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.