Honda's high-tech approach is on display in the Prelude

What makes Honda tick? A penetrating curiosity, says the head of research and development for the Japanese auto manufacturer.

''We are curious at Honda,'' explains Nobuhiko Kawamoto, vice-president of Honda Research and Development Company, a division of Honda Motor Company of Japan.

''It's like breathing air to us. We have freedom to explore strange ideas.''

Indicating its increasing emphasis on far-ahead research, in line with the pattern set by the founder of the company, the R&D budget is 4.75 percent of the total Honda budget, up from 3 percent a year ago.

Here in California to describe the second-generation Prelude sports coupe - larger, wider, and roomier than the car it replaces - Mr. Kawamoto says, ''we still have employee-idea contests, and we work to develop any promising ideas.'' Even though the ideas are not too often put to work commercially, he adds, the contest nonetheless has the effect of motivating the employees.

''It's mainly for the morale of the workforce,'' he asserts.

While maintaining a continuity between the old and new cars, the new-model Prelude is more modern in style - a wedge shape with plenty of glass. The whole thrust of the car is on high technology, a point which Kawamoto makes over and over again.

''The Prelude aim was for a personal automobile which is sporty, but not an out-and-out sports car,'' explains Tom Elliott, operations manager. The car has an ultra-low hood line - the engine is super low - flush body work, and pop-up headlights.

Honda claims a drag coefficient of 0.36, one of the lowest of any mass-produced vehicle in the world.

Dimensionally, the new Prelude, based on the Accord platform instead of the smaller Civic, is 2 inches wider, 7.7 inches longer, and has a 6-inch-longer wheelbase and 20 percent more trunk space.

Despite its larger size, however, the Prelude still has 2+2 seating, so rear-seat space is limited, a widespread complaint about the earlier car.

Even in its home market of Japan, the old-model Prelude did not sell well, its sales running less than 400 a month. Honda, however, expects the new Prelude to far outdistance the predecessor car. Out of a monthly output of 9,000 Preludes, the company hopes to sell 2,000 in Japan and ship the rest overseas.

The car squeezes 33 percent more horsepower out of the 1.8-liter engine, yet the fuel economy is down only slightly from the car it succeeds.

Sticking to its philosophy of introducing new engineering developments when they're ready, the new 100-hp Prelude engine, with a compression ratio of 9.4 to 1, has two intake valves and one exhaust valve per cylinder to improve engine breathing. Dual side-draft carburetors are used.

Honda engineers drew on their motorcycle expertise in designing the mechanics of the new Prelude.

''We also drew on our racing experience,'' says Mr. Kawamoto, pointing to the front double-wishbone suspension, designed to improve the cornering ability of the car. The idea is to keep the wheels upright during cornering. Too, it reduces the tendency to dive when the car is braked hard.

Like it or not, instrument lighting is orange, in keeping with the trend these days among many carmakers, including those in Detroit.

The price, not yet set, is expected to range between $9,600 and $10,000, according to Cliff Schmillen, head of sales and marketing for American Honda.

''It all depends on the relationship of the US dollar to the Japanese yen,'' he adds.

Honda has had a stunning success in both Western Europe and the United States. It also has developed an image of high quality, despite a nagging rust problem a few years ago. Prodded on the rust problem, Mr. Kawamoto says, ''We've learned many things, and we'll not make the same mistakes again.''

The company ultimately agreed to replace the rusting fenders.

In its drive for innovative engineering, Honda shook up the US automobile industry when it unveiled its CVCC engine in the early '70s. The stratified-charge engine was so clean that the company did not have to switch to a catalytic converter till the emissions requirements got squeaky-tight, well after the US industry.

Indicating its down-the-road approach to the automobile, the head of Honda research says the company ''is ready to go with an air bag so far as the basic technology is concerned.'' It depends on the demand, he adds.

On antiskid braking: ''We think, from a technical point of view, there is a possibility of using it on the Accord,'' Mr. Kawamoto says. ''Whether we do so, depends on customer demand.''

Honda already offers the anti-skid braking system in Europe and Japan.

US car buyers, he concludes, ''do not want to pay money for their safety - airbags, seat belts, and antiskid brakes - until after they've had an accident.''

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