The 5th and final generation of the Honda Prelude was introduced to the world 20 years ago today, for model year 1997 in North America. It was popular at first, but its time in the spotlight was short-lived. Lots of words and pictures after the jump.

As the inspection sticker implies, I’ve been working on this awhile.

When the 5th gen came out in November 1996, the Prelude had slipped in sales over the past few years despite maintaining a good reputation. The 4th gen, while being critically acclaimed, was fairly expensive (a VTEC model would be over $40,000 in today’s money), and the styling was, to say the least, polarizing. The 5th gen was more conventional in looks, more geared toward comfort, and slightly less expensive in price when compared to its predecessor, and it was initially well-received. In North America, the 5th gen came in two trim levels: the base Prelude, and the Type SH (Super Handling), the latter adding a torque vectoring system known as the Active Torque Transfer System, or ATTS for short. Both trims carried the same engine, the 2.2L DOHC VTEC H22A4, making 195 HP with a manual transmission or 190 with an automatic. (Outside North America, there were non-VTEC 5th gens that ranged between 135 and 160 HP. No thank you.) The Type SH was a slightly neutered version of the JDM Type S, which had the ATTS but also carried a hotter 220 HP engine and some other exclusive bits. The SH was manual-only, while the base had an optional 4-speed SportShift automatic. The car, particularly the SH, was praised by the press, being one of Car & Driver’s 10 Best in 1997 and 1998, but within a year was overshadowed by two of Honda’s new offerings in the US: the smaller and lighter Integra Type R, available in Japan since late 1995 but introduced to North America (as an Acura, obviously) in summer 1997, offered better performance (albeit at a higher cost, less livable package, and about 100 times the likelihood of being stolen); and the new 6th generation Accord coupe, which, being designed and built in the US, was more affordable and more in tune with American sensibilities, offering better interior space and an optional V6 (that unfortunately came only with a failure-prone automatic transmission). Another year later, the Prelude got its mid-model refresh, which was pretty minor, consisting of a few interior and exterior changes, paint color changes, and a small bump in horsepower to 200 in the manual and 195 in the automatic. Other than that, it soldiered on quietly for a couple more years. For 2000, a new trim level, the SE, became available exclusively to Canada. The SE was a base that had most of the cosmetic additions of the SH: the Enkei wheels, courtesy lights in the doors, and color-matched rocker panels, and a couple other things that I can’t think of, as well as a new color choice: the famous Electron Blue Pearl, previously seen on the Civic Si in 1999 and 2000. While it was exclusive to the SE in 2000, it became available on the other trim levels in both the US and Canada for 2001. Prelude production ended with little fanfare in October 2001, no “final edition” commemoration or anything for the last cars. Japanese Wikipedia seems to say that the car’s sales ceased in its home market in April 2001. The DC5 Integra (a.k.a. the Acura RSX), introduced in July of that year, grew over its predecessor to about the size of the Prelude and filled the niches of both the Prelude and Integra in Japan. The H22 outlived the Prelude by a year, being produced in 220 HP spec for the JDM 6th generation Accord/Torneo Euro-R until October 2002.

If you have to ask what the plate means, you wouldn’t understand.

So, that brings us to my particular car. It’s a 5-speed base model built in September 2001, in Nighthawk Black Pearl. I bought it in January 2014, from a guy who’d recently had the engine rebuilt by a shop that had done a poor job with it, and was so sick of dealing with it that he was about to just take it to the junkyard. It had some rare parts (more on those later), so I offered to buy it, as rough as it was. If nothing else I’d use it as a parts car for the 5th gen I had at the time, but after bringing it home I decided to resto-mod it. In this review, I’ll be bouncing back and forth between talking about the 5th gen in general and this car in particular.

After about 40 attempts at this photo, this was the best take.

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(Full disclosure: I started writing this review when the future of Oppo and Jalopnik and Kinja were uncertain, and it was going to be fairly short in order to get it done before any potential end date, but once it became clear that Oppo wasn’t going anywhere, I decided to go all James May and make the review much longer, including incorporating most of what I’d written as a buyer’s guide to the 5th gen into it. Sorry.)

Exterior: 6/10

You can see some of its battle scars, but the camera makes it look a little better than it really is.

