1990 Honda Prelude 4WS Si: Full Circle

1990 Honda Prelude 4WS Si

When people wax poetic about Hondas of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the conversation very quickly turns to CRXs. And why shouldn’t it? Lightweight, super chuckable, two seats and quick for its modest power rating, with the obvious bulletproof reliability anyone buys a Honda for. But here’s the thing: it wouldn’t be my first choice, as I was heavily influenced by my first car, a 1987 Honda Accord. If you owned a GTI, you lusted after the CRX; if you owned an Accord, you wanted the Prelude. I’m in love with this 1990 model here on craigslist in North Carolina for only $3,500, and it’s one of the rare and quirky 4-wheel steering models.

1990 Honda Prelude Interior

I look at this listing and wonder why I don’t own this car already. Look at those thickly-bolstered sport seats, chunky 3-spoke steering wheel and slippery aero body with my favorite feature of the ’80s – pop-up headlights! As a Si model, this Prelude came with 140 bhp under the hood and the innovative 4WS system which enabled the rear wheels to respond to the driver’s steering inputs by changing the angle of the wheels based on the steering angle of the front wheels. This clever mechanical system actually yielded impressive performance in high-speed slaloms, but didn’t deliver noticeable differences in routine daily driving, limiting its popularity.

1990 Honda Prelude Si Engine

Somewhere in my parents’ basement is a literature collection of old car brochures, and one of them features a bright yellow Prelude Si on the cover. I acquired this when my parents were shopping for the 1987 Accord that would become my first car, so to say this generation of Honda runs a bit deep is an understatement. It’s a shame to look back and see what Honda has lost or traded away in terms of brand identity, as cars like this Prelude are evidence the company at time had no aversion to offering highly reliable cars that were also capable of impressive performance and attractive designs, unlike the new lineup that is rarely either of those things.

Image Courtesy of Hemmings.com
Image Courtesy of Hemmings.com

So, where does this car land on the smiles-per-dollar equation? Well, the 4WS system was pretty reliable unless the car needed an alignment or accident repair, and even then it was more an issue of parts costs than any flaw with the system’s design. This example sports original paint and what appears to be an extremely clean interior and lends credence to the seller’s claims of this specimen being garaged all of its life. I’d like to see some more info about the vehicle’s maintenance history, but overall, I don’t see how you can go wrong with an ’80s Honda if you’re looking for an appreciating classic to drive every day.



  1. jim s

    the listing is down. so did you buy it? it does look like it would make a fun daily driver.

  2. Jesse Mortensen

    Gotta move quick around! Good job Jeff! Somehow you are able to take a car that I would never even think of buying and make me want it badly.

  3. Jeff Lavery

    Sorry these listings keep disappearing, guys. I will have to find some less desirable cars!

  4. Alan (Michigan)

    I can dispute the notion that these were great in slaloms. A good friend was working as sales manager of a Honda dealership, and one of these was his company car.

    In an autocross setting, the car had the feeling of being on marbles, and it was difficult to figure out the timing and level of steering inputs. We tried it twice, and gave up, shaking our heads….

    • Dave at OldSchool

      Alan, I agree they were not great in autox, but not because they did not handle well. I still have an ’88 4WS Si with 90k miles, that I ordered new when they became available. I had to autox with both Civics and later the new Minis , and could not be competitive with those ‘hot rods’.
      If you felt you were on marbles, maybe it was the tires.

      As far as performance overall, they are underpowered, but exciting to drive hard. Similar to a Lotus Éclat, also one of my underpowered cars.

      They are GREAT GranTouring cars…more than half the mileage on mine was Interstate travelling between Mass and Alabama every 3 weeks for nearly a couple years .
      I would see how long I could stay in cruise, but adjusting the speed up/down…and often exceeded an hour at a time

  5. Jeff Lavery

    Hey Alan – I figured there had to be a reason I didn’t see more of these on the autox circuit, but the road test editors seem to think it was a pretty decent performer back in the day. Wish I could drive one to decide for myself!

