As the legendary philosopher-catcher Yogi Berra once advised, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. The American Honda Motor Company says that it encountered just such a fork when it came time to design the new, seventh-generation Accord. Just so you know, the company says that when it came to the fateful juncture, it veered toward the European with the new Accord--sharper feedback, improved handling, and a much-needed infusion of emotional content--thus taking the bold turn its most honorable cutthroat competitors have eschewed in America's "bestselling sedan" sweepstakes.
Honda took the fork in the road, all right. Both sides of it, Yogi-style. Because if the none-too-radical Accord jogs left to become a tittle more Euro in its latest iteration, it high-steps to the right at the same time to be just a little more like its even more conservative competition.
We speak here chiefly of the Toyota Camry, whose lack of emotion and sporty persuasion, if anything, grew even more pronounced in its otherwise predictably brilliant revamp for 2002. Ford's Taurus, the other sales crown contender duking it out with the Accord in the '90s, has not been lighting too many fires or tugging a lot of heartstrings lately. Although it still sells in volume, it seems less of a threat than it was, as underloved by the buying public as it apparently is by its makers.
Yet Honda's executives, engineers, and PR people seemed in a particularly humble frame of mind, nervous even, when they came here with the new Accord, in pre-build sedan and coupe form. For comparison purposes, they brought along a healthy assortment of their competitors' wares, including, besides the Camry and the Taurus, late-breaking box-office comers such as the Volkswagen Passat and the Nissan Altima.
Decamped at the secluded Stockport Mill Country Inn, a grain mill turned B&B, they'd deliberately summoned us well off the beaten path to avoid revealing the new Accord before its time. Fifty miles south of teeming Zanesville, Ohio (population 27,200 in the 1994 census), we were here to assess the fruits of the company's best efforts, in this most key segment of a most key market at a most key moment in company history. Somewhere along the banks of the Muskingum River, we'd be casting our votes on Honda's bid to continue building, depending on whose statistics you prefer, the best- or second-best-selling passenger car in America.
A little sales history explains why this is such serious business. With annual volume in the 400,000-unit range, Toyota often declares that its Camry has won America's bestselling "car" title outright. But Honda has long argued that when you subtract deep-discount-to-the-point-of-profitless fleet sales to car rental agencies and the like, Toyota falls behind in many of the years it has claimed sales superiority. When private citizens spend their own money, they prefer Accords, Honda says, nine out of the last ten years.
Semantics and statistical bickering aside, you're talking a lot of cars here, the kind of beautiful, bounteous numbers that, one can't help remembering, Detroit used to post for its most popular family car lines with regularity. Alas, with SUVs paying the rent nowadays, Detroit appears to have temporarily mislaid the formula for the bestselling family car. The War of the Great American Family Sedan is over, and the Japanese transplants have won. Last year, an inarguably class-winning 414,718 Accords were sold here as Honda rang up an all-time record 1.2 million U.S. sales.
Charlie Baker is the personable Honda executive engineer who led the Accord program (see accompanying story). Baker, an American, has spent the last two years on assignment to Honda's R&D company in Tochigi, Japan. "I've heard it said in Japan. 'Nissan are the city slickers. Toyota are the country cousins. And Honda are the single-minded, kind of weird motorcycle mechanic guys.' There's a certain truth to this," Baker muses, knowing his listeners will be charmed.
Enthusiasts gravitate toward engineering-driven concerns, and in this respect, Honda is one of the greats. This is why it will be little surprise to anyone reading this magazine to learn that the new Accord is another great Honda, one you'd recommend to a complete stranger or your own mom with equal confidence. More safety (and, listen up, General Motors, standard ABS). More ponies (up 7 percent in the four-cylinder to 160 horsepower and up a full 20 percent in V-6 cars to 240 horsepower) and improved emissions. A superior ride and better seats. So what else is new? It's another new Honda.
Not that Audi planners will be waking up in the middle of the night to cold shivers. The Accord is not particularly European in any obvious way, except perhaps for a shape that might be said to echo some mainstream Renaults of recent memory, a high-rumped nod toward the practical, with a raised roofline and slightly elevated seating per the current fashion. Honda says its stylists set out to echo the stance and visual impact of the cheetah. We'll leave it to you to spot the cheetah within.
The new Accord's handling, with its unequal-length control arms at all four wheels, remains sportier than some, a bit more buttoned down than the Camry and the unnaturally, un-necessarily bilious Passat. The horsepower infusion in V-6 models helps the Accord meet the challenge thrown down by the rapid (and more stylish) Altima V-6. But to call it Euro? We don't know. It seems a smidgen more adventurous than its immediate predecessor, but if it is anything Euro, it's a cushy European boulevardier, not a hardcore sport sedan. This holds true across the lineup, albeit to a lesser extent for the top-of-the-line coupe, with its V-6 and the six-speed manual. Nice, creamy, fast but still treading water on the anodyne side of the pool, and most definitely not a BMW.
Redesigned and usefully improved though it is, the interior doesn't feel too Euro, either. Everything works as well as it always has on Hondas of yore. Fit and finish are all you'd expect, and the front seats have been completely redesigned with an obvious eye on the height-adjustment mechanisms and articulation of Volkswagen's rule-breaking Passat. But that's where it ends. The colors are distinctly un-Euro, and the materials remind one of nothing so much as Honda interiors past, fuzzy mouse-fur stuff in Barcalounger shades of brown and gray, materials that once redefined American notions of the "quality" interior.
How many remember that it was the first Accord's pioneering use of this plush pseudo-velvet for seats and door panels in 1976 that set the trend for a generation of cars to come? Yet by now the material is almost a clich. No one, save Volkswagen, has done it much better, but somebody ought to. The comparison Passat we drove may cost more than the Accord--which remains an incredibly good value, with a four-door, four-cylinder manual still going out the door for a hair under $16,000--but the special feel of the interior appointments goes some way to justifying prices for mid-size Volkswagens as much as $5000 higher.
On the road, the Accord is pretty much what you'd have expected. Honda didn't have too far to go to out-sporty the Camry and the Taurus, and so it didn't go too far. Although the chassis feels perfectly capable when pressed, there's little here to strongly tickle the enthusiast's check-writing hand. Unless the enthusiast is a smart shopper first. For the eerie smoothness and technical sophistication of Honda engines continue to entice. And we predict that reliability and resale value--the twin foundations of Honda's good name--will remain on the top shelf.
Here's the short report: America's first- or second-best-selling passenger sedan is new and improved. Like clockwork, Honda has delivered another Accord even better attuned to the masses than its predecessor. It's getting predictable, if not monotonous. But as a marketing strategy, it cannot fail. For, as Yogi once further observed, "If people don't want to come to the ballpark, how are you gonna stop them?"