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Honda Zips Up the Accord

With the imminent debut of its eighth-generation Accord, Honda is looking to upgrade its plain vanilla image

My local gourmet shop has an entire wall covered with all the different flavors of ice cream, sorbets and gelatos it offers. Yet despite the exotic offerings, vanilla is still one of the store's biggest sellers. So why should we be surprised to see the same thing in the midsize automotive market, where "plain vanilla" offerings, like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, have consistently dominated the sales charts, year-after-year?

Surprisingly, it's the automakers who seem most worried about being viewed as little more than automotive appliances. With the launch of its most recent Camry, Toyota tried to introduce a bit more styling flair while also upgrading both performance and handling. Now, it's Honda's turn.

With the imminent debut of its eighth-generation Accord, the Japanese maker is hoping to ramp up the flavor quotient. As discovered, during a preview in Boston , Honda's new mid-size sedan is decidedly more interesting to look at, with a bolder, yet cleaner overall look, starting with its aggressive new nose, and flaired wheel wells.

Notably, Honda has chosen to give the Accord Coupe a unique look, for the first time fitting it with completely different body panels. The buzzword, sporty, is quick to the lips, but it's more than just a catchphrase. The two-door is markedly sleeker, with a sexy curve to the roof, the bold character line, sweeping from front wheels to rear lamps, giving the coupe a sense of constant motion.

Under the skin, both vehicles benefit from much-desired improvements to chassis, powertrain, and running gear. Though we were disappointed to learn that Honda overestimated its original horsepower numbers, our time behind the wheel revealed some real performers about to roll into showrooms across the U.S.

But for all the changes, Honda isn't walking away from what has made the Accord a consistent best-seller. It still offers an unexpectedly roomy and comfortable interior—in both coupe and sedan configurations. There's plenty of upscale content, even on the base model. And the latest studies, from the likes of J.D. Power and Associates, show that Honda remains one of the most reliable brands on the market, even as some of its Asian competitors run into trouble. Barring something truly unexpected, we're expecting the new Accord to maintain its largely trouble-free reputation.

The 2008 sedan is a wee bit bigger than before—in keeping with Accord tradition. "As our customers grew up, we've grown up with them," said Dan Bonawitz, Honda's marketing chief. Nose to tail, it's 70 mm (about three inches) longer, with the wheelbase bumped 60 mm. Most of that goes into a roomier cabin. The roof is 25 mm (an inch) taller, even though the floor is lower, further enhancing the feel of roominess.

All that added sheetmetal couldn't overcome Honda engineers' efforts to trim weight, so the new car comes in at about 150 pounds more than before, though as we'll see in a moment, that's not reflected in the fuel economy.

The original Accord hatchback that hit U.S. highways in 1976 was barely as big as today's Honda Civic. The Accord sedan followed three years later. In that era of downsized expectations, buyers had to settle for a miniscule, 68-horsepower CVCC engine.

The next generation of Accord buyers will have three powertrains to choose from, including the beefy, 3.5-liter i-VTEC V-6. It makes a solid 268 hp, and though that's five less than Honda originally expected, you wouldn't notice on the road. In the sedan, this engine gives you a solid, aggressive launch feel, and in the coupe, you'll find yourself pushed deeply into the new sport seats.

In the weeks after our New England ride-and-drive, Honda modestly downgraded ratings for the other two powertrain packages, as well. For the most mileage-minded of customers, there's a 177-horsepower in-line four. It delivers acceptable levels of acceleration, but the word, "anemic" might come to mind. A nice compromise can be found in the form of the 190-hp in-line four.

Depending on model and body style, you have the option of a five or six-speed manual (the latter exclusive on the Accord EX-L Coupe with V-6), or a 5-speed automatic, standard on the V-6 sedan. All automatic transmissions get a new shift-hold function. This ensures they won't be hunting and seeking between gears at the wrong time, especially when charging through a tight corner.

Fuel economy has become a much bigger selling point since the launch of the last Accord, and Honda has some good news for V-6 buyers, the sedan now yielding 19 mpg city, 29 highway, compared to 20 and 29 for the outgoing Accord. So, why's that good news? Because the federal government recently changed its testing procedure to bring its figures closer to real-world results. So, if the 2007 model were subjected to the same revisions, its mileage numbers would drop to 18/26. So, after all that, it comes down to a modest improvement around town and a 3-mpg jump in highway driving.

The LX's 2.5-liter in-line four, meanwhile, delivers 21 city and 31 highway, the same as the '07 model, which would mean 24/34 mpg using the old federal testing system.

One thing that might disappoint potential buyers is Honda's decision to abandon the Accord hybrid. Then again, the reason Honda is making that move is because there simply weren't many takers for the gasoline-electric powertrain. Instead, the automaker plans to take Toyota 's lead, and is now readying a distinctively-styled Prius-like hybrid.

