Honda's Prelude was never a sports coupe for quick-wristed drivers with penchants for poking the genie that keeps cars straight and level.

The first Prelude, in fact, was dozy enough to be dubbed the Quaalude. Major redesigns in 1983 and 1988 remained lazy compositions in minor keys.

But this fourth-generation Prelude--and in particular the Prelude CSi--is an overture to be remembered. For andante read allegro. From a sports coupe easy to overlook (and even easier to pass on interesting roads), the Prelude has become a coupe to consider.

True, it still doesn't have the turbo-charged fury of the Volkswagen Corrado or Mitsubishi Eclipse. Reports of a V-6 engine that would bring Prelude's power to the level of the Mazda MX-3 or the Ford Probe GT were greatly exaggerated. Nor does the car have the all-wheel drive of the Isuzu Impulse RS or Subaru SVX.

But without any of these costly add-ons, the Prelude still manages to close the gap with its competition. It just goes to show how much can be achieved by fully massaging existing technology, by keeping mechanicals simple and allowing styling nuances that prevent the car from becoming just another sheet-metal jujube.

Last year's Preludes were hatchback and notchback versions of two cars--the 16-valve, 2-liter Si of 135 horsepower and a bigger-engined version of 2.1 liters and 140 horsepower. Four-wheel steering and an anti-lock brake system were options. This year's line has been trimmed to two notchback coupes that look very much like hatchbacks. The entry-level Prelude S has a 16-valve, 2.2-liter engine producing 135 horsepower. The Si is 2.3 liters good for 160 horsepower.

Driver's-side air bags are standard on both models. So are anti-lock brakes. There's also a $2,300 package for the more potent Si that includes four-wheel steering, a passenger's-side air bag and rear spoiler.

Four-wheel steering (4WS) gained a toehold in 1988. Althoughgenerally considered to take the scuff out of cornering by having the rear wheels turn to assist the steering process, it has never been enormously popular.

It does reduce a car's turning circle by a few inches, and it certainly makes for faster, more precise cornering during high-speed running. Such benefits, however, are not big items among those still mourning bench seats and the Plymouth Vega.

Mitsubishi offers 4WS only on the Galant VR4 sport sedan and the 300GT grand touring coupe--two cars for the incurable driving enthusiast. It is an option on Nissan's sporty 240SX and standard on the screaming 300ZX Turbo. And Honda reports only 12% of Prelude buyers are believers in four-wheel steer.

So the item remains an effective, yet expensive piece of gadgetry of limited celebrity.

With or without tandem steering, however, the 1992 Prelude is a very attractive sport coupe of civilized handling.

It is still a smooth, lightly sophisticated ope rator--but now the engine note growls of a much heavier purpose.

Suspension underpinnings have lost the stiffness and rumbling jitters that plagued past models--but the new suspension's additional softness doesn't filter out feel and keeps the car flat, even during vulgar cornering.

Performance will still not drain blood from anyone's ear lobes. But the front tires chirp merrily under load and the Prelude's pace from rest and during mid-range acceleration, particularly with some sporting downshifts, embarrasses no one.

The new Prelude's looks should produce interesting debates. The silhouette is a smooth, sloping wedge of routine proportions. It is low and aerodynamic with a pronounced cab-aft configuration that adds a little chunkiness outside while enlarging rear seat room inside.

Rear light lenses are broad, red triangles. An inspiration from carving Halloween pumpkins? Small air intakes are set directly inboard of the headlights. Nostrils or ear ducts?

It also has a smart, zero-chrome look where a set of seven-spoke, polished alloy wheels are the sole and very handsome accent.

At the end of a 10-day test of an Si--especially elegant in Brittany Blue-Green--Southern California's sidewalk stylists voted 5-1in favor of the new Prelude look.

The interior is snug as a sport bug should be, but also contemporary. The dashboard line curves around the corners to create a broad, smooth merger with doors, armrests and window sills.

It is a clean, narrow, straight-edged dashboard set about half a mile ahead of the steering wheel. But at night, at that distance, the trailing edge of the vinyl dash reflects street lighting and creates a line that floats like a squeegee smear on the windshield.

Although the tachometer and speedometer are proportionately larger to offset the great distance between dash and eyeballs, the dials are too well hooded and too poorly backlighted to offer much information when the sun is bright and dead ahead. And why Honda decided to contrast those analog instruments with Nintendo creeping lines for temperature and gas gauges makes about as much sense as Imelda Marcos pleading poverty.

The gas and brake pedals need to be moved closer together for heel-and-toe shifting. After all, this is an enthusiast's car.

The hand brake, logically situated between the front seats, can be tugged into a 60-degree angle where it becomes a mild hazard. A driver's hands reaching across the center console for a briefcase on the passenger seat, could easily brush the button and trip the parking brake.

And splurging on the Si and a passenger's-side air bag means getting a glove box barely large enough for baby's mittens.

Thanks to that cab-aft design, however, the rear seats offer a little more occasional room than other cars in the class. The grip of the bucket seats, the level of interior quality and the positioning of controls are all exemplary.

On the road, the Prelude Si with the four-wheel steer option is a forgiving, flexible masterpiece. Each gear has enormous range--from 30 m.p.h. to about 80 m.p.h. in third with no straining at either end--and shifting is an effortless matter of light wrist and firm fingertips.

Triple-digit speeds come up in about 22 seconds and braking back down to zero is firm and straight on 9.3-inch discs on all four wheels. The front-wheel wobbling of torque steer, however, remains a minor discomfort.

And those willing to pony up for four-wheel steering are in for a cornering experience that by contrast will make most modern two-wheel systems feel positively sluggish.

Some drivers swear 4WS makes for cleaner, sweeter cornering and more efficient progress. Others claim it adds no more to performance than mechanized seat belts. Our experience is anything that feels safer and quicker probably is.

Overall, the Honda Prelude has grown into a very serious vehicle. It has pace, nimbleness, a solid feel and honest responses. In that sense, the car has become much more a principal event than a prelude.

1992 Honda Prelude Si

The Good Spirited performance at last. Looks a cut above sports coupe crowd. Two air bags available. Smoothest four-cylinder in field.

The Bad Dashboard almost out of driver's reach. Torque-steer skitters still with us. Four-wheel steer remains an expensive piece of work.

The Ugly Anyone's call on the taillights.

Cost Base: $19,250. As tested: $21,570 (includes four-wheel steering, driver's- and passenger's-side air bags, spoiler, anti-lock brakes, cruise control, air conditioning, sunroof and power windows.)

Engine 2.3 liters, 16 valves, double overhead cam, four cylinders developing 160 horsepower.

Type Front-wheel drive, 2+2 sport coupe.

Performance 0-6 m.p.h., as tested, 7.8 seconds with five-speed. Top speed, estimated, 126 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, E PA city-highway, 22 and 16 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,932 pounds.