  6. Alan (Michigan)

    Well no Dave, the tires were not the issue.
    The first generation of 4WS Preludes used a cam-type mechanical system to determine the direction and angle of steering the rear wheels, in relation to the front steering angle. It went something like this:
    1. Both straight.
    2. Slight front steer, to perhaps 10 or 15, maybe 20 degrees of Steering Wheel Angle = parallel steering of the rear wheels.
    3. Increased SWA returns the rear wheel steering back to center/zero steer.
    4. Further increased SWA initiates rear wheel counter-steer.

    Theoretically, and practically, parallel steer works well in highway situations like lane changes. Counter steer works well in tight maneuvers, such as parking lots. Unfortunately, the mechanical translation from one phase to another meant a very awkward and unnatural feeling for the drivers who were paying any attention at all. Autocross requires very accurate and abrupt phase changes from longitudinal to lateral, and lateral to opposite lateral loaded conditions. Steering inputs go rapidly from one side to another across the center, so that there would be a constant phase change between the front and rear wheels. The parallel to neutral to counter steer transition, and vice-versa, was what made the car feel odd, and difficult to use for that purpose.

    The second generation 4WS for the Prelude was, I was told, electronically controlled. It may have been different in the same situation, but I never got to test drive that.

    By comparison, the GM Quadrasteer system for the 1500 series trucks was electronically controlled, and steering phases were programmed for several parameters. Of course the SWA was one, but also included was speed, and I suspected throttle position and g-load were also part of the algorithm. I was fortunate enough to be included in a test/analysis session, that included a high-lateral G venue comparable to autocross. Because the system was electronically controlled, the test truck rear steering responses could be adjusted with computers. Now that was fun. Using a minimum speed before parallel steer could happen meant that all steering was counter-steer, up to about 45. The trucks were autocross monsters, as compared to standard beam axle units. All of us are used to a lateral loading feeling in corners, even at street speeds. But in counter-steer only vehicles, the in-cab sensation was unique. The sensation felt was one of rotation, or spinning in place, and the feeling of a side-load was tremendously decreased. Tire wear on both ends would theoretically be dramatically reduced, as the scrub and slide went away. I’d love to have the budget to create a purpose-built autocrosser with electronically programmable and driver- triggered 4WS. That would be fun, and maybe easier on my old neck muscles as well…

    • Dave at OldSchool

      Ok , tires were not your issue.

      Lack of driving it, was. ( But that’s not to say you can’t drive )

      Just like ‘first’ going from rear wheel drive to front wheel drive, it takes a bit of adjustment in driving style..
      In the ‘rapid steering” aggressive maneuvers you mentioned, the 1st steering segment (angle) is so quick it is relatively small, and it does not affect turning ( noticeably) , at least when driven by people who have experience in the car. Same thing applies to driving a MiniCooper on 10″ wheels, when front wheel drive was a ‘new’ thing.. in the early 60’s Nowadawys, FWD is no big deal, but put a newcomer into a rear wheel drive muscle car, and you have the same situation. Transition Required.

      The reason the Preludes were not desirable, is they were under powered, AND were outclassed in HP …AND the 4WS cars got stuck into GP early on. AND there was no real availability of aftermarket go-fasts..AND the CIVIC , AND the Civic, AND the…. .

      Even boosting the cc’s didn’t help. Honda learned quickly, and changed to a better motor.

      Still have the one I ordered in ’88, because it is a nice GT and fun to drive occasionally, soon I can get a Vintage Tag for it.. and the 88’s have the best gearbox and shifter

      • Alan (Michigan)

        Dave, I’m glad you really like your car, and enjoy having owned it for over 25 years. Great as a GT, and fun to play with too. But we’ll have to agree to disagree about whether the performance limitation on the 4WS Prelude was power or handling. Probably some of both, if all facets were analyzed. But putting it only onto the engine is missing a major part of the performance puzzle.

