If asked to name the quintessential family sedan, many moms and dads would choose the Honda Accord. Yet families weren't the first thing on Honda's mind when it set out to overhaul its best-selling Accord for the 2003 model year. It aimed to please buyers who want more excitement and performance in their cars.
Did Honda (HMC) succeed? I think so. After test-driving various versions, including the upscale $24,100 EX, I found a car that's edging more toward a European look and road feel than its predecessor. It has a stiffer body, a more sophisticated suspension that handles better around corners, and bigger wheels. Even the 160-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, new this year, is faster off the mark than last year's, and the 240-hp V6 is a virtual match for the Nissan Altima--and packs 50 hp more than either the Toyota Camry or Volkswagen Passat.
The ride is smooth and taut, and the Accord sits tight even when you take the curves faster than you should. Steering is natural, even at high speeds, and doesn't kick back when you're cornering on a bumpy surface. In its V6 incarnation, with the bigger engine and bigger tires, the Accord can be downright lusty.
Even so, you'll never mistake this for anything other than an Accord. It still looks like a family sedan, although it's not as conservatively styled as in the past. It has a pronounced wedge shape, a more aggressive front, and a more muscular look around the front wheels.
Inside, it's filled with little luxuries. Even on the $16,260 base model, the steering wheel telescopes and tilts, the driver's-seat height is adjustable, and antilock brakes are standard. The floor in the passenger compartment is flat, and map pockets on the doors can accommodate water bottles. The instrument panel, which is dark when the car is parked, lights up in stages to a Lexus-like brilliance when you open the door, insert the key, and turn on the engine. It gets even better as you move up the line. LX models, starting at $19,660, come with keyless entry, and the remote buttons are built into the key rather than a fob. EX models get individual climate controls for the driver and passenger.
One less-than-luxurious element is the way Honda rations air bags. Side air bags cost $250 on low-end models. Side curtain bags that drop down to protect your head in crashes are available only in the top-of-the-line EX V6 versions, which start at $26,360. Still, you get a lot for your money with the new Accord, including doodads you'd expect to find only in much pricier cars. The Accord has been the No. 1 or No. 2 best-selling car in the U.S. since 1989. This year's refinement and polish should keep it at the top. By Larry Armstrong