For its fourth-generation Prelude sports coupe, Honda designed a sharp new body and an improved suspension. But the best thing about the '97 Prelude is what didn't change: its techy VTEC engine, the little powerhouse with a Jekyll and Hyde personality. Actually, one thing did change about VTEC. It's now the standard engine for all new Preludes. As well it should be. Buying a Prelude with an ordinary engine is like buying Nikes without the Air. If fun was measured in cubic centimeters, then Honda packs the most fun per volume into this 2.2-liter engine. And despite squeezing so much power from so little an engine, the VTEC is economical and proven reliable. VTEC, by the way, stands for "variable valve timing and lift electronic control." What it does is change the valve timing and lift by making small adjustments to the dual-overhead-cam system. This creates a four-banger that is tractable and pliant at low engine speeds, but which turns into a snarling little Tasmanian devil as the rpms rise. The changeover is obvious as one accelerates. The revs build smoothly and predictably until they hit about 5,300. In a flash, there's an audible change from howling to shrieking, the revs climb faster and you're pushed harder into the seat. The 7,500 rpm rev limit comes up quickly. So upshift and do it again. Zero to 60 in about eight seconds, using a five-speed stick shift that runs through the gears with snarky precision. That and gas mileage, too. Very nice. Of course, this kind of fun isn't for everyone. With that in mind, the Prelude can be driven all day and twice on Sunday without ever hitting those upper revs. Well-balanced, the four is remarkably smooth throughout its range, with enough torque in the lower revs to properly pull the lightweight coupe without ever unleashing the beast within. The handsome but fairly conservative body contrasts with the controversial and ultimately unpopular looks of the last model Prelude. Something about those big triangular taillights and the heavily carved sculpting of the snoot seemed to turn off a lot of potential sports-coupe buyers. Actually, Prelude has pulled a heavy burden since its early days, when it started out as a coupe knockoff of the Civic economy car. Cute, but no cigar. The squared-off second generation, which moved up to Accord underpinnings, hit a broader audience and began Prelude's reign as Honda's technology test bed, with such trick bits as electronic four-wheel steering. But again, its reputation as a sporting lightweight carried on. The latest Prelude is bigger, broader, more macho and better performing, with lovely slab-sided styling that combines a certain Germanic solidity with Honda's usual charm. The lines are clean and nicely proportioned, particularly crisp in profile, but those tall headlights that wrap over the fender crease seem a bit garish and poorly integrated. The interior, all black and leathery, could use some warmth and fri endlier design characteristics. This is supposed to be a fun car, and should not impart so much hostility to those on board. It feels too much like an economy-car interior, despite the leather steering wheel and highly supportive sport seats. The back "seat" also exhibits some real social problems. As in, actual human beings cannot possibly fit back there, unless they're younger than five or fully employed as professional contortionists. Just consider this to be a two-seater with an upholstered package shelf and you won't go wrong. But all is forgiven once the Prelude is thrown into a curve, its trick traction system helping the little coupe skitter around with a surprising level of grace and a minimum of fuss. The steering is smooth and precise, but in our test car, there seemed to be a lag in the power boost when the wheel was turned quickly. The handling is typically Honda, with its low hood bobbing over the short, sporty suspension, creating a suitable ra ce-car fee l on winding roads. Honda has accomplished a nice makeover of the Prelude both in styling and performance, though the final price tag seems a bit steep. And since the Prelude name carries with it a certain blandness stigma, Honda might have been smart to take this opportunity to create a new name, as it has across the board with its upscale Acura division. Something better suited to a sports coupe that has suffered some false starts and poor impressions, but has at last arrived. Maybe no longer a Prelude, but a Grand Finale. 1997 Honda Prelude Vehicle type: Four-passenger, two-door coupe, front-wheel-drive. Base price: $25,700. Price as tested: $26,282. Engine: 2.2-liter inline four, 195 horsepower at 7,000 rpm, 156 pound-feet of torque at 5,250 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 3,042 pounds. Length: 178 inches. Wheelbase: 101.8 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 27 mpg highway. Highs: Racy engine. Great handling. Nice body makeover. Lows: Hostile interior. Useless back seat. Steep price.