But those who want alternative powertrains, don't fret; all indications point to the upcoming launch of a new diesel Accord, and unlike some European offerings, this one will likely not require the use of the additive urea. Yet mileage will absolutely smoke the old Accord Hybrid, even if modern diesels emit no noxious smoke, whatsoever.

With the debut of the 2008 Accord, Honda turns to the new ACE body structure that is stiffer than ever. That's great for handling—and for safety, though the new structure also crushes in a manner designed to channel crash pulses away from the passenger compartment.

Safety is clearly a watchword for Honda, and the '08 Accord comes with a wide array of new and much-desired safety gear. ABS brakes, Traction Control, Brake Assist and Electronic Brake Force Distribution are all standard on every Accord model, as is electronic stability control.

In terms of passive safety, there are dual-stage front airbags, front row side-impact thorax bags and side-curtain airbags front and back, and active head restraints. There's also a new system designed to reduce injuries should the car strike a pedestrian.

Though bigger, Honda engineers managed to lower the new Accord's center of gravity. They've modified the double-wishbone front suspension geometry and gone with a multilink rear. The result is a very supple suspension package that seems to soak up bumps almost imperceptibly, without numbing out road feel.

Our test route didn't provide a lot of opportunity to nudge the limits, but what we experienced was quite satisfying. The '08 Accord is well-planted and responsive. The new, variable gear ration steering is precise and supple, with a clear, on-center feel.

The new Coupe is particularly fun to drive, something enhanced by its 268-hp V-6 and standard 18-inch wheels. Considering the general industry trend, we were excited to see Honda maintain its manual transmission offerings. The Coupe's six-speed is particularly quick and responsive.

For all the exterior changes, you live inside a car like the Accord, so we were anxious to experience the new interior. Material choices have been nicely upgraded. The Honda mantra for the 2008 upgrade is "attainable exclusivity." That might take things a little far. This is still a mainstream, mid-size sedan, but the new Accord's cockpit is definitely among the best.

The dashboard is laid out in a sort of dual-cockpit mode. Gauges and controls are particularly well placed, Honda engineers explaining their goal was to reduce the amount of time a driver had to look away from the road. They succeeded well.

There's a new audio package with an RDS system that allows a user to seek specific music formats in a variety of formats, including AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3-aux. The new Accord is the first to offer hands-free Bluetooth cellphoning. And the optional navigation system is not only easy to program but boasts a positively massive, eight-inch display.

The new car features sportier seats, but ones that are quite comfortable over long distances. Among other advantages, they feature an expanded range of motion. The larger cabin means more space between front-seat occupants, filled with a larger center armrest.

We were surprised that Honda didn't opt for one of the new ambient lighting packages many of its competitors are bragging about. We were also surprised that the automaker doesn't offer separate rear-seat climate control switches, something Honda officials admit they skipped to hold down pricing.

Do such things matter? Everything impacts sales these days, in the hotly competitive market. Last year, Accord sales dipped to 360,000, down from a peak of 386,000, with the outgoing, seventh-generation, and an all-time Accord best of 416,000.

Part of the problem, admits Honda planner Gary Robinson, is that to some potential buyers, Accord has become, er, sensible. Like old shoes, practical and boring. No wonder the average buyer's age is now 50, up from 41 a decade or so ago. Younger, hipper buyers, the company concedes, have been opting for sportier offerings, notably the Nissan Altima. But Toyota 's Camry is also picking off Honda's more conservative set.

So it's going to be a tough challenge to win back either group, if not both. Of course, the recent run-up in fuel prices will help since, says marketing chief Bonawitz, "We're seeing movement back to mid-size sedans from SUVs" and other truck-like vehicles.

The new Accord could be a perfect destination for such shifting buyers. The car offers the roominess they'd expect, and plenty of content. It's peppy, reasonably fuel-efficient, and offers a wide range of safety features.

Are we now ready to think of the Accord as Mocha Chocolate Gelato, perhaps, or even Cherry Garcia? Well, maybe not, but the 2008 remake is definitely a much more exciting version of French Vanilla.

2008 Honda Accord

Base price: $19,500 (est.)

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 268 hp/248 lb-ft; 2.4-liter in-line four, 190 hp/168 lb-ft; 2.4-liter in-line four, 177 hp/161 lb-ft

Length x width x height: 194.1 x 72.7 x 58.1 in (sedan)

Wheelbase: 110.2 in

Curb weight: 3213-3583 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 19/29 mpg (V-6 sedan); 19/28 mpg (V-6 Coupe); 21/31 mpg (four-cylinder, both versions)

Major standard features: Power windows/locks/mirrors; six-speaker audio system with AM/FM/CD/MP3 and RDS; steering wheel-mounted audio controls

Safety features: Dual front, side, and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction control; active head restraints; tire pressure monitors

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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