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I’ve always liked the look of the 5th gen’s body. After the wildness that was the 4th gen, Honda returned the Prelude to the basic shape of its heyday in the 1980s, with the general shape of a larger, modernized 3rd gen, particularly the 1990-91 Si. The blade wheels resemble those of the Si, as do the taillights, although the red part on the 5th gen is at the top instead of the bottom. The honeycomb grille, which appeared in the 1999 refresh, is a nod to the 1st generation. The first two years of the car had a slightly different, plainer grille, and swapping to the honeycomb grille is an easy and popular, if not particularly cheap, modification, with new grilles still available from Honda for over $100, and used ones trading for a little less than that. (If you’re lucky, you can get one at the junkyard, but it’s usually one of the first things to get snapped up if it’s in good shape.) The front bumper returns to having a removable cover for where the fog lights go on cars without them, instead of having to cut the holes out as you did on the 4th gen. Fog lights were almost universal on JDM cars, but much less common on USDM cars, and the lights themselves differ significantly in appearance between the two markets. I have a set of JDM fogs that I’m going to install at some point in the future, but I need the wiring harnesses for them before I can do that. (Don’t ask.) Some cars have spoilers, some don’t. Only the SH has one standard. Mine doesn’t have one, but it does have the rare and desirable OEM lip kit, which I think enhances the look of the car. Without it, a base model has unpainted side and rear lower trim panels, and I’ve always thought the car looks incomplete like that. SHs without the lip kit had those panels paint-matched. My car has a Vis carbon fiber hood, which seems to have been added when getting the front end rebuilt after the car hit a ditch several years ago and was considered totaled. It has a reconstructed title, and, since it spent most of its life in places like Ohio, Michigan, and West Virginia, has some rust in the usual places, fortunately none of which are vital. Like most aging Hondas, it tends to rust around the rear wheel arches, especially when the guards aren’t removed. The first thing I did when I brought the car home was to take those guards off and throw them away, and I’ve been keeping the rust in check since. It’s not as bad as it could be, given where it lived, and it isn’t getting worse (yet), but it is admittedly an uphill battle. The other place these cars tend to rust is a certain spot at the bottom of the door, where a gap in gaskets on the inside will let water get trapped. Due to the curvature of the doors, it’s hard to see unless you’re looking for it. The paint on the car is in good, but not great, shape, being 15 years old now, with a few scuffs and scratches here and there. The replacement front bumper has a couple of cracks, but I have another OEM bumper, and fenders, in Nighthawk Black Pearl in the garage, found in a junkyard score. I’ll get around to putting them on, making the outside of the car look that much better.

Interior: 7/10

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As with the exterior, the interior was more conventional than that of the car’s predecessor, somewhat resembling that of the 1994-97 Accord, and very solid overall. Black is by far the most common interior color, with tan being limited to green 1997-98 cars and red only sold in Japan, seemingly only 1996-98 as well. (They may have continued offering red interior after the refresh, but I’ve never seen it. The Type S and S-Spec had a unique black leather interior with red stitching, though.) Dual airbags were standard worldwide; a change from the 4th gen, which in Japan usually had no airbags at all. The steering wheel is wrapped in leather. Most cars had cloth seats, but leather was an option at certain dealers and is more common in Canada. My car’s previous owners didn’t take very good care of the interior, particularly the back seats, which were full of water that had seeped in from the trunk and had started to grow moldy. I took them out and never put them back. There’s a little more room than previous generations, but it’s still pretty cramped back there, so I don’t think I would have used them much for transporting people anyway. Despite that, back seat passengers have their own ash tray, which is on the driver’s side. The front seats are comfortable, even more so than previous generations, with adjustable supports and firm but cushy headrests. The center console’s versatility alludes to the Prelude’s GT car aspirations. It has a dual-purpose ash tray/coin holder that lights up at night when opened, two storage compartments under the arm rest, and a cupholder-ish tray-ish thing in the middle. The gauges are circular and fully analog, with their orange backlighting a throwback to the 2nd gen. It’s one of the last Hondas, if not the last, to have an analog odometer. To the left of the steering wheel is a switch panel. In USDM cars, the standard switch panel has, from left to right, cruise control, sunroof switch, and dimmer. A different panel on cars equipped with fog lights adds a fog switch where a small cubby hole is on cars without them. On JDM cars, the three-switch panel is used, with the sunroof switch on the left (or a dummy switch in cars without sunroofs), an empty spot in the middle, and a fog light switch on the right. When I install my JDM fog lights, I’m going to take the cruise switch out (I’ve already gotten rid of everything else related to it) and rearrange the switches to have the sunroof on the left, the dimmer in the middle, and fogs on the right. Two stick-on interior trim kits were available, one with a carbon fiber pattern and the other a woodgrain pattern. The latter was more popular in Japan, where the Prelude was seen more as a luxury car than here. Mine has neither, but at last check Honda parts warehouses still have them. Overall, the interior on my car is in pretty good shape, although my steering wheel has some wear and had a cover put on by the previous owner. The front seats feel good and there’s minimal cloth fade. It’s a pleasant place to be.