        As far as my time in a car… That is funny to me. In those days I was running nearly every weekend during the season. 25 – 35 events per year. My own #1 ride had been a FWD econobox with somewhere around 70 hp. It was a dragon slayer. Through the years I have successfully run low and moderate powered FWD, rear engined, mid-engined, and front engined RWD. Monster motors included. Specially built closed and open wheel stuff. I have had limited experience in AWD, but some… The 4WS Prelude is the only car in my memory that I did not immediately (as in, within a few runs) adapt to and drive successfully. At the time, Ron and I recognized that more power would not make the car competitive. Extra weight did not help, but it was the steering/handling which limited the car.

        Again, I am glad you really like your car, and the one featured here looks good to me! But cone-dodging never was going to be it’s forte, IMO. (of course just that, my opinion) Road & Track loved it back in the day, but I can’t recall any having more than a little success at SCCA autocross.

        • Dave at OldSchool

          There is no question this is not an autoX car.

          But most of the Gen 3 Preludes were not 4WS, and they were ALL duds at autocross….

          Honda dropped the Gen 3 AND the MOTOR after only 3 years..that should tell any motorhead something the motor.

          There was no Performance Chip support , and no spring packs , etc, etc.and were definitely not a Tuner’s choice in HP or GP

          The ‘ludes were duds… with or without 4WS
          When driving with 4WS , you cannot turn in ‘early’ at all..you REALLY have to wait longer than you think,. and that takes some seat time to get used to…. and in AutoX sometimes the course is so tight you can’t wait…, so we are in agreement…except as to the error in “2. ” in your first comment,
          Still, the car is considered ‘significant’ in the automotive world. and they are already heading upwards in price

          Probably the best info on the Gen3 4WS cars can be found here


    • Dave at OldSchool

      I just reviewed this above, and 2. is not correct,

      The rear wheels turn in the same direction, but the rear wheels only turn slightly ( 1 1/2 degrees) NOT parallel to the front , which are at a higher turn in angle.
      Other systems may use parallel front and rear, I don’t know, but the Honda system did not.
      The system was not new, Honda had perfected it in their race cars.

      It has it’s drawbacks in the hands of drivers with no experience in the car, and was replaced by a non-mechanical variable system
      What made the system good, is there were no variables, and once accustomed to and driving style was developed, it was predictable. That’s fine on track, where the course line is constant. lap after lap, and year after year. ..not so in AutoX when you might only get a handful of laps ( or less) on a single course
      At the time, it was a pretty high g car on a skidpad

      • Alan (Michigan)

        It appears as though semantics are getting in the way of understanding here. Doing a little research and reading, I came across a post that I think was made by you in Hemmings a bit more than a year ago. Neat. As I said before, it is obvious that you enjoy and appreciate the car, and kudos for that.

        But #2 is correct. There is just a failure in terminology. I’m sure you have seen this: http://world.honda.com/history/challenge/19874ws/ On page 4 is this section:

        “However, it all became a reality with the development of a new crank mechanism, which was designed to turn the wheels in the same direction initially but in opposite directions after a certain point. For example, when the steering wheel was turned to a large angle, the wheels would turn in the same direction for a brief moment after the steering wheel starts to rotate. Then, as the angle of steering increased, the rear wheels would turn toward the opposite direction. ”

        Apparently I was not clear with my use of the term “Parallel Steer” and you read it to believe that it means “the same angle of steering applied both front and rear”. Not so, it means only that tires on both ends of the car steer or point in the same general direction, not necessarily at the same angle, which, if done, would draw parallel lines on the pavement, if the tires were run through paint. From my background, “Parallel Steer” meant only that a common side of off-center was produced.
        “Counter Steer” then means that the front and rear steered tires point in opposite side of center directions. Again, not not specifically at the same angle from center.

