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Used Honda Prelude review: 1996-2002

The fifth generation Honda Prelude sports coupe was greeted with dismay when it launched here in 1996. With styling that could best be described as ‘plain’ – some other less than kind motoring writers used terms like ‘bland’ and ‘boring’ – it seemed like a step backwards at first glance.

Prelude had been a much loved nameplate in the Honda family, and there was a feeling that Honda had somehow turned what had been a great sports coupe into something to appeal to the blue-rinse set.

If the looks were a let down for some, fortunately no-one was disappointed when it came to the driving experience. The ‘bland’ Prelude was anything but ‘boring’ once you climbed behind the wheel.

MODEL WATCH

After the aggressive curves of the preceding fourth generation Prelude the new model caused quite some consternation when the wraps came off at its Tasmanian launch in 1996.

Those who were looking to another aggressively styled sports coupe were left wondering if they’d wandered into a time transporter by mistake and been whisked back a couple of generations.

With its large unbroken surfaces, soft lines, and square headlights either side of a grille slot it appeared to have more in common with the third generation coupe than it did with the one it followed. For some it was too much, others reserved final judgement for the drive, after all it’s the drive that matters most in a sports coupe.

While Honda’s motives for the change in styling direction was hard to fathom at the time, it turned out that it was based on sound research which showed that the fourth generation failed to excite the market in the way the third generation had. Hence the apparent resemblance to the more popular predecessor.

The research also showed that Prelude buyers wanted room for rear seat passengers and more luggage space.

As a result the new model was 35 mm longer in the wheelbase, 25 mm higher thanks to a taller roof line, and 105 mm longer overall. All of that equated to a more comfortable ride for those consigned to the rear seats, and a larger boot for the luggage they wanted to take with them.

Along the way Honda’s engineers were able to increase the rigidity of the body, using thicker sheetmetal, more spot welds, more cross beams and heavier load bearing members, along with redesigned side sills and rear bulkhead. All of which added up to greater safety and reduced noise, vibration and harshness.

Rear seat passengers would also appreciate the changes made to the rear suspension mounts, along with the reinforced wheel houses, both of which helped cut annoying road noise.

Honda offered a choice of two engines, both 2.2-litre double overhead camshaft 16 valve four cylinder units with fuel injection, one with Honda’s renowned VTEC variable valve timing system.

If you chose the base Si coupe you got the 118 kW engine without the variable valve timing, but if you opted for the hot VTiR you got the sizzling 143 kW VTEC engine.

Transmission options were a slick shifting five-speed manual gearbox, and a new four-speed Sportshift auto. The auto trans was the big news, it offered the option of full auto function or race car style manual shifting for those times you felt like letting your hair down.

Honda also introduced the option of a smart new drive system, dubbed Active Torque Transfer System or ATTS, which transferred power to the outside wheel during hard cornering for better drive when the load was on that wheel.

On the road the Prelude had a wonderful poise that inspired the sporty driver, particularly when coupled to the fabulous VTEC engine.

There was also plenty of standard features. The Si boasted ABS, power steering, alloy wheels, cruise, central locking, power windows, and a four-speaker sound system.

When you ticked the VTiR box you also got air-conditioning, a leather trimmed steering wheel, and a power sun roof.

IN THE SHOP

Hondas generally stand up well to the rigours of a hard life, not that many Preludes are actually driven as hard as they might be, but you should anticipate regular brake pad changes.

Clutches can be a regular service item on manuals, and front tyres wear out quite quickly, particularly if driven with gusto.

Little trouble is likely with the body and trim, Honda build quality ensures they’re stitched together pretty well.

Inside, look for heavy wear on the seat side bolsters from occupants sliding in and out and brushing across the pronounced side support hump.

Lift oil filler on engine and peer inside looking for the presence of sludge that might indicate a lacking of servicing.

Check for a service record to verify maintenance has been done.

IN A CRASH

Earlier Preludes were rated average in the recent used car safety survey, but increased structural integrity, dual door beams, and a full width crossmember through the dash should mean improved crash protection on the fifth generation model.

Dual airbags also add to the Prelude’s overall safety picture.

OWNERS SAY

David Taranto’s 1999 Honda Prelude VTiR manual has covered 68,000 km with the only parts needing to be changed were clutch and brake pads so far. He says it’s a great car to drive, and averages 10 L/100km in peak hour traffic and with some spirited driving thrown into the mix.

LOOK FOR

• plain ‘love it or leave it’ looks

• improved roominess and luggage space

• great performance from VTEC engine

• safe balanced handling

• beaut auto with sports shift function

• renowned Honda build quality

RIVALS

• Nissan 200SX – 1994-2000 – $15,500-$31,000

• Toyota Celica – 1994-1999 – $17,000- $29,500

• Holden Calibra – 1991-1998 – $10,000-$23,000

THE BOTTOM LINE

Roomier, quieter, more refined sports coupe with brilliant handling and power train, but let down by ‘grandma’ looks.

RATING

70/100

Pricing

Year Price From Price To
2002 $3,400 $6,600
2001 $3,400 $6,600
2000 $3,400 $6,600
1999 $3,400 $6,600
1998 $3,000 $6,600
1997 $3,000 $6,490
1996 $3,000 $7,040

View all Honda Prelude pricing and specifications

Pricing guides

$5,020
Based on third party pricing data
Lowest Price
$3,000
Highest Price
$7,040

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
S 2.2L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $3,000 – 5,170 1996 Honda Prelude 1996 S Pricing and Specs
Si (4WS) 2.3L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO $3,800 – 6,160 1996 Honda Prelude 1996 Si (4WS) Pricing and Specs
VTi-R 2.2L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $4,400 – 7,040 1996 Honda Prelude 1996 VTi-R Pricing and Specs
Graham Smith
Contributing Journalist

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Pricing Guide

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Lowest price, based on third party pricing data

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