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FWD Champions: The Honda Prelude

August 17, 2011 by Matt

97-01 Honda Prelude

Honda really can work wonders with their front-wheel-drive architecture. Take the 5th-generation (’97-’01) Prelude—the example under consideration here—which Car and Driver declared in ’97, after a comparo, to be the best handling car available for under $30K. And even when, just for kicks, they pitted the car several months later against the $30K-and-up crop of cars, the Prelude, hampered by the inherent limitations of FWD and only 197 hp from its H22A 4-cylinder, posted a respectable mid-pack finish, garnering the same score as the brutally fast Viper GTS. It’s a remarkable achievement for a 3000 lb FWD car with 63/37 weight distribution.

97-01 Honda Prelude Interior

What makes the difference? In a word, details. As mentioned above, the ’97-’01 Prelude was the 5th incarnation of Honda’s top-of-the-line sporty coupe, so they really had perfected the formula by the time of its release. The ideal suspension setup for handling—double wishbones all around—laid a strong foundation, and the steering feel’s perfection was matched by the action of the typically slick-shifting 5-speed. And the interior, liberated of the previous generation’s universally-decried weirdness, was a paragon of no-nonsense ergonomic efficiency.

97-01 Honda Prelude

All that said, as you might expect, the attribute that moves the car from “that’s nice” to “I’d seriously consider one as a daily driver” territory is the styling. Again eschewing the hunchbacked oddity of the ’92-’96 car’s design, Honda wisely chose to normalize the proportions, free the flanks of any chunky cladding, and inject a little Nissan R32 Skyline into the profile. It gives the car an aggressive, upscale look that has aged very well indeed. The only questionable element is the portrait-orientation headlight treatment, but even that isn’t a dealbreaker. It’s an exceedingly handsome car, and between that and the universal acclaim heaped on its handling prowess, I’d drive one in a New York minute. Even if the front wheels are doing all the work.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: FWD Champions, Honda


  1. John D says:

    I know it’s really all about the nifty 80’s graphics on the seat cushions…

    You know, I never saw the Skyline-ish lines until you pointed it out. That rear quarter angle is quite nice. Good proportions and very tidy angle for the c-pillar. But I still can’t get past the flat shovel-nosed front bumper and lights. Not ugly, per se, but just odd enough to keep it from being a looker in my book. Never did get to drive one, but matching an early era Viper in handling isn’t exactly something to brag about, is it? But I do get your point.

    • Matt says:

      Hey, I’ll take nifty ’80s graphics on manual cloth seats over my power leather boat anchors any day. :)

      Y’know, about the nose, as a general rule I’m not a fan of body kits, but I do wonder if there are any out there that improve that aspect of the car? It’s like with the RX-8—I couldn’t own one unless I put on a Racing Beat front bumper; the stock “pinched smiley face” just kills it.

      The Viper GTS’s manners were much improved over the early car’s knife-in-the-back truck handling. Here’s the article, if you’re interested.

  2. areopagitica says:

    The Prelude that was the prelude to the fifth generation was hands down better to look at than this one. Furthermore, as an all wheel steer attempt it truly did succeed in fooling everyone at the Ford test track
    that it was a rear driver. No, I never spent any time in the fifth gen, but owned some S2000s. The AWS
    Prelude was a less edgy handling car that one could push to its limits with confidence. I would frankly
    also have preferred the S2000 to have been detailed as sleek as the fourth gen Prelude, but comparing
    a coupe to a droptop is not really valid. One note, all Honda performance cars seem to have specified
    unique and very soft rubber that delivered poor tread wear. Or required too much toe with the same

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