Old-School Reviews | 1997 Honda Prelude, VW GTI and Chrysler Town & Country

By Staff Writer
Mar 8, 2021 | Chrysler, Honda, Volkswagen | Posted in Features | From the May 1997 issue | Never miss an article

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 1997 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

Honda Prelude VTEC

Until this point in my automotive life, I ranked the driving experience provided by the Toyota Supra as the most rewarding all-around driving experience available. After driving the new Prelude, I may have to rethink that assessment.

It’s all about three primary characteristics: balance, compromise and communication. The Supra, with its silky inline six and hands-on-the-pavement steering feel, was the paradigm for these characteristics—until this new Prelude arrived.

Let’s talk about balance. With double-wishbone suspension all around, the Prelude has one of the most wonderfully controlled suspensions around. Although our test car was not equipped with the SH package (which features a special computer-controlled differential that apportions torque to the outside drive wheel in hard cornering) the handling and cornering were nothing short of impressive.

Accelerating out of second- and third-gear corners produced only minor front-wheel-drive power understeer that was easily controllable with either steering or throttle. Turn-in was equally impressive, with all four wheels developing slip angles at seemingly identical rates. This was a bit unsettling at first, mostly due to the fact that you just don’t expect a front-drive car to behave like this. But once you get used to the fact that this car actually uses the rear wheels to do more than to keep the gas tank from making sparks on the pavement, you really start to appreciate its manners.

I feel that to be a truly rewarding vehicle, every car must have some redeeming value other than fast lap times. That's the compromise department. Now, I don't demand laser-drilled cup holders or a polyelastomeric bi-resonance glovebox, but I do like a car that fits me and is easy to operate. Honda wins big here. The Prelude goes on like your favorite flannel shirt and your hands fall naturally toward whatever they may be looking for. Like most well-designed products, the Prelude's seat does have 3.7 billion possible adjustment combinations, yet everyone seems to be able to find a comfortable position. The wheel-pedal-shifter relationship is very nice and there's plenty of room for flailing elbows and dancing knees.

As for communication, aside from the Prelude driver, the only person who possibly has more knowledge of what their car is doing is Fred Flintstone. Not being ones to cut floors out of press cars, we can't quite duplicate Fred's tactile sensations perfectly, but the 'lude does a pretty good job nonetheless. The power-steering system is light as a feather, but still manages to retain nearly all the feel of a manual system and not feel over-boosted. Control inputs are rewarded with nearly instantaneous chassis reactions. Preludes have always been known for their surgical steering precision, ever since the Si model was introduced in the second generation. The current car does nothing to betray its ancestry.

Now, after all this gushing, you're probably thinking that I'll have nothing negative to say about the new Prelude, right? Well, not really. Most of my concerns are quite nit-picky, with one exception that I'll address in a minute.

First off, the Prelude does roll and pitch quite a bit. In most situations this is not a big deal the car takes a firm set and is very predictable. But on occasions where weight is being transferred suddenly from opposite corner to opposite corner (for example, accelerating out of a tight left hand corner then having to brake suddenly for a tight right hander) the delay can cause some unsettling yaw motions. The other minor flaw is a rather obtrusive (by today's standards) ABS system. If you're ready for the pulsations, you can handle it; otherwise, the aggressive pressure modulation can cause some chassis upset when trail braking.

Now on to the major flaw-the styling. What the hell was Honda thinking? The third-generation Prelude was one of the more handsome cars to leave the Honda design studios. This new one is definitely a step backwards from the previous version. Of course, it does fit perfectly with Japan's latest trend of styling cars for exclusive use in the witness relocation program (read: boring).

