DETROIT'S auto biggies call four-wheel-steering a gimmick. At best, they say, it's unproven technology. Better to let the Japanese risk introducing the system in the U.S. market, they say.

If four-wheel-steering works, and the consumers bite? No problem. Good ol' Detroit will crank up its design and engineering staffs and roll out so many 4WS models, hey, people will think America came up with the idea of mass-marketing the system on private passenger cars.

Fat chance.

Here is the 1988 Honda Prelude Si 4WS. It's a terrific car. It makes sense. It works. Honda will sell every one it can make, which means all other 4WS cars will be judged by the Honda standard.

The Prelude Si's optional new steering system is mechanical and simple. Its mission is to improve vehicle handling in high-speed lane changes and in cornering, and to enhance maneuverability in tight, low-speed situations like parallel parking.

At high speeds, the rear wheels of the Prelude Si instantly turn about two degrees in the same direction as the front wheels, thus helping the driver change lanes more quickly and precisely. The rear wheels turn several degrees more in the direction of the front wheels in turns and corners, virtually eliminating rear-end swing-out.

Parking this car in tight spots is a cinch: The rear wheels turn in an opposite direction from the front set, enabling the driver to wriggle into tight spaces.

Most of this is accomplished through the clever arrangement of a front-to-rear steering shaft connected to a rear steering box. The system is steering-angle dependent and speed-sensitive. The box steers the rear wheels one way or the other, based on the input from the rotating shaft.

'Tis a pity, at least for U.S. car companies. For years, they've been touting product innovation and improvements in product quality. And, indeed, they've come a long, long way from where they were a decade ago. They're competitive. They're in the race.

But in too many cases, American companies seem to run with blinders on. Their attitude toward four-wheel-steering is representative. They don't see a market. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Complaints: None. Really, literally none.

Concern: Four-wheel-steering requires a little getting used to. The Prelude Si 4WS responds immediately to driver actions, foolish and otherwise. No lollygagging or one-hand-driving in this one. It is a precise, serious car, and lots of fun to drive when driven properly.

Praise: Just an excellent job of engineering. And four-wheel-steering is only part of the package. Though the 1988 Prelude Si looks similar to its two previous iterations, it's a totally different car. It has a longer, lower front that further reduces wind resistance; more glass surface, which is a plus for visibility. Yeah, and it's got a spiffy new engine, a 2-liter, twin-cam, 16-valve, four-cylinder job that produces 135 hp at 6,200 rpm.

Of course, it has traditional Honda quality: tight fit, perfect paint and an excellently designed interior that seats four in reasonable comfort. Not bad for a front-wheel-drive sporty coupe.

Head-turning quotient: Not stunning. But it gets respect.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with electronic seek and scan. Four speakers in test model. Honda. Good.

Mileage: About 2l to the gallon (15.9-gallon tank, estimated 330-mile range), mostly highway, running driver only and with air conditioner operating part-time. Test model equipped with super-smooth five-speed manual gearbox.

Estimated price: $18,000 as tested. Estimated base price is $17,000. No dealer invoice price available at this writing, but Honda dealers traditionally get about an 11 percent gain from sticker. Model to be introduced later this year, when official prices will be announced. This has the stuff of a high-demand model. Expect to pay premiums.

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Washington Post.