September 19, 2012

News & Features

Auto review: Honda Accord maintains no-nonsense reliability

New York Times News Service

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The 2013 Honda Accord is available as either a coupe or sedan. (Honda)

Since 1976, the Honda Accord has been the car for people who don't want their car to say anything about them. It doesn't boast or gossip or tell lies. It's not glamorous, showy or racy. It's a stalwart car that does everything well except call attention to itself.

The all-new and all-better ninth-generation Accord does nothing to betray that or the car's enormous, well-established and self-actualized customer base. The 2013 Accord, on sale this week, is so thoroughly pleasant and capable that its buyers may even be tempted to admit enjoying it — when pressed, and only after explaining that they never think about cars, and after consuming a couple of sensible cocktails. Maybe Manhattans or Old Fashioneds.

The Accord swims in the deepest part of the mainstream where the currents have led virtually every manufacturer to the same midsize sedan formula: front-wheel drive, unibody construction, a wheelbase of about 110 inches, a standard transverse-mounted 4- or 5-cylinder engine displacing about 2.4 or 2.5 liters, a base price hovering around $22,000. In fact, one of the Accord's most distinctive engineering elements, the double-wishbone front suspension used since the third-generation model of 1986, has been sacrificed on the altar of conventional wisdom in favor of a MacPherson strut system like all of its competitors.

Honda says the struts are simpler and lighter and they now work as well as wishbones. After all, even Porsches and BMWs are using struts, too. As of now, only one Honda retains those once-beloved wishbones — the low-production experimental FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel-cell car.

As before, the Accord comes as either a two-door coupe or a four-door sedan. The coupe is nice, but it's the sedan that sells — most often as the base LX model with a 4-cylinder engine. My test car, however, was the EX-L sedan, near the top of the line with a V-6 engine, leather upholstery and a GPS navigation system — and a sticker price of $32,860. A new Touring model rules from atop the heap, at $34,220.

A plug-in hybrid model will be available in early 2013 as a 2014 model, with a two-motor hybrid to follow next summer.

Honda didn't have an LX sedan with the 6-speed manual transmission ($22,470) at the press introduction here, mere blocks from my house. But it did have the 4-cylinder EX ($25,395) equipped with a new belt-driven continuously variable automatic transmission. At 2.4 liters, the in-line 4 is the same size as last year's but now features direct injection of fuel and a new double-overhead-cam cylinder head with an integral exhaust manifold that feeds forward directly into a huge catalytic converter mounted just behind the radiator.

Rated at a robust 185 horsepower, the new 4-cylinder feels strong and runs relatively quietly. The continuously variable automatic saps some of the thrust but is one of the sweeter examples of the breed, with a Sport mode that sharpens its reflexes. Paddle shifters to manually engage virtual gears on the CVT are available on the new Sport model and on all of the coupes, although it is not available with the LX and EX sedans. Honda credits the CVT for helping the fuel economy of 4-cylinder sedans to rise to an estimated 27 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway.

The new sedan retains the traditional Accord proportions of a low cowl and raised rump, and the low window sills — running counter to the recent trend of bunkerlike cabins — contribute to good visibility and an airy feeling. The wheelbase has shrunk an inch while the width has increased just a bit. More heavily sculptured flanks make the new car appear more substantial while the front grille makes it seem wider. And LED headlamps make the car look more expensive and contemporary. But the Accord is still a car that blends into the sprawl like a Starbucks; you only notice it if you look for it.

The Honda's evolution is most pronounced inside. All new Accords have a standard rearview camera that displays in an 8-inch LCD display atop the center of the dashboard, and the various available media elements — Pandora, Bluetooth audio, USB-linked devices, SMS messaging, perhaps even live miniature yodelers — are covered by a second, smaller LCD touch screen below it.

The big kick, though, is an optional rear-facing camera embedded in the right side-view mirror. The camera looks back along the Accord's flank, providing in the larger screen a nearly panoramic view of the lane to the right whenever the right turn signal is engaged or a button is pressed at the end of the stalk. Honda calls this system LaneWatch, and it works brilliantly. Too bad there isn't a way to instantly post lane changes to Facebook.
But the lane-departure warning system was annoying after a few miles, and I turned it off.

The interior is restrained in design and executed in materials that seem both higher in quality and better tailored than most cars in this class. The rear seat is roomy enough for three across, but all the seat cushions are rather shapeless and lacking in thigh support. The buttons and switches operate with the sort of precision and determination expected of world-class biathletes. And the Accord is quiet. Very quiet.

Besides the buttery smoothness of Honda's 3.5-liter V-6 — also found in the Pilot crossover, Odyssey minivan and a slew of Acuras — every new Accord uses electronic technology to cancel out unwanted noise. Two microphones collect noises entering the cockpit, and a computer then generates a countervailing, out-of-phase sound out through the speakers to counter it.

With 278 horsepower, ample torque and a new sweet-shifting 6-speed automatic transmission, the Accord V-6 sedan rips to 60 mph in just 6.1 seconds, according to Edmunds.com's Inside Line. That's nearly a full second quicker than the previous-generation car and a tenth of a second better than the Altima V-6.

And the Honda V-6, which still lacks direct injection, an increasingly common technology for efficient use of fuel, does this while kicking back excellent EPA numbers of 21 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. That's largely because of technology that shuts down up to half the cylinders when they are not needed. In 191 miles of mostly freeway driving, I got 28.7 mpg.

So the Accord is quick, yes. But sporty? No. The suspension is softly tuned and relies on modest 17-inch all-season tires that are built for fuel economy and comfort, not ultimate adhesion. With almost two-thirds of its weight on the front wheels, the Accord will push its nose through corners. The electrically assisted power steering has a light and precise feel, but it's not particularly quick. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are aboard, but the lazy tires and an unloaded weight of more than 3,500 pounds conspire against particularly short stopping distances.

The basic designs of midsize sedans are so similar that it's tempting to lump them together and assume that each is as good as the others — just go with the one that has the most features you like. And almost all of the cars in this market segment are very good. But this new Accord is excellent.

The lackluster Civic introduced last year made me question whether Honda had strayed from its true path. This Accord restores my faith in the company's chi.

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