Sep. 10, 2012 at 11:55 AM ET
At a time when competition in the passenger car market is heating up like seldom, if ever, before, the aging Honda Accord is going out with a bang, rather than a whimper.
The automaker has announced an all-new, 2013 version of the midsize mainstay will roll into dealers in the weeks to come, normally a signal for buyers to sit on their wallets and wait. But the outgoing Accord delivered a sales surprise last month, demand for the old car nearly doubling – and sending a signal that Honda could be well positioned to do even better with the new model.
It certainly will need to hit this one out of the park. The Japanese brand initially faltered when it launched a new version of the smaller Civic, two years ago. The critical drubbing, along with poor sales of such recent additions to the line-up as the Insight, CrossTour and CR-Z, have led many industry watchers to wonder whether Honda has lost the magic that made it such a powerful force in the passenger car market over the years.
“It’s the most competitive industry we’ve ever had out there,” said Vicki Popponi, a senior Honda product planner, pointing to the range of new competitors hitting the midsize market, including the 2013 Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu. Toyota is adding another version of the redesigned Camry it launched in 2012 and Mazda will soon launch an all-new Mazda6. “It’s playing out like an arms race,” Popponi said during a media preview of the new Accord.
There’s no question Honda is launching the 2013 Accord with a different mindset than it might have just a few years ago. The Japanese maker was set on its heels by the unexpected drubbing the redesigned Civic received – even normally Honda-friendly Consumer Reports magazine turning thumbs down.
“We underestimated what the competition was going to do” when preparing the Civic, acknowledged John Mendel, Honda’s top American executive, during an interview. But he insisted the maker wasn’t going to repeat that mistake.
The bigger and more expensive Accord doesn’t show the signs of corner-cutting that have plagued many recent entries from Japan – where automakers are struggling to cope with increasingly lopsided exchange rates that have come to work against them.
The new model is more elegantly detailed and lavishly outfitted. And it has adopted a more aggressive design than Honda’s typically cautious approach to styling. The maker invested more than $65 million in a new stamping press capable of handling the sculptural details in the new Accord’s body, Mendel noted.
Though second to segment fuel economy leader Altima, Honda plans to focus much of its marketing on the new Accord’s mileage – up to 36 miles per gallon on the highway with models equipped with a new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and new continuously-variable transmission, or CVT.
That powertrain package is part of a major new technology program Honda has dubbed “Earth Dreams.” It’s designed to respond to critics who say the maker had lost focus in recent years. Founder Soichiro Honda liked to say that his was an engine company that also built cars. But until the launch of the Accord, Honda didn’t have a single engine using direct injection, or DI. It was getting by with mostly four- and five-speed gearboxes when competitors were upping the gear count to more fuel-efficient sixes, sevens, eights and even nine-speed transmissions.
The Accord will get a new DI engine, the new CVT and an optional six-speed. Further down the line the maker will add even more advanced conventional powertrain technologies while also upgrading its batter-based drivelines. The 2013 Accord will be the first Honda midsize to offer a hybrid option.
“This is a big deal for us,” said Mike Accavitti, Honda’s top U.S. marketing executives, adding that “The new Accord is not a one-trick pony.” Among other things, the executives insists that the new model will deliver “that old-school Honda driving character” that critics felt was left out of the new Civic.
Based on his initial time with the 2013 Accord, analyst George Peterson, of AutoPacific, Inc., walked away pleased. “This car is substantially better than its predecessor,” he proclaimed. “It’s a very competitive product,” he added, “and it still would be even if it didn’t have the Honda name on it.”
Honda can only hope that others agree when automotive reviewers get their chance to weigh in later this month, shortly before the first of the new 2013 Accords officially go on sale. The midsize segment is offering more choice than ever before. Detroit makers are once again targeting the critical segment and getting initial raves of their own. The Koreans are stronger than ever. And even though its Camry is a year old, now, it’s clear Toyota won’t settle back and let Honda slip by.
But if August sales are any indication, Honda has plenty of loyal fans ready to return to its showrooms – and strong reviews and good worth of mouth could win it converts, as well.
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