MADISON, Illinois — A parking lot at Gateway International Raceway, pitched just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, contains an enormous expanse of asphalt pavement uninterrupted by barriers. That makes it an ideal site to mark off a serpentine autocross course with orange plastic traffic cones and test the mettle of Honda's high-tech sports coupe, the Prelude Type SH.
Cast in a low stance, with a dipping nose and a high wing spoiler flying off the back deck, the fifth-generation Prelude represents a pinnacle of sports car execution. It confirms Honda's penchant for helpful gadgets and gizmos, for practicality and dependability, for taking that middle-of-the-road position which counters extremes of sportiness in powerful acceleration and impish agility with comfort and convenience.
In the past, Honda has used the Prelude to show off its latest clever engineering advances. In 1988, for instance, Honda's four-wheel steering system debuted on a Prelude, and in 1993 a Prelude became the first Honda to receive the wizardry of sophisticated VTEC valve timing for its aluminum engine.
Showing off with the SH
This year, Prelude Type SH shows off Honda's active torque transfer system, which affects the controlled cornering characteristics of a rear-wheel-drive vehicle on one that applies power to the front wheels.
A car with a front-wheel-drive power delivery system may provide a traction advantage over rear-wheel drive on slick or wet pavement, but it can also fall prey to understeer — the tendency for a front-driver to push off its intended line nose-first.
The Prelude's newest device, Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS), counters this inclination to push. On-board sensors sample Prelude's wheel speed, steering angle and any lateral slippage, then a computer analyzes the data to see if the car actually follows the driver's chosen steering line. If understeer is detected, the computer sends more engine torque to the outboard front wheel to compensate for slippage and point the nose back into the turn.
The autocross course demonstrated this effect in the first tight corner: as wheels began to push, the system took over in a subtle, magical way, seemingly pulling the car back into the turn to keep the front wheels on course.
It also accomplished the impossible for a front-wheel-drive vehicle by virtually eliminating torque steer, whereby the car pulls to one side when rapidly accelerating or drifts to the other when braking hard.
This latest high-tech Prelude begins with a platform adapted from the last model, only stretched slightly in wheelbase and overall length. These increases not only help to produce a smoother ride quality, but create more usable interior room, such as in the rear seat where previously passenger legroom was nil.
The platform follows in a line of Honda chassis upgrades, with steel added at key stress points to forge a stronger stage which resists torsional flex and bend tendencies typical for any car in motion. It's a safer car now, too, due to a full round of safety-oriented hardware, such as side-impact beams embedded in each door and twin airbags aboard for those riding up front.
Same motor, different thrills
Two models — a base Prelude and the wily Prelude Type SH — depend on the same VTEC-induced powerplant. The 2.2-liter four, with dual overhead camshafts, four valves in each cylinder, and multipoint programmed fuel injection, boosts total output to 200 hp. A manual five-speed is standard, but Honda's electronic four-speed automatic is optional on the base edition and comes with a neat twist. Dubbed Sequential SportShift, the automatic also functions as a manual when desired. One console-mounted lever serves as automatic shifter and clutchless shift-it-yourself manual stick.
Both editions wear Honda's remarkable double-wishbone suspension with stabilizer bars and sport geometry, and both stock variable-assisted power rack and pinion steering and power disc brakes with anti-lock controls.
Prelude's interior plan works well. With twin buckets up front and a modest bench for two in back, it essentially functions as a car primarily for driver and a front passenger in the manner of racy two-seat roadsters. Yet Prelude always did what the typical roadster could not — assume a user-friendly attitude, particularly when considering interior refinements.
instrument panel, in concise and no-nonsense design, positions bold analog white-on-black speedometer and tachometer immediately behind the padded steering wheel, with smaller round fuel and coolant temperature gauges flanking the larger ones. Climate control knobs mount on the dashboard beneath center vents in easy-to-reach positions, with buttons for the sound system set immediately below.
A new mesh grille now dresses all Preludes for 1999. Also, new exterior colors include Milano Red, White Pearl, Nighthawk Black Pearl, Ficus Green Pearl and Crystal Blue Metallic. Inside, black upholstery fabrics are in place, along with a new keyless-entry system and Micron air filtration.
Our tests in the Prelude Type SH confirmed that while this may not be the most powerful car in its class nor the most acrobatic, it feels good to drive and easy to accommodate — no need to read a thick driver's manual for Prelude, just buckle up and roll.
The only catch with the Prelude’s fantastic road manners and unflappable behavior is the cost. Even the base Prelude lists now for more than $23,000. Prices for Prelude Type SH go to $26,000 or more. If you want the best-handling front-driver in the world, you’ll have to pay.