How a 21-year-old car re-taught me how to drive.
I remember when I fell in love with driving. I was on the famed Tail of the Dragon, a 318-turn ribbon of asphalt sprawled across the North Carolina and Tennessee border, behind the wheel of my 2006 Mini Cooper S. It was early in the morning, and I was chasing some local in a Dodge Neon SRT-4; we had the road to ourselves. As I negotiated each bend in an effort to stay on the SRT's tail, I became more attuned with my car – it was like someone flipped a switch to where I now understood the little sensations through the wheel or the feel of the weight transferring from side to side. It was one of the seminal moments of my life.
I've grown since that epic run on the Dragon in 2007 and have been fortunate enough to drive some truly epic vehicles. But a funny thing happened in the 13 years since I chased that SRT-4: It became harder to feel out what cars were doing. Where cars once shouted at the driver, today they whisper, their voices hidden beneath a mass of computers and sensors and Adaptive This and Dynamic That. At the risk of going all “Old Man Yells At Cloud,” the things automakers herald as improvements might make cars safer, more efficient, and more capable, but for folks that value the driving involvement above all else, these new technologies don’t always make vehicles better.
It took a one-hour drive in a 1999 Honda Prelude Type SH to realize this. The museum-worthy car in question belongs to Honda and arrived in my driveway with just over 2,000 original miles. It's a time capsule of a vehicle, having covered fewer miles than most of the new vehicles I test each week.
My time with the Prelude was short, just a few days, so I was on the road as soon as it arrived. And for most of that journey, it was just a car. There was a gas engine – a naturally aspirated 2.2-liter four-cylinder – and a five-speed manual transmission. But that simple pairing is, in itself, a far cry from what most cars offer today.
Turbocharged engines occupy a far larger part of the new vehicle market today, offering drivers torque curves as meaty as a 72-ounce sirloin. Combined with CVTs that are smarter than ever or, in performance applications, automatic gearboxes that humble even the most talented human driver's shift speed, accelerating in a modern car is as effortless as squeezing the gas pedal.
The Prelude and its VTEC-equipped 2.2-liter punish this sort of lazy behavior. Honda may have rated the 200-horsepower four-cylinder at 156 pound-feet of torque when it debuted, but drivers only found that twist at a lofty 5,250 rpm. For comparison, the Civic Hatchback Sport Touring I reviewed a few weeks prior to the Prelude offered 162 lb-ft from 1,700 to 5,500 rpm. The modern, turbocharged 1.5-liter made that car effortless to accelerate in – simply tap the throttle and it surged ahead.
The Prelude and its VTEC-equipped 2.2-liter punish lazy behavior.
The old Honda demands far more attentive and strategic driving. From a standstill, you need to whip the four-cylinder to get it moving, as there's little shove below 3,000 rpm. But as the revs climb and the iconic, single-stage VTEC system switches to its high-performance cam profile, you'll quickly forgive its earlier malaise. With the prominent change in tone that made the VTEC famous, the Prelude feels more eager and willing. It's almost alive as the tach needle swings towards the epic 7,400-rpm redline.
At first, I felt guilty pushing this 21-year-old car so hard. Then, it became addicting. Every time the VTEC kicked in (yo!), a smile crept across my face. The sound profile is visceral and unfiltered, far more so than any newer car aside from maybe a Mazda MX-5 or similarly elemental sports car.
Shifting right at redline is mandatory to enjoy the Prelude. I say that without an ounce of hyperbole – shift too early, and the engine speed drops precipitously, so you'll have to work to get back into the VTEC-induced sweet spot. It's this strategy, this requirement to push the edge of the envelope, that makes the Prelude's old-school engine so damn endearing. You need to work it.
Shifting right at redline is mandatory to enjoy the Prelude.
Of course, the five-speed is a willing accomplice. Aside from the absence of a sixth gear, which would make the Prelude more tolerable on the highway, this buttery smooth transmission is sheer perfection. The throws are far longer than what you'd find on a newer car – in some ways, it reminded me of a current Jeep Wrangler – which is yet another foreign thing to account for under hard acceleration, but you forget about that when you hit your gate. Again, there's a tactility here that's missing from more modern products; you can feel the little vibrations rise and fall through the gear lever as engine speed increases or decreases. The clutch pedal is light and progressive, although the laggy (relative to modern cars) throttle and low torque means applying more gas at the catch point.
The entire experience of accelerating in the Prelude is far removed from a modern car. It requires a degree of thought and commitment that, sadly, is missing in today's instantly gratifying cars.
Remarkable as the Prelude's powertrain is, this car is at its best in the turns. And it's not because this old car is necessarily “good” – this front-wheel-drive Honda carries over 60 percent of its weight atop the rear axle, and the 2.2-liter engine sits well toward the front of the engine bay. As a result, it understeers quite aggressively, even with the Type SH's Active Torque Transfer System.
The primitive torque-vectoring setup should provide more neutral handling, but I certainly didn't experience that when I attacked my first turn. Aggressive freeway ramps are about as good as I can hope for when it comes to twisty roads in southeastern Michigan, so I set off for the nearest cloverleaf to do a lap.
Accelerating toward the first ramp, I started downshifting and rev matching. The pedals in the Prelude are just far enough apart to make that a challenge. As my turn-in point came up, I started to add steering angle. And then I added more. And more. I'd failed to account for the Prelude's far more relaxed steering.
The Prelude's hydraulic steering took time to bite, and by the time it did, I'd bungled the turn badly and sent the car into a fit of understeer.
The Prelude's 15.6:1 steering ratio isn't abnormal. The Mazda MX-5 Miata, for example, has a 15.5:1 ratio, and the Ford Shelby GT350's ratio is an even 16.0:1. But I was missing the immediacy, the instant application of steering weight you get in modern electric power-assisted steering racks. The Prelude's hydraulic steering took time to bite, and by the time it did, I'd bungled the turn badly and sent the car into a fit of understeer.
Refining my approach through subsequent turns, I started to embrace the relaxed steering and the way the ample body roll informed my rear end. The Prelude exuded feedback in each bend, with the hydraulic steering transmitting every little nugget about the road surface. That slow steering ratio meant I could make smaller, more precise changes to my steering inputs. This car's limits are low, but they're also far more accessible than what you'd find from a modern offering.
There was significant lateral body movement, but it was calm and predictable – a modern car, like the Civic Hatchback, is far more aggressive at turn in, taking a bite out of the road when suddenly presented with a lot of steering. In the Prelude, it was like every response from the suspension happened at a quarter speed. As I said, though, none of this goodness meant the Prelude is a particularly agile car. Understeer dominated the cornering experience, but there's not much you can do about physics.
I had the keys to that museum-quality Prelude for a few days, but that first drive was all it took to show me how far the automobile has come and what qualities need reclaimed. Cars are unquestionably safer, smarter, and more efficient. But they're also far, far easier to drive. This is not a bad thing per se – I appreciated the Civic Hatchback's accessible power and predictable, effortless handling character, and I’m sure the average consumer would be far more comfortable with these qualities than what the Prelude offers.
But after it left, I craved the feedback that the Prelude provided, and the way it refused to accept misbehavior. It's a car that requires thought and commitment from its driver. It took me back to what I first loved about driving – that sensation of a partnership between you and the car is what leads to impactful moments behind the wheel, like when me and my Mini chased down that SRT-4. For all the safety and ease of a modern compact car, I’d trade most of it for the kind of involvement you’ll find in an older vehicle like the Prelude.