The fifth and final Honda Prelude was objectively the best, and this particular 1999 Honda Prelude Type SH with less than 400 miles on its odometer is inarguably the finest left. Its simple design has aged gracefully, and the driving experience makes you realize what cars have lost in the last two decades.
(Full disclosure: Honda let me drive this and a couple cars at a media event celebrating the manual transmission and the company’s heritage. Out of respect for these irreplaceable artifacts, I only drove each for a short period.)
I wasn’t old enough to drive when when the ’99 Prelude was new, but I was already obsessed with cars. Hondas in particular. And yet, I can’t remember how I felt about these until about five years later when I realized the rear quarter somewhat resembled a Nissan Skyline and “hey maybe you could put a bodykit on it and fool people.”
Thank god I couldn’t afford a Prelude when that seemed appealing.
It looks like I actually could afford one now, but I have a feeling that’s going to change as the tsunami of ’90s car nostalgia gets ready to flood us all. This Prelude will start to pick up in value once people realize how well it embodies its era.
The ’90s get caricatured with neon and laser graphics and Surge soda but plenty of people were living in bland condos, cubicles and khaki pants. Normcore never really goes out of style, which is probably why the fifth generation Prelude still looks so damn good 20 years after it was fresh.
This car looks large in photographs, but if you haven’t seen one in person for awhile I can assure you it fits handily into the most modest garages. Honda’s spec sheet puts the measurements for this pair of sensible slacks on wheels at 178 inches long, 69 inches wide and just shy of 52 inches tall.
The SH was the good one with the 200(!) horsepower 2.157-liter H22A4 DOHC VTEC inline four-cylinder and five-speed manual transmission. It tips the scales at 3,042 pounds.
That’s a pretty lean curb weight by today’s standards, which becomes apparent as soon as you open the door. It’s long, but it’s light, and climbing into the driver’s seat is easy enough. (Don’t bother trying to get into the back, it’s for babies and grocery bags only.) Only once you’re inside, you may find your arms and legs touching plastic at all times.
At a gangly six-feet and 160-odd pounds, I felt completely cocooned by this car and I’m pretty sure my hair was making contact with the headliner. Opening the sunroof, which has to be deployed outside the vehicle because the roof is so short, helps alleviate claustrophobia somewhat. If you like to feel “one with your car,” the Prelude makes an excellent proposition.
The dashboard has the same relaxing simplicity I saw in the ’99 Civic Si I drove recently except unlike that car, which at least has a distinctive tachometer, the Prelude’s gauge pod is basic enough to be next to “gauge pod” in an encyclopedia.
I have to imagine this interior was kind of a letdown to people expecting some kind of on-the-low sports car, but in today’s landscape where even the humble Toyota Camry is designed to look like alien architecture, a clean cockpit is awfully refreshing.
It also gives you a lot of leeway to appreciate the drive itself.
Moving the gearshift into first is easy and welcoming. The clutch goes down with just-more-than-light resistance, and a medium-short throw gets the stick where it needs to be.
The transition to motion is completely idiot-proof and as you’re underway, the car moves through gears like John Cena pumping 10-pound dumb bells. There’s a bit more of a rubbery quality here than in Honda’s best transmissions (S2000, Civic Type R) but the action is satisfying enough to be memorable.
Leaning into the throttle a little more, the engine produces a distinctive induction noise I did not expect. Once you get north of 5,000 RPM and VTEC opens up to provide extra air and fuel flow, another note of raspiness joins the chorus.
As we’ve discussed before, VTEC doesn’t really deliver a palpable power surge. But it does let the car sip fuel at low RPM (Honda claimed this car could hit 27 mpg) while being genuinely exciting at higher revs.
Snap off a couple shifts closer to redline and the sensation of speed is strong. Thanks to a low seating position and sloping windshield, the Prelude SH’s pace when pushed still feels exciting. Where I expected it to wiggle, a typical byproduct of driving front-wheel drive cars hard, it tracked fairly true.
You can definitely feel the weight of the car leaning around once you start linking turns, but it’s not bad. I might just say the car rolled enough to feel alive, without its balance becoming upset, but the vehicle does feel significantly heavier than its contemporary Civic when it’s driven hard. Traction was solid to the upper end of my comfort zone though, but I’ll be honest, my comfort zone was well short of this car’s limits considering the fact that it was an un-broken in museum piece.
The car’s responsiveness might have had something to do with Honda’s Active Torque Transfer System system, which Prelude fans will probably wonder why I haven’t mentioned yet. This was a major marketing point for the Type SH and theoretically worked to counteract understeer that plagues performance front-wheel drives.
You could pretty much call ATTS an early iteration of torque vectoring. Basically, the Prelude SH was able to send more power to whichever front wheel had the most grip by running calculations from the ABS and other sensors that told the car’s computer what its load and steering angle situation looked like.
Based on that information, which of course had to be processed in milliseconds, ATTS engaged small clutches to distribute power from the engine.
The long, sweeping turns of Angeles Crest Highway, where I took my test drive, is a great place to get the most out of such a system. Without driving a non-ATTS car right before or after this one, it would be tough to say “I really felt the difference” but I have to admit the Prelude SH didn’t exhibit any understeer to speak of while I was driving it.
Revisiting the 1999 Prelude SH in 2018 left me with a lot of the feelings you would expect if you have any memory of what cars were like in the ’90s: The old car’s simple design feels good now, and what do you know, it still looks sharp.
The vehicle doesn’t exactly feel fast but its performance holds up as swift, at least. The interior is clean and robust. There are not many buttons to push but that ones that are there all return your touch with a satisfying click. The car’s compact footprint, wheel size and personality will take you back to a time when performance and efficiency didn’t also have to make so many compromises with convenience and safety.
It’s nice to be surrounded by airbags and connectivity in today’s cars, but the further we get from the ’90s the more pure these cars are going to feel.