Buttons that I used more words than necessary on.

Toys: 5/10

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There aren’t many. Not that I wanted, or could even have, many. As usual, Honda didn’t bring many of its more interesting features over to the North American market, including digital climate control (available in Japan back to at least the 3rd gen), factory navigation system, and an LSD transmission. Of course, we did get the ATTS torque vectoring system and the manually shiftable automatic (which were mutually exclusive, but equally unreliable), but this car has neither of those, which is a good thing. I have a sunroof, of course, because, to my knowledge, all 5th gens outside Japan came with sunroofs. In Japan, it was optional, except on the Type S, which didn’t have one at all. 4-wheel steering, once a talking point of the Prelude, was limited to Japan and Europe on the 5th gen, as were door visors and a rear wiper. I do have keyless entry and factory tint, though. And VTEC, yo.

Foliage

Audio: 7/10

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A single CD player with an acoustic feedback system was standard, with a 6-disc changer available for maximum 90s. By now, most of the factory head units have either been replaced or died, and since they require a keycode to work, finding one in a junkyard is most likely futile. Mine has a newer aftermarket unit with CD, aux, and USB capability. There was also an optional tape player due to many first owners being, um, older. Speakers are 6.5” in the front and 6x9 in the rear, a change from the 4th gen, which had 6.5s all around and a rear center 6x9 on the VTEC model. The setup is solid but otherwise unremarkable. On my car the engine is hooked to an aftermarket exhaust that ends in a Greddy Evo muffler, which doesn’t sound completely terrible. At low RPMs it sounds somewhere between tolerable and decent, with a deeper and more menacing tone than most exhausts you hear on 4-cylinder cars. Of course, that does come with the drawback of occasionally attracting Civic and WRX bros trying to race me, and when I don’t oblige, they do fly-bys. It’s a little loud, but not overly so except at the highest RPMs. In the next few years, I’m going to upgrade the entire exhaust system. I already have a new header and a high-flow cat ready to go on, but I also want to get another catback exhaust with a more subtle muffler.

Acceleration: 7/10

Can you tell I paid $800 for this car? I need to get some of those metal things repainted.

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On a regular 5th gen, this would have been a 5. For the most part, Honda let the H22 wither on the vine over its 11 years in production, with the limited-production red-top 220 HP version only being used in Japan and a slightly detuned 210 HP version of said engine used in Europe for a couple years. The garden-variety version was basically unchanged from 1991 to 2001, producing up to 200 HP and 161 lbft depending on market, suiting the lighter 4th gen Prelude perfectly, but a little underpowered for the 5th gen. Still, contemporary magazines, which typically tested the heavier SH, got the car from 0 to 60 MPH in around 7 seconds, with various sources ranging a few tenths in each direction. My car, however, is not a regular 5th gen. As I’ve written about in the past, I swapped a JDM H23A into the car not long after I bought it. “Wait, H23s are slower than H22s, aren’t they?”, you’re asking. And yes, normally, they are, but this particular H23 was a factory VTEC engine, used in a heavy Accord wagon only sold in Japan between 1998 and 2001; it uses the same cylinder head as regular H22s, but the block internals are slightly different, with a longer stroke than the H22. In a 5-speed base model 5th gen Prelude, which weighs 300 pounds less than the donor Accord in stock form, and my car carrying even less weight than that, the engine brings the 0-60 time down to the low-to-mid 6-second range. The H23 is rated to make the same peak horsepower as, and only 2 lbft of torque more than, the H22, but the H23’s powerband is noticeably more balanced. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll never be confused with a V8, but it’s a lot more usable on the street and at least as good on the track. As I’ve written before, it’s a solid engine and, despite being a bit of a hassle to do, I’d recommend swapping it into any car with a blown H or F engine, although there are parts of the country where you wouldn’t pass inspection with it.

