Retro Drive: The 1999 Honda Prelude SH Is a High-Revving Time Machine

We drive a 20-year-old Honda for a dose of old VTEC religion.

Aaron GoldwriterRobin Trajanophotographer

There are some things you probably shouldn't do when driving a 20-year-old, unrestored original car with 1,400 miles on the odometer—like revving the engine to its 7,500-rpm redline. But when the car in question is a 1999 Honda Prelude SH, driving it without exploring the upper rev ranges is like visiting Los Angeles without seeing the Hollywood sign.

The '99 Prelude is a relic of the early days of Honda's VTEC (variable valve timing & lift electronic control) engine technology that was designed to optimize the power of four-stroke engines at higher rpm and increase fuel mileage at lower revs. Indeed, its H22A4 2.2-liter naturally aspirated inline-four has two modes—quick and crazy. Hondas were all rev-happy beasts back then, but with one of these early VTEC engines, swinging the tach past 5,500 rpm sets off fireworks: The exhaust note gets deeper and louder and the car jets forward like it's received a swift kick in the pants. I know hacks like me make a living from exaggerating subtlety, but believe that the cam changeover in an old VTEC Honda is one of life's more memorable experiences.

And more to the point, it was better than I remember it from 20 years ago.

This particular 1999 Honda Prelude SH I'm driving is something of an anomaly. It's never been registered; in fact, the window sticker indicates it was never for sale. Whatever corporate function it was acquired to fulfill has long been lost to time. It's not even officially part of Honda's sort-of-secret Southern California museum—it just sits in the Honda parking garage in the care of the public relations department, not quite forgotten but not quite remembered.

I borrowed the Prelude for an appearance at L.A. 's Highway Earth car show (put on by ace photographer and friend of Automobile Evan Klein); I thought it would make a nice paring with our Four Seasons Hyundai Veloster N, then six weeks old and with 100 more miles on it than the Prelude. Driving the Prelude was a trip back in time, a reminder of just how far we've come in two decades…and how far we haven't.

My first few starts in the car prove embarrassing. While I pride myself on smooth clutchmanship, with the five-speed-manual Prelude I'm either too slow to let the clutch in, racing the engine, or too quick, bouncing against the clutch plate springs. I should be able to do this; 15 years ago I owned a '93 Accord, which I think had one of the worst clutch-and-shifter setups in Honda's history. But then, all of a sudden, everything clicks back into place, and my starts are as smooth as the proverbial baby's backside. I focus on my legs, trying to figure out how I'm doing it, but I can't do it—it's all subconscious muscle memory.

Telling myself I'm not abusing this car so much as experiencing it—I've become so used to big, fat, low-rpm turbocharged torque curves that I've forgotten some engines like to be revved—I took the Prelude out to some of my favorite curvy-curves and pressed it a bit. Speculation around the office was that the Prelude would be "good for its age," but the truth is that this Prelude is good by any temporal standard. Generating 200 horsepower from 2.2 naturally aspirated liters is impressive, even if getting to that number requires winding it out to a lofty 7,000-rpm power peak. Torque is tepid at 156 lb-ft, but the Prelude only weighs a ton and a half. Keep the revs up and the Prelude is light and quick on its feet.

And what a pleasure it is to drive a car with honest-to-goodness hydraulic power steering! This particular Prelude's tiller felt a bit wooly on center; my guess is that 20 years in SoCal have dried out the solid rubber bits some. But fire it into a curve and the steering weights up in a progressive way that we just don't experience anymore. It's a smooth, organic transition, not the sudden change of software struggling to keep up—a true curve rather than a pixelated diagonal.

At speed the Prelude is louder than you might expect, with heavy doses of wind and road noise, a persistent issue for which Hondas of the era rarely got the criticism they deserved. But the way the suspension deals with bumps is brilliant: One bounce and it's done. The suspension reacts, neutralizes, and settles, instantly ready for the next bump. Remember, there are no electronically controlled dampers here, no fancy air springs, just a team of engineers thoroughly versed in the properties of steel and shock valves, people who would have likely been puzzled by the idea of software engineers doing suspension tuning.

Grip is better than I expected (though most of the car is all original, the tires aren't) and the chassis offers subtle hints that it might rotate if pushed, although in all likelihood it would never follow through on that promise; the engine is hung out ahead of the front axle and the weight balance is kind of lousy. I'm certainly not pushing the Prelude as hard as it (or I) can go, but I'm keeping up a swift pace, and the Honda makes smooth, quick progress.

What really sets the Prelude apart from today's cars is how mechanical it feels. When you flick the turn-signal stalk, you're making actual electrical contact, directing actual electricity to an actual relay that makes actual click-clacking sounds as it turns actual incandescent bulbs on and off—this as opposed to initiating a light-blinking software routine. As far as driver-assistance goes, the Prelude offers nothing more than antilock brakes—no adaptive cruise, no lane-keeping assistance, and certainly no stability control. While the 1999 Prelude is reassuringly benign as you approach its limits, if it somehow goes pear-shaped, you're on your own, Charlie.

Actually, that's not entirely true—the Prelude does have one unique piece of electronic tech, called the Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS). Essentially a torque-vectoring front axle, ATTS was underappreciated; back when it was introduced not many realized that torque vectoring would become such a big thing. As it happens, ATTS lives on (as does the SH nomenclature) in Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system, which uses gearing to direct torque from side to side instead of using a brake to grab a slipping wheel.

I initially borrowed the 1993 Honda Prelude because I thought it would be neat to drive a cool old car to a car show, but I wound up taking a weekend visit to a past generation—one in which cars were the same, but also very, very different. Thanks for the memories, Honda. I'd apologize for redlining your car, but I'm pretty sure the Prelude enjoyed it every bit as much as I did.

1999 Honda Prelude SH Specifications

ON SALE 1999
PRICE base (in 1999): $26,365
ENGINE 2.2-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4; 200 hp @ 7,000 rpm, 156 lb-ft @ 5,250 rpm
TRANSMISSION 5-speed manual
LAYOUT 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 22/27 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 178.0 x 69.0 x 51.8 in
WHEELBASE 101.8 in
WEIGHT 3,042 lb
0-60 MPH 7.0 sec
TOP SPEED 140 mph
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