        So to clarify:
        2. Slight front steer, to perhaps 10 or 15, maybe 20 degrees of Steering Wheel Angle = common direction steering of the rear wheels, substantially smaller angles, maximum 1.5 degrees.
        4. Further increased SWA initiates rear wheel counter-steer, pointing the opposite direction from the front wheels, maximum 5.3 degrees from center.

        But I read something in the Hemmings blog which just can’t be true: “Dial in 140 degrees of steering input and the front wheels turn eight degrees while the rears turn 1.5 degrees.”

        There is NO WAY that the 140 number can be correct. My recollection is 25+ years old, so fallible for sure, but still. Seriously? 140? No way. Can’t be.

        Do me a favor will you? Next time you use that nice car of yours, before you drive, do a simple test:
        Steering wheel centered, place a small piece of tape at the top of the wheel. Start the car, and leave the driver’s door open. Lean out, and while watching the left REAR wheel, pull the steering wheel off to the left side, and watch the tire’s steering motion. At the point where it ceases turning left and begins to head back towards the center, note the approximate angle of input at the steering wheel. I am dying to know the point at which (parallel) sorry, “same off-center direction” steer ceases and begins to head back to the neutral point. If you feel like continuing, add steering until counter-steer or opposite direction pointing begins and again note the angle of input required by the steering wheel.

        I hope I have not ruffled your feathers, obviously you know far more about the Preludes than I ever will. For me, it has brought back memories of a great time with a group of fantastic people, and some really good drivers. Things were simple then. Show up early Sunday AM, swap tires, do some walking, drive it like you stole it, swap tires, go the the after-event party. All day long, hanging and joking with friends who shared a common affliction.

        • Dave at OldSchool

          ..I think we have beat this to death. Parallel means the same angle.

          If the front are at 10, 15 or 20 degrees and the rears at only 1 1/2 which is maximum, they are not parallel…….

          I don’t need to go ” lean out and watch the left rear wheel ” …. I did that in 1988 when I got the car, and learned how it ACTUALLY works.

          I think this has now become a useless conversation…. between a Prelude owner for 25 years, and a someone who is arguing based on what he has read, and I’m LOL

          • Alan (Michigan)

            Thank you for your kind response. I never said that you “need to go ” lean out and watch the left rear wheel ”. I ASKED you to, only to identify the SWA at which the rear steer reaches maximum and begins to return towards center. I think the Hemmings blog has that quite wrong. But, if you don’t have the time or patience to indulge me, then nevermind.

            And forget the term “parallel”. It was just what was used in the engineering development arena that I was involved in, as a common language so that those involved would differentiate it from “counter steer”. Actually I think that was a contraction of a more correct “Percentage of Parallel Steer”, indicating that there was inequality. Because the investigated controls were electronic and variable, tuning at different speeds could move through a range from zero to, for instance, 10% of parallel @ X speed and Y SWA. Anyone is free to insert the terms “complementary steer” and “opposing steer”, or whatever suits their understanding.

            No need to be huffy. You have owned one for 25 years. I get that. Your experience trumps. Very likely that I drove one in competition prior to or in the same time frame as your purchase. The basis for my understanding the tuning of the system and the effect on the steering of the rear wheels through the range of steering wheel motion began then.

          • Dave at OldSchool

            not huffy here, ..still laughing

  7. Jeff Lavery

    Great discussion and info, guys! This one caught my eye as a nice resto-mod:


    • Dave at OldSchool

      The ’87 is a different animal.. Gen2 .. depending on the price, but a Gen3 or Gen 4 is a better investment

    • Alan (Michigan)

      Nice looking car. 28 years old? Wow.

  8. Alan (Michigan)

    Not sure whether it is 4WS or not, no information listed. But there is this “Prelube” for sale:


  9. Esther

    I have 2 1990 preludes si one is a 4ws and one is not both are fun and fast cars and they are both Dailey drivers for my boyfriend and I. P.s ground clarence is 3ins.

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