Braking: 9/10

Shiny.

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As with the 3rd and 4th gen Preludes, 4-wheel disc brakes were standard. By the time the 5th gen came along, ABS had gone from optional to standard, even in Japan. On the SH, it was necessary for the ATTS to work, but on the base it’s just kind of there. Mine works on and off, but even without it I have aftermarket pads and rotors, which do a great, albeit a little noisy and dusty, job with the OEM single-piston calipers. Maybe a little too good. The break-in exercise for the front ones was an adventure, but it was totally worth it. I may bump this up to a 10 once I either get the ABS working 100% again or take it out entirely. As usual, I don’t have as much to say about the brakes as I do about other parts of the car. They work without any major hassle. That’s the most important part about them, right?

This photo seems to remind people of East Germany.

Ride: 6/10

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As I’ve said several times before, the Prelude was designed with a balance of comfort and performance in mind, and the 5th gen in particular was aimed a bit more toward comfort than its predecessors. It’s a quieter and smoother ride than a contemporary Civic or other econobox, but it’s also no S-Class. Noise and vibration are kept to acceptable levels in stock form. My car has a harsher ride than normal, due to aftermarket motor mounts, as well as the removal of the rear seats and the sound deadening they provided. For now, the suspension is mostly stock and therefore not overly stiff, but once I start upgrading the suspension this will go down a bit more. It isn’t my year-round primary car, so no big deal.

Gearbox: 7/10

The first rule of buying a 5th gen Prelude is that you do not buy one with an automatic transmission. The second rule of buying a 5th gen Prelude is that YOU DO NOT BUY ONE WITH AN AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION.

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A 5-speed manual was standard on the base and the only choice on the SH, with the base having an optional 4-speed SportShift automatic. Don’t buy an automatic. Ever. Just don’t. They’re nothing but trouble, like almost all Honda automatics of the era. The gear ratios in both 5-speed transmissions are the same, with the first three gears having almost identical ratios to the 4th gen VTEC. The 4th and 5th gears are sourced from the longer ones in the 4th gen Si, giving the 5th gen a higher overall top speed than its predecessor, but slightly slower acceleration in the upper gears. In my opinion, a 6-speed transmission with slightly closer ratios, or even just a gear on top of the current setup, would have helped things out a bit. Even at the time it was new, Motor Trend said the same thing in a comparo with the Integra Type R, saying “[t]he Prelude could use, oh say, a sixth and seventh speed.” Once or twice I’ve found myself reaching for the nonexistent 6th gear at around 60 MPH, as at that point I’m climbing over 3000 RPMs in 5th. As it is, it’s still a fine transmission. A previous owner installed a short-throw shifter, which makes what was already a good shifting experience that much better. The clutch, as is typical for Honda, is easy, but an aftermarket clutch line makes things just a bit different than a stock one. In the future I’ll get a lightweight flywheel, which, while it’ll make the shifting experience a little trickier, has some benefits that offset it. While the transmission is good overall, it does have some minor drawbacks. An LSD would be nice, and the gearing, which I mentioned above, leads to relatively poor fuel economy (when new, the MPGs were advertised as 20/27) on freeways, if you care about such things. (Speaking of fuel, it requires premium.) In the future, if life doesn’t get in the way, I plan on adding a slightly stronger clutch, a lightweight flywheel, an aftermarket LSD, and possibly a 4.7 final drive, along with just a general refresh of gearbox components.

Handling: 8/10

The car in its natural habitat, a quiet back road in the middle of nowhere.