Enough bitching, more fawning. These purely minor annoyances cannot distract from the sheer joy of driving this car. The 2.2-liter, 195 hp VTEC four is matched perfectly with the capable chassis. There's an audible change in engine note and a visceral change in pull around 5200 rpm, when the VTEC system kicks in and alters the cam timing and lift to better suit the demands of high-rpm work. Each shift perfectly drops the tach back into the meat of the power band (almost like they DESIGNED it that way... spooky). The Prelude's nice mix of performance and refinement means that it's a car that nearly any driver can extract a great deal of potential from. And that is what truly makes it a rewarding experience. -J.G. Pasterjak

Hot VW's

A recent look at the revamped VW lineup revealed that while they have yet to set the motorsports world on fire, VW still offers some neat cars for day-to-day use.

The gemstone of the fleet, the VR6-powered GTI, is powered by VW's new sweet-sounding, narrow-angle V6. Coupled with some inspiring four-wheel disc brakes and slick five-lug wheels, it should have the makings of a stock-class killer.

So why hasn't this car upheld the family tradition and taken the racing world by storm? Probably because it has almost as much body roll as any midsize family sedan. A call to your favorite VW tuner could procure the necessary hop-up parts (stiffer springs, shocks, etc.), but all of these mods aren't really legal in the classes where the new GTI should have excelled. Despite the fact that the GTI can't hang with the Miata R in Showroom Stock B or the Camaro RS in G Stock, it's still a blast around town. A roll bar and sticky tires could make it a great track event/dual duty machine.

The similarly-equipped Jetta GLI offers something unavailable on the GTI—four doors and a trunk. If your needs dictate the need for a four-door people carrier, then the Jetta may be your ticket. Again, it's not a racer like earlier versions of the Jetta GLI, but it is a cool street car with a big trunk.

Perhaps the real sweetie of the lineup is the new Cabriolet. Yeah, its 2.0-liter four-banger doesn't offer much punch, and the car exhibits quite a bit of body roll, but when you drop the top—and what a well-engineered top it is the Cab's true meaning of life is exposed. Possibly the perfect car for commuting to work or cruising to the beach. It's not the fastest thing out there, but trust us when we say you won't care. -David S. Wallens

Chrysler Town & Country

Lately we've been accused of being a little biased towards minivans. That may be true, but it's not without justification. Look, the plain and simple truth about it is that minivans in general are really, really, really effing awesome. Hey, I'm a 27-year-old white guy who listens to industrial music. The average transportation for my demographic is a clapped-out Dodge Omni with Nine Inch Nails stickers all over it. I, however, know the truth.

As far as we're concerned, the grandmaster-flash-of-all-minivans position has been held by the Dodge Caravan and its siblings since their introduction back in 1984. For the 1996 model year. Chrysler Co.'s stranglehold on the minivan market tightened with the introduction of an all-new line of minivans.

We got the chance to sample the Chrysler Town & Country version (no, it didn't have faux wood paneling on the sides) and came away impressed. The available 3.8-liter V6 pumps out a healthy 225 ft.-Ibs. of torque, meaning heavy loads or medium towing jobs are no-brainers.

Where the vehicle really shines (especially the extended-wheelbase T & CLX and LXi and Dodge Grand Caravan models) is in swallowing massive loads in its interior. Check this out: Behind the rear seats in the extended-length models are 19.2 cubic feet of storage. If you want to pop out that rear seat (a relatively simple job for one person), that capacity swells to a whopping 51.2 cubic feet. Gut the interior, and you're looking at a cavernous 162.9 cubic feet of possible storage space. That's a lot of room for carrying tires.

Even more impressive than the sheer volume is the usability of that volume. Interior spaces are nicely shaped, with no wasted floor space and no unwanted humps or bumps to screw up the usefulness.

Now here's the punch line: The Chrysler minivans are this useful as haulers, without sacrificing any comfort. Four or even seven people can dress up, go to a nice dinner while listening to CDs on the 10-speaker Infinity sound system, and hand the vehicle over to the valet with no loss of dignity. After dinner you can ditch a couple of your friends and buy a reasonably-sized piece of furniture and take it home. Try that in a SUV. -J.G. Pasterjak

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