The Honda Accord is a mirror reflecting not only the desires of American consumers but those consumers themselves, as the car has grown from its compact origins into an EPA-classified large car in its latest iteration.
Just as American homes have grown larger and Americans themselves have grown larger, so it goes with Honda’s “big” car, the Accord.
It started life in 1976 as a humble 2,020-pound, 162.8-inch-long subcompact hatchback powered by a 68 horsepower 1.6-liter engine. Today’s 2008 model includes an optional V-6-power plant, tips the scales at 3,577 pounds and stretches 194.3 inches from bumper to bumper.
With 120 cubic feet of interior volume, the car has crossed threshold into the “large” car group, along with such grandfatherly models as the Ford Crown Victoria and Buick Lucerne. Perhaps sthat should come as little surprise since the car’s customers have aged a year every year over the past decade, and the average Accord owner is now 50, according to the company.
The new Accord offers an array of engine options, a strategy more common to domestic carmakers than the company whose slogan once was, “We make it simple.”
The base engine is a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder rated at 180 horsepower, and the same engine in a higher state of tune produces 190 horsepower in more luxurious models. That’s 47.5 horses from each cylinder, compared to 68 horsepower for the original model’s whole engine.
Most V-6 versions of the Accord come with Honda’s variable cylinder management technology, which allows the engine to save fuel by running on three, four or six cylinders depending on conditions. This is a change from earlier versions of VCM, which only switched between three and six cylinders.
The new design permits cylinder deactivation in a wider range of driving circumstances, which helps boost gas mileage. However, the sporty V-6-powered two-door coupe model, when equipped with the six-speed manual transmission, does not include VCM technology, forgoing the feature to ensure maximum power at low revs and partial throttle.
While the once-petite Accord is slipping into a plus-sized outfit, its new dress is unquestionably more stylish than the dowdy frock that adorned the outgoing model.
The old Accord, introduced as a 2003 model, was such a styling disappointment that the company rushed through a midlife restyle in 2006 (unprecedented for Honda, although plenty of others have made similar missteps).
With the new Accord, rather than assuming that mainstream sedan buyers don’t care about styling, the company emphasized eye-catching looks from the start. But an obstacle arose in the drive to make the new Accord look better: European pedestrian protection standards.
In a bid to reduce pedestrian fatalities in Europe’s crowded streets, cars sold there are now required to lessen the impact on human bodies in the event of a road collision. In practice this has meant raised hoods that provide empty crush space above the engine to help cushion a victim’s head, protecting it from hitting the rigid engine.
The requirement has produced some homely new cars. Honda designers seem to have worked overtime to make the rest of the car as sleek and racy as possible. At the front, stylists opted for a tall, unapologetically blunt grille. The goal was to evoke images of strength and power, explained chief engineer Chitoshi Yokota, to make customers feel safe and secure in the Accord.
When seen in marketing brochures the two halves work well together. However, in person I found that, especially with the streamlined coupe, the whole section forward of the windshield looks “added on,” like one of the disguises manufacturers wrap around test prototypes as camouflage. If only we could pull that covering off to reveal the low, swoopy nose to match the rest of the car, I imagined.
But such low front ends aren’t possible for cars meant to be sold the world over. And to its credit, the Accord is not only better-looking that its predecessor, it’s also more distinctive than the smart new Nissan Altima. The Altima has similar lines and deals with the same challenges, but the result is a little more generic-looking than the Accord.
Inside the Accord, attractively styled components are let down by the nearly exclusive use of hard plastics. Most of these enjoy a good surface texture and matte finish which convincingly apes the appearance of soft materials, but everything inside the Accord other than the steering wheel and armrests is as rigid as the party line on gay marriage. The Camry has the same problem, but after years of criticism of its cheap interiors, Nissan gave the new Altima some nice soft surfaces inside.
Once under way, the new Accord impresses in both four- and six-cylinder forms and with both manual and automatic transmissions. Both engines are surpassingly smooth and quiet, and the V-6 has, as advertised, effective power. The four-cylinder engine has sufficient power in both versions, but at highway speed and laden with passengers, the four-cylinder automatic can run short of breath in passing situations. The slow-selling hybrid Accord has been dropped, to be replaced next year by a fuel-sipping clean diesel.
Five-speed automatic transmissions are available for all engine choices, and a five-speed manual is available with the four-cylinder engine. There is no manual transmission available for V-6 sedans, and the coupe offers a six-speed manual transmission only in its top-of-the-line EX-L trim level, which I tested.
The company found there was simply too little demand from U.S. consumers to justify the cost of developing and manufacturing V-6 manual cars, explained Dan Bonawitz, vice president of American Honda Motor. In those cars that are “shift-it-yourself” models, the shifter action remains good and Honda has worked on its traditionally light and numb clutch action for improved feel at the friction point.
Honda spiced up the usually unremarkable performance of the automatic transmission with smart programming that tells the transmission to hold its gear steady when consistently accelerating and decelerating on a curvy road. This reduces annoying, unwanted gear changes and gives the driver a better feeling of control when approaching turns.
The Accord maintains Honda’s tradition of direct, responsive steering, with the car tracking exactly where the driver expects. This is an obvious, but too-often overlooked trait, and the Accord is better in this respect than the new Altima.
Preserving this accurate response is actually a trick of sorts, because Honda changed the Accord to variable ratio steering. That means the steering is slower to respond when headed straight, for stability, and is quicker when the steering wheel is turned, as when driving in switchbacks, or in parking maneuvers. When the ratio changes mid-corner there can be unexpected results, but Honda has executed its system well so the effect is unnoticeable.
The new Accord’s structure is stiffer (by 20 percent) and Honda has attacked noise at every opportunity, which contributes to a more serene cabin. The stiffer platform permits the suspension to work as intended, and on the undemanding roads of our Cape Cod test route, the Accord showed a smooth ride to go with its precision handling.
Honda officials have said that they hope the new Accord will continue to sell in its current range of 400,000 units per year, and that seems a sure bet considering the new model’s improvements over the old car.
If nothing else, judging from other trends, the new car’s added size should expand its appeal to consumers. If its designers could find a way to include a “great room” or 10-foot ceilings, the Accord’s success would be guaranteed.