Now sport coupes are sent forth into the market with an almost dogged resignation - accompanied by sales goals that are but a fraction of those in the glory days. Mazda Motor Corp. RX-7, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. 300ZX? History on these shores, victims of an ill-timed move up-market (along with outrageous pricing) and scandalous insurance rates.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Prelude has always had a softer appeal than those brutes, however. And although Honda sensibly resisted the temptation to ratchet the Prelude into the high-tech, high-dollar stratosphere that caused the RX-7 and the ZX to crash and burn, the comparatively strong-selling Prelude's numbers also have dwindled.

It's a shame, because the Prelude, particularly in its recent VTEC iterations, is entertaining driving of the highest order. The heavily redesigned 1997 Prelude enhances the previous car's wonderful, dynamics and will be gold with a new, sensible market approach. America Honda Senior Vice President Dick Colliver nonetheless admits at the Prelude's local-press launch here that selling 20,000 units would be considered a victory.

Well, that's 20,000 more `Ludes than Mazda will sell of RX-7s or Nissan of 300ZXs - and Honda should be respected not only for its steadfast refusal to vacate the segment but also for doing the right thing and allocating the resources to improve a low-volume product. It would've been far less costly to slap on a new skin.

The new Prelude does have a new skin, though. Honda says the sheetmetal is crafted to lure more male customers (the current demo split is 60% female); make up your own mind about that. What's more likely is that the revamped Prelude range simply conspires to attract more genuine enthusiasts: gone are the lower-powered S and Si versions of the outgoing Prelude, the new range consisting of just two models - Prelude and Prelude SH.

Both Prelude and Prelude SH are fitted with the smoking 2.2L VTEC DOHC 4-cyl. enginer that previously was relegated only to the Prelude VTEC. Honda engineers coaxed another 5 hp out of the high-output VTEC engine, which now peaks at 195 hp (190 horses for automatic-equipped cars).

The only real difference, then, is that the Prelude SH comes standard with an innovative new differential dubbed Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS). Here's the idea: as any vehicle corners, the wheel on the inside of the turn has less distance to travel than does the outside wheel. Okay, regular differentials have handled that problem forever, right?

But ATTS actually exploits the effect to make the car "turn in" with more precision. As cornering loads increase, the differential apportions more of the tractive torque to the outside front wheel, artificially increasing the car's yaw rate to reduce understeer and help it through the turn. It's not like traction control which is designed to reduce torque to an overloaded wheel - it's more like how a tank slows its track on one side and speeds up the track on the other side to make a sharp turn

Apart from the boisterous VTEC engine, the new Prelude improves dynamically with a 24% increase in torsional rigidity and a 55% increase in the bending mode. And though you'd be a fool to take anything but the delightful 5-speed manual transmission, Honda's nonetheless developed for the Prelude a new sequential-shift automatic - called, appropriately enough, Sequential Sportshift and similar to Chrysler Corp.'s Autostick and Porsche AG's Tiptronic - that allows regular lazy driving or more involved up-and-down stepped shifting of the automatic's four speeds.

The 1997 Prelude does away with the previous model's somewhat wacky digital instrument cluster in favor of more traditional gauges. There's also a claimed 2 ins. (50 mm) of additional rear-seat legroom, which means there's now a total of exactly 2 ins. of rear-seat legroom. No one but a toddler could actually put his feet under in the rear-seat foot space.

But this ain't a car for toddlers. The 1997 Prelude, particularly now that the low-powered versions are gone, is a highly focused sports car that puts competition like Ford's Probe GT and Toyota Motor Corp's Celica right on the trailer. To drive the Prelude fast and hard is to find transport to Nirvana. Just to experiment with the Prelude's brilliantly tuned antilock brakes is an exercise in understanding how deeply Honda engineers even the basics. Few cars of any price deliver such precision, such honed-tech delight on so many levels.