experience as the car turned into the parking spot much earlier than you'd anticipate. A U-turn in this car was a cinch. According to Road & Track magazine, they tested a 1988 Honda Prelude 2.0Si 4WS on their slalom track and it actually outperformed every car that was tested that year. It was fastest through the cones at a speed of 105.4kmh and even beat every Porsche and Ferrari tested back then. Somehow this time the technology actually worked superbly well. The BA Prelude was actually nice to drive with it. A front wheel drive car that felt like it had a very grippy front end that resisted understeer and with a tail that felt like it came into play mid corner. It was amazing. 

You have to add to that feeling where your butt actually felt like it was an inch or two from the road surface to the drive experience. The car was designed at a point of time when Honda made everything sit low to the ground. Some more exotic cars would not give you such an experience. Drive a lowered JDM spec EF Series Honda Civic for the same feeling if you cannot find a Prelude to sit in these days. Even the later EG Civics and fourth gen BB Preludes do not give the same butt skimming experience. It was built super low with its double wishbone front (and rear) suspension that allowed a very low front bonnet. Somehow this whole setup, which was first used in the previous generation Prelude was perfected for a super low front end even with the engine and driven wheels being in front. Because of this, the whole car and the seats were set low (but still had a very nice seating/driving position) to the ground giving a very, very sporty drive for something that was based on a family sedan (the Accord). 

I suppose I loved the Honda Prelude because of the new (at the time) technology that Honda packed into its chassis. Four wheel steering is a technology that actually worked quite well for a car with front wheel drive. It was also used in cars like the Nissan Skyline, the Mitsubishi GTO and even some Mazdas. In tour de force cars like the GTO and the Skyline GT-R is was used to tame the effects of a large car with tons of power. It this Prelude, it was used to make the front wheel drive chassis behave very sportily by making the car feel almost like a rear wheel driven sports coupe. 

The later fourth generation BB model and final fifth generation models used a electronic 4ws system that was pretty good. But it wasn't as robust as this mechanical one. And whilst it also corner like its one rails, looks more aggressive and added VTEC performance (about 200hp or so instead of merely the mid 150-160hp range), it is that super low butt skimming experience of this third generation model is remembered by yours truly. Like you are truly one with the road. And this is what matters sometimes.

And so I do wish Honda would come out guns blazing with another Prelude or a car of this sort. The last one was the DC5 Integra. The thing is that the JDM sports car line up does not even consist of a mid range technology demonstrator like what the Prelude was. The soon to be on sale NSX hybrid is actually like what the NSX was, expensive. The CRZ is a car that has potential but dissapoints with that weedy 1.5liter engine plus a tiny electric motor. The current Type-R Civic is fast, but its a hatchback. With four doors Goddammit. So there is actually no JDM Honda that looks like a coupe, feels like a coupe or goes like a coupe. Quite sad as even the boulevard cruiser that the Prelude evolved into, which is the current Honda Accord coupe is not sold as in Honda Japan's sports lineup.

I suppose we could blame the small and ever shrinking size of the coupe market over in Japan and the rest of the world for this loss. I think this is down to practical shopping trolleys called hot hatchbacks. But that doesn't stop me yearning for another one to come along from Honda. 

Honda Prelude (Generation 1, 2, 4 & 5)
This 1st Gen model looks unbalanced to my eye....
...this one is better looking with the pop up lights....
...but this hawk eyed looking is the most aggressive looking Prelude of the all.
This one suddenly looked like a Nissan Sylvia...Honda thought the looks of the previous one alienated the traditional buyers of the Prelude but I think this was a little too conservative.

1 comment:

stevenpneh said...

Interesting writeup, Yes i do own and still having this 4ws 3gprelude. Love the handling, sharp cornering with a flick of my finger. Fast enough compare to many other car. But speed is not everything. Not complaining after 30years having it. Have the suspension and bushings replace with poly and feel like a Ferrari. Parts are still and possible to mods if you have the Skill. Reminder: dont answer the phone while driving and DONT TEXT while on the wheel.