VASTLY IMPROVED CABIN and INFOTAINMENT
Owners of the old Accord will feel like they've landed in a luxury hotel the second they slip into the new interior. The seats -- previously rock-hard and unsupportive -- are now soft and coddling. The cabin no longer smells like a wet dog, and all interior materials appear richer. Simple pleasures abound, like the positive feel of the interior door handle: you can actually feel the point at which it disengages the latch. Such a wonderfully Honda touch, that. Material foibles are limited to a high-gloss black trim plastic that, thanks to glitter in its finish, looks dusty when it's not, and a chrome bezel on the shifter that distractingly reflects sunlight.
The horn sounds great -- and you can actually give a quick toot, unlike some cars, which will allow either nothing or a half-second obnoxious "Get Out Of My Way!" The wiper arms are thick and meaty, and articulate to cover a very big portion of the windshield. The gauges are clear and legible, and the steering wheel is well shaped.
The 2013 Accord's center stack is dramatically less complicated than the old one, which looked like someone sneezed at it with a mouthful of buttons. HVAC controls are mercifully separated into their own, clearly delineated panel. All of the radio controls are logically arranged and easy to use. A standard eight-inch LCD display mounted up high performs backup camera duty (the camera is standard), and also provides entertainment details -- sadly in the smallest font known to man. The colorful graphics are a big step forward from last year's monochromatic menus, but the system doesn't properly take advantage of the screen's size.
That is, unless you get the optional navigation system. With navigation, you get a higher-resolution version of the upper screen (800x400 pixels instead of 480x320), but the buttons in the center stack are replaced with another LCD touchscreen, ostensibly in the name of reducing clutter. What it does, in fact, is occasionally display the same information in a different format and confuse the driver with illogical menus.
Additions to the higher-trim versions of the Accord include LED headlights (which inexplicably use halogen high-beams), adaptive cruise control (which, thankfully, can be used in conventional mode), forward collision warning (which is more nervous than a driver's ed instructor), and a novel feature Honda calls LaneWatch. This system, activated by turning the right-side turn signal on or pressing a button on the end of the stalk, displays a wide-angle image taken by a camera in the right-side side-view mirror. It's an interesting alternative to other blind-spot monitoring systems, but it doesn't function on the left side (where, arguably, you need it more). It's also intrusive at low speeds when you're approaching a turn, especially if you're trying to following directions from the navigation system, although you can turn it off.
Honda uses both 28-volt active engine mounts and cabin speakers to address NVH. Active Noise Control (ANC) counteracts road noise, and then Active Sound Control (ASC) fine-tunes sounds from under the hood. It can reduce the engine noise by up to 3 dB below 2000 rpm, but then is used to slightly alter the engine's note at high revs. You don't notice it working -- the four-cylinder makes blender-like four-cylinder noises, and it'll take a very well trained ear to hear the V-6 enter three-cylinder operation. Mostly, the cabin of the Accord is just quiet and pleasant.
Beginning early next year, the Accord PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) will go on sale as a 2014 model. It uses a DOHC 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder that produces 137 hp, assisted by a 124-kW electric motor for a total system output of 196 hp. The 6.7-kWh lithium-ion battery pack promises up to a 15-mile range on battery power alone.
The Accord PHEV's front-end styling is significantly different than the conventionally powered sedans, and it wears dramatic wheels designed to reduce aerodynamic drag. Honda allowed us to take a quick spin in a prototype vehicle that seemed nearly production-ready. The blended brakes' handoff between regenerative and friction braking as you approach a stop -- historically one of the hardest things for car companies to get right -- is the best we've ever experienced. The Accord PHEV is not quick off the line -- in fact, it's painfully slow -- but it accelerates quite rapidly at highway speeds. Cornering maneuvers betray the additional weight in the back, where the battery is mounted. (It takes up what seems like half of the trunk.) A full hybrid (non-plug-in) Accord will go on sale in the summer of 2013.
BACK TO THE TOP OF THE CLASS
This family sedan segment has always been hotly contested, and is now even more so. The Accord reenters the market against a highly styled Hyundai Sonata (and drop-dead gorgeous Kia Optima), a vastly improved Toyota Camry, and a highly competent new Nissan Altima.
Great as those competitors are, they're not perfect -- the Hyundai/Kia twins are rough around the edges where NVH, ride quality, and steering are concerned; the Camry is still plagued with milquetoast exterior styling; the Nissan is frumpy looking and its four-cylinder lags way behind in refinement.
The four-cylinder Honda Accord, despite its copycat styling, suffers from very little in the way of drawbacks. In fact, it's good enough for us to say it has squeaked past the Toyota Camry and regained its spot at the top of the class.
How long will that last? Well, we'll be driving the new (and talk about good-looking!) Ford Fusion and an all-new Mazda 6 very shortly... and we'll then see whether this Accord of a certain age can remain ahead of its peers.
2013 Honda Accord
Base price: $22,000 (estimated)
On sale: September 19 (sedan), October 15 (coupe), January 2013 (PHEV)
2.0L I-4 plug in electric hybrid, 196 hp, 226 lb-ft
2.4L I-4, 185/189 hp, 181 lb-ft
3.5L V-6, 278 hp, 252 lb-ft
6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic, CVT
Fuel Economy (city/highway/combined):
27/36/30 mpg (sedan, 4-cyl, auto)
26/35/29 mpg (coupe, 4-cyl, auto)
24/34/28 mpg (sedan and coupe, 4-cyl, manual)
21/34/25 mpg (sedan, V-6, auto)
21/32/25 mpg (coupe, V-6, auto)
18/28/22 mpg (coupe, V-6, manual)