Play-it-safe design for a surprising performer

Road test: Honda Prelude

They are toiling away in the Honda design department. The previous Prelude's allotted span is nearing its end - Japanese cars seldom stay long in production, for fear of inhibiting consumer demand - and the designers of its replacement are troubled.

What on earth can they do this time? Stay with the aggressively sporty theme brought in with the old one, all snarling nose, high fastback tail and Thunderbirds instrumentation? Or retreat into play-it-safe Prelude heartland, a boxier, gentler, more apologetic look, the better to please the blue-rinse set? That's how Preludes used to be, like it or not; sporty, but not too sporty. And that, the designers will decide with typical caution, is how it is to be again.

The resulting coupe looks unremarkable apart from its huge headlight lenses covering sculpturally stepped reflectors. The interior, though well made from high-quality materials (fake wood embellishment excepted) is equally uninspired; it could have come from any car maker. So far, then, there is little to light the fires of desire.

Yet under the Prelude's tidy but self-effacing skin lies some interesting mechanical hardware. In the 2.2-litre engine of the top models, there's a VTEC variable camshaft system which helps unleash a healthy 185bhp, and lets the engine roam free right up to 7,800rpm. The suspension is precise in its movements, sophisticated in its design, and incorporates rear-wheel steering which, among other things, helps you to manoeuvre in a tight spot, once you have learnt the wheels' unfamiliar trajectories.

This much the previous Prelude also had, but what is new this time around is the option of a four-speed automatic transmission with a "sequential sports shift", a device similar to the Porsche Tiptronic system which allows you to select gears manually by prodding the lever forwards to change up, or tapping it backwards to change down.

If the bulk of your driving is of the town and motorway variety, save up the extra pounds 1,200 and order your Prelude with the sequential shifter. That's because the manual transmission is tiresomely snatchy in traffic, the victim of wobbly engine mountings and a fierce clutch. But if you enjoy a good zoom along clear back roads, you must have the manual.

That's because it lets you exploit the engine's energy, which is concentrated towards the higher end of the speed range and calls for frequent gear changes. In the automatic, the gaps between the gears feel too wide to keep the engine interested, even when you're sequentially selecting them yourself. So you end up frustrated, because there's this fabulous-sounding, crackling-crisp motor, and you're denied access to its attributes. The gear shifts are jerky, too.

Either way, few cars corner as well as the Prelude with so little skill asked of its driver. That's where the rear-wheel steering's other trick comes into play. It turns the rear wheels, very slightly, in the same direction as the front ones, making the Prelude so agile through tight twists that it feels almost weightless. That has long been a Prelude party trick, so nothing has changed there. This can be an exciting car, given the right moment. Trouble is, to look at it you would never know.

Specifications

Price: pounds 22,295 on the road. Engine: 2,157cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 185bhp at 7,000rpm; five-speed manual or four-speed automatic/sequential gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed: 142mph, 0-60 in 7.3sec. Fuel consumption: 25-30mpg.

Rivals

Alfa Romeo GTV, pounds 20,350 Looks to fulfil every Alfa fantasy, with sharp handling and crisp performance to match. Prone to rattles.

BMW 323i Coupe, pounds 23,140 More space than the Honda, and a creamy six-cylinder engine. Expensive but still covetable.

Fiat Coupe 20V Turbo, pounds 21,244 Boldest styling of all, now with a fabulous five-cylinder engine to fulfil the promise. Best of the lot.

Nissan 200 SX, pounds 21,000 on the road. Lots of pace from turbo engine, but tricky to handle in the wet. Recently revamped.

Toyota Celica GT, pounds 23,582 on the road. Quick, capable and more interesting to look at than mainstream Toyotas. Shows its age.

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