Top Reviews of 2020: Honda Prelude Type SH Retro First Drive

Autoblog wasn’t around for the literal first drive review, but as they say, it’s better late than never. Take a trip down memory lane in our latest retro first drive.

 “Designed to be an aggressive sports coupe with superior handling, the Prelude is intended to appeal to drivers who will appreciate its high level of performance and refinement,” the press release for the 1997 Honda Prelude reads.

And that’s just the first sentence. Paragraphs and pages of technical details follow, all explaining why the Prelude’s new fifth-generation model was far superior to the already outstanding previous car. Maybe Honda product planners knew it at the time, or maybe they didn’t, but this was to be the last of many generations of Prelude. The audience was to be no different than before. The Prelude would remain a pricey two-door, aimed at buyers wanting something fun, but more mature, stylish and special than a Honda Civic Coupe.

Superior handling with advanced handling technology played a pivotal part in past Preludes. For example, Honda’s four-wheel-steer system debuted in the Honda Prelude in the late 1980s. This new Prelude was no different in its pursuit of front-wheel-drive perfection, specifically, the Prelude Type SH.

To solve a front-wheel-drive car’s natural tendency to understeer when powering out of corners, Honda introduced the Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS) for the new, range-topping Prelude Type SH. It’s no lame brake-based torque vectoring system, either. No, ATTS steers the car and increases the amount of torque going to the outside wheel to counteract that tendency to understeer. It’s rather complex, too. A battery of sensors collects all the necessary road and car information, then a computer determines how much torque should be applied and how much faster the outside wheel should rotate compared to the inside wheel. Torque is sent through a differential to a planetary gear set in the Moment Control Unit (this is the magical piece that multiplies the rotational speed) and then back through the differential to the outside wheel. The MCU is capable of raising the outside wheel speed by 15%, and the car is ultimately capable of sending up to 80% of the drive force to that outer wheel.

There’s plenty of drive force to send to those wheels, too, because our 1999 Honda Prelude SH test car is packing a 2.2-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder good for 200 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque. It has 5 hp more than the 1997 and 1998 model years, and oh yeah, it totally has VTEC. Redline isn’t as high as most VTEC-equipped Hondas, but this one still goes to 7,400 rpm. What it loses in revs, it makes up for in torque, as it’s a bit larger in displacement than other high-po Honda four-cylinders.

Shifting is best taken care of by yourself with a five-speed manual transmission — the tight ratios keep the power on boil when shifted near redline. There was a four-speed automatic transmission available, but to this day, you lose 5 horsepower and the car’s soul when picking it. It also couldn’t be combined with the SH’s ATTS.

Even non-Type SH cars enjoy spectacular handling because Honda utilized a four-wheel double-wishbone suspension design. It was revised for the fifth-gen car, and brought handling, ride and other advantages to the Prelude — Honda pointed out the design’s “almost universal use on high performance and racing cars.” Touché. One less obvious benefit is a lower hood line and cowl, since there’s no need for a tall strut tower up front. Being able to see more of the road ahead is rather nice. Who’d have thunk it?

From the driver’s seat, it’s 100% standard Honda running gear. A basic and easily readable instrument cluster stares back; a far cry from the retro, digital landscape of a dash on the fourth-gen Prelude. By extension, it’s also less interesting. Honda lists (too many to recount here) ways it went about reducing noise and vibrations in this generation of Prelude, but there are relatively few luxuries, even in the Type SH. It has a sunroof, but the only seats available were cloth and are manually operated. The basics like cruise control, manual climate control and power locks are present, but the fourth-generation car could be made more luxurious, and perhaps Honda at the time was holding back some niceties to maintain a case for buying the aging Acura Integra.

The Prelude starts up quietly, and the lack of torque below 3,000 rpm doesn’t encourage a search for more up high. Driven without purpose, it’s a perfectly pleasant daily driver that doesn’t disturb the passengers. The suspension is comfortably compliant, and it accomplishes its goal of being refined in the cabin. Really, nothing about this car screams sporty initially.

A different car wakes up when the tach needle swings past 5,000 rpm. The staid coupe turns into a howling “aggressive sports coupe.” Yes, Honda’s description was apt. A sonorous roar enters the cabin, increasing in volume and musicality as 7,400 rpm approaches. It’s a simple, but pretty sound, one we could get used to listening to day in and day out. It revs quickly, too. First gear goes by in a flash. A quick stab at the light clutch pedal and short pull into second gear is satisfying, and then the angry bees are back. The car isn’t spectacularly quick by any measure (Car and Driver measured the sprint to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds in 2019, which was roughly the same as when new), but the power band encourages your right foot to stay down. It gets stronger and surges forward with increasing tenacity all the way until it’s time to grab another gear and start the process over.

As an empty roundabout approaches, it seems the perfect opportunity to see what the ATTS can really do. Instead of the front end washing out in a sea of screeching rubber mid-corner, the nose tucks in obediently, and the car silently passes through to the other side. Now that was strange. No understeer, no oversteer. A similar result occurs on each subsequent corner the Prelude Type SH is tossed into. There’s no fuss whatsoever. Instead of fighting the car through the corner, it easily picks up speed, and the outside wheel sends it through to the other side like a slingshot. The effect is most noticeable in tighter corners where the inside front wheel would traditionally spin up under power and slow you down. That just doesn’t happen in the Type SH. It makes driving fast easier and more enjoyable, all while silently operating in the background. It greatly lessens the negatives of driving a front-wheel drive car, but let’s not sell this chassis short.

The steering rack isn’t lightning-quick, but it’s full of feel and communicates the road conditions and cornering forces right back to the driver. There’s enough compliance within the structure to soak up bumps on poor roads mid-corner without becoming unstable, aiding driver confidence to keep pushing. From a numbers perspective, the 63/37 front/rear weight distribution doesn’t look good. The engine sits way too far forward up front, but Honda still managed to make this car feel balanced around corners. The body roll is controlled enough to let the car handle quick transitions without getting out of sorts. Stiffer shocks would likely quell a bit of the slop, but then the enjoyable ride would deteriorate along with it.

By today’s standards, the Prelude’s power and handling tech still holds up. That low rpm shove from little turbocharged engines is obviously nowhere to be found, but that’s just a great excuse to keep the revs up and experience the stupid-quick throttle response you get up top. 

The ATTS evolved both in philosophy and technology into the SH-AWD tech available on most new Acuras, so one could say that the Type SH eventually led to the company’s current day torque vectoring control. In practice, the Type SH feels like some new front-wheel-drive performance cars with a limited-slip differential. It’s best compared to others like the Civic Si, Civic Type R and Veloster N in its effect. Those cars are quicker, but they all do a bang-up job of tugging you through corners faster than you otherwise thought you’d be going. You do have to be patient with the Prelude’s steering — it’s not anywhere near as quick as new sports cars — but hey, the tires can actually talk to you through the wheel!

Adjusted for inflation, the 1999 Honda Prelude Type SH would cost around $40,000 today. You can pick up any number of clean used examples for less than $10,000, but expect to pay more for a Type SH, such as the several that have sold on Bring a Trailer. They won’t be as nice as this pristine museum piece, but a Prelude is versatile enough to be your daily, canyon and track car. Find one before they get as expensive as other old Hondas.

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