Prelude competitors included the Toyota Celica, another straight-4-powered coupe introduced several years prior to the Prelude. Throughout the 1980s, the Prelude was challenged by the Nissan Silvia, Isuzu Impulse, Mitsubishi FTO, Mitsubishi Cordia (later the Eclipse), Opel Manta/Opel Calibra, Ford Probe and Mazda MX-6.
First generation (1979–1982)
On November 24, 1978, the Prelude, which used the second generation Civic as a base, was launched, and was only available at the newly established dealership sales channel Honda Verno. The dealership also introduced the entry-level Honda Quint, the Honda Ballade, and the Honda Vigor as its largest sedan and hatchback. The four wheel independent struts, brakes and floorpans were all borrowed from the second generation Civic. At 4090 mm (length) x 1635 mm (width) x 1290 mm (height), it had quite a low and wide profile. The wheelbase was 2320 mm, and was 60 mm shorter than that of the original Accord. Honda appears to have followed the successful introduction of the Toyota Celica example originally established by the pony car originator Ford Mustang by taking a small car, like the Civic platform, installing a more powerful engine, and giving the body a short trunk, and a long engine hood.
As the Civic/Accord of the era used a sub-frame chassis structure with a monocoque body (unibody), the Prelude used a one-piece sub-frame chassis with monocoque body that is set up as a two-pillar structure to increase body and torsional rigidity. The front suspension employed a MacPherson strut with a conventional coil spring mounted offset of the central axis of the damper which was designed and intended to greatly smooth the travel of the suspension, and rear suspension consisted of the Lotus-designed Chapman strut. The front mounted anti-roll bar served two functions, to reduce body roll during cornering and to act as the radius rod for the front suspension. The vehicle featured a rear anti-roll bar as well. This design minimizes the typical front engine front wheel drive understeer while cornering near the limit and also limits the rear sliding behavior of vehicles with this drivetrain layout. "It is," wrote Brock Yates for Motor Trend, "by any sane measurement, a splendid automobile. The machine, like all Hondas, embodies fabrication that is, in my opinion, surpassed only by the narrowest of margins by Mercedes-Benz. It is a relatively powerful little automobile by anybody's standards."
The engine sourced from the Accord was the EK SOHC 12-valve 1750 cc CVCC inline four rated at 75 hp (56 kW) @ 4500 rpm and 96 ft·lb (130 N·m) @ 3000 rpm. This was available for US and JDM Markets. (The Accord-shared engine made use of an engine oil cooler and transistor-controlled ignition system. 1980 saw the introduction of the CVCC-II engine which employed the use of a catalytic converter and several other refinements that improved driveability, the Prelude also received a mild facelift in 1981. Transmission choices were either the standard 5-speed manual or initially a two speed "Hondamatic" semi-automatic which by October 1979, had been replaced by a 3-speed automatic that used the final gear as the overdrive. The Prelude was quick when compared to most of its competition with Motor Trend measuring an early Prelude completing the quarter-mile in a respectable 18.8 seconds at 70 mph. In addition to the standard fabrics offered in most models, an 'Executive' option was offered in some markets which added power steering and Connolly leather upholstery which is typically only used in high end luxury cars. The Prelude was the first Honda model to offer a power moonroof as standard equipment, which eventually became a Prelude trademark. Honda used a single central gauge cluster design in this car which housed the speedometer and tachometer in one combined unit where both instrument's needles swept along the same arc. They also placed the compact AM/FM radio unit up high next to the gauge cluster.
The Prelude featured intermittent wipers, tinted glass, and a remote trunk release. There was a convertible model introduced by a Santa Ana California company named Solaire. Less than 100 were believed to be converted when new and they were sold through Honda dealerships with full factory warranty coverage. The EL SOHC 8-valve 1602 (non-CVCC) inline four rated at 78 hp (55 kW) @ 5000 rpm and 97 ft·lb (125 N·m) @ 3000 rpm was available for UK, Australian & Canadian Markets. It featured a non-automatic choke with 3 positions and a 2 barrel carburetor.
Second generation (1983–1987)
The second generation Prelude was released in 1983 and was initially available with an A18A or ET-2, 1.8L 12-valve twin carburetor engine, producing 110 hp (77 kW), with fuel injection introduced in the "Si" models in 1985. In Japan, Asia and Europe, it was available with a 2-liter DOHC 16-valve PGM-FI engine (EDM = BA2, JDM = BA1, although this engine was not released in Europe until 1986. The JDM B20A produced 160 hp (120 kW) at 6300 rpm, while the EDM B20A1 produced only 137 hp (102 kW). This was the first generation of Prelude to have pop-up headlights, which allowed for a more aerodynamic front clip, reducing drag. Opening the headlights, however, especially at higher speeds, produced significantly more drag. The 1983 model is identifiable by its standard painted steel wheels with bright trim rings (although alloy rims were optional). The 1984-87 base models had Civic-style full wheel covers. In Canada, a "Special Edition" trim was created, which is essentially the same as the USA 2.0Si "sport injected" model.
The Prelude was one of the key models sold at Japanese Honda dealership sales channels, called Honda Verno, which offered performance-oriented products. When the 2-litre 16-valve DOHC engine came out, the hood was slightly modified, since the larger engine could not fit under the original hood. The European version also saw slight modifications to the rear lights and revised front and rear bumpers which were now color-matched. Due to the fairly low weight of the car (1,025 kg (2,260 lb)) and high power (the 16-valve engine produced 160 hp (119 kW)), the car was relatively nimble in comparison to its competitors, which most Preludes had not been up to that time.