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The 5th gen’s F/R weight distribution is – and I promise I’m not making this up, this is directly from Honda – 63/37. 63/37! Despite that, it handles competently thanks to its double wishbone suspension and other things. The SH, of course, handles like a dream when the ATTS is working, but few if any are trouble-free by now. I’ve been aiming for a slightly better weight distribution, and my carbon fiber hood and a couple of other things I’ve done help with that, but I still have a few more things to replace under the hood and in the suspension before it’s complete. There is, of course, understeer, but it’s not as bad as it could be. The factory spring rate managed to provide a solid level of handling while still remaining comfortable for its occupants. A contemporary non-Si Civic, by comparison, has a better weight distribution with similar suspension, but handles worse, stock-for-stock. (I wouldn’t know how a contemporary Si handles compared to it, because all the ones around here are either stanced or owned by people who only care about going in a straight line. Or both.) The summer tires up front help the handling as well, and since I don’t drive the car much in the winter I keep them on year-round. On curvy roads, it goes where I want it, when I want it, with lots of steering feel and no hassle, except for the occasional chirp from the rear tires if I really push it. For the kind of driving I like to do, which is mostly just back road fun with future plans for autocross, it’s a very good car.

Value: 10/10

Under a bridge.

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When the 5th gen was new, it started off around $24,000, with fully loaded examples (usually SHs) just breaking the $30,000 mark. Over the years, it’s more or less become one of those cars that people seem to have mostly forgotten about, since the Integra Type R and S2000 both overshadowed it when it was new, and more recent cars like the RSX Type S, 8th and 9th gen Civic Si’s, Focus and Fiesta STs, and Toyobaru offered similar performance with more modern amenities. The STs even have a torque vectoring system like the SH. Today, many 5th gens have been run into the ground, so prices for them are all over the place, but a well-kept one usually ranges between $3500 and $5500 from a private seller, depending on mileage and other things. Electron Blue cars often have a premium due to the color’s scarcity. Automatics are cheaper, but for good reason, since the transmissions like to, you know, grenade themselves at random. Stick with the manual if for no other reason than that. Since the car was popular with the various modding scenes over the past 20 years, many of them have been…questionably modified, and occasionally a fully riced out example will come out of the woodwork. The positive of it being somewhat popular with tuners is it had a bigger performance aftermarket than the previous Preludes, including a supercharger from Jackson Racing (known in the community by the acronym JRSC), high end headers that actually gain power (most of which have unfortunately been discontinued), and bigger, more aggressive cams. If you want to go turbo, there’s stuff for that too, but it isn’t cheap. Don’t want an H-series motor? The iron-sleeved F20B shares outer dimensions with an H and fits all its bolt-ons, but it has less torque and the internals are different. Innovative Mounts makes a kit for the J-series V6, which thanks to common automatic transmission failures can be found in the junkyard easily with low miles, but manual transmissions for them are rare and expensive. I don’t think that K-series mounts are officially made for the 5th gen, but Hasport’s BBK kit for the 4th gen can be modified to work in one. J and K swaps require some extra fab work, of course. Aftermarket suspension parts and wheels are still plentiful too, especially the latter due to the 5x114.3 bolt pattern being a common setup for Japanese cars. If you’re mechanically inclined, you can pick up a car that needs an engine for cheap, as I did, and do a swap with a low-mileage JDM engine (as long as your state/area allows it). My H23A cost about $800, but the cost for all the new parts for the swap ran the total cost for it to about $3000, and that doesn’t even include tools. If you’re interested in buying one without doing an engine swap, you want to ask about when the timing belt was done and whether or not it burns oil, which the H22 tends to do as it ages. A well-sorted 5th gen is a solid, rewarding car, though, delivering similar performance to those other cars I mentioned, and I absolutely love driving mine. Of course, if all you care about is that it isn’t RWD, then this entire review has been moot.

Overall: 72/100

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It’s had a rough life, but I’ve been slowly bringing this car back to glory. It’s quicker, lighter, and more fun than when I saved it from the scrap heap. And I’m just getting started. I plan to carry the banner for the last of the Preludes for years to come.

Engine: H22A4 2.2L DOHC VTEC (stock), H23A 2.3L DOHC VTEC (current)

Transmission: M2Y4 5-speed manual

Power/torque: 200 HP/161 lbft (H22A4/5-speed combo), 200 HP/163 lbft (stock numbers for H23)

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Curb weight: 2900 pounds (stock 5-speed base), 2800 pounds (current)

0-60: 7 seconds (stock), 6.5 seconds (current)

Top speed: 140 MPH

Seating: 2+2

MSRP in 2001: $24,000-30,000 depending on trim level and options