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Published: 10/16/2002 - by Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
As modern car companies go, Honda is rather unique. See, most automakers base their product line redesigns on a very specific cost-benefit ratio. Essentially, it costs a car company money to redesign a model, but these redesigns (if properly executed) benefit the company with increased sales. Scheduling these model makeovers to maximize the cost-benefit-redesign equation can be the focus of entire accounting teams for some carmakers. But Honda, despite bragging rights to several top sellers, continues to redesign its models every five years or so. The Civic was redesigned in 2001 and an all-new CR-V came along in 2002. Both nameplates were doing just fine in terms of showroom activity, but Honda reworked 'em all the same. We know of some bloated automotive conglomerates that could learn a thing or three from the big "H."
And with the 2003 Honda Accord comes the most unnecessary redesign of all, at least in terms of fixing what isn't broken. The Honda Accord has essentially owned the "best-selling car in America" title for more than a decade, and it continues to be the benchmark by which all other four-door people movers are measured. Consider it the BMW 3 Series of the midsize sedan class. But where the BMW excels in terms of driving passion and premium accoutrements, the Accord has traditionally based its success on solid interior ergonomics, roomy front- and rear-seat accommodations and a comfortable, confident ride.
For 2003 Honda has suggested a new direction for the Accord. The company tells us the car is now more "passionate" and "emotional." Its styling and demeanor are supposed to capture the spirit of a cheetah. There have even been industry trade stories reporting that Honda used the Volkswagen Passat as inspiration on how to give the company's volume sedan an appealing aura that goes beyond pure logic.
A week spent driving the new Honda Accord confirmed two things: It's still the segment benchmark in terms of ergonomic design, interior roominess and overall ride quality; and it still won't derail Passat intenders.
Our specific model was a Graphite Pearl Honda Accord LX sedan equipped with the 3.0-liter V6 and five-speed automatic transmission. The LX trim is the volume seller in the Accord line and it can be had with either a 2.4-liter iVTEC four-cylinder or the larger V6. The smaller four makes 160 peak horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 161 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. It can be mated to either a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic, but if you go with the V6 in either the LX or EX sedan, you must let the larger engine shift itself. (A V6 mated to a short-throw six-speed manual transmission is available in the Honda Accord EX coupe.)
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the Honda Accord's 240-horsepower V6 is how the engine masks its performance capabilities. Acceleration testing at our closed-course facility showed that the car had strong off-the-line power followed by consistent pull all the way up to its 6,500 rpm shift points (redline is 6,800 rpm). There was little of the high-end rush we've come to expect from Honda's VTEC variable valve timing equipped engines. Upshifts from the five-speed automatic were consistently crisp, and the overall sensation was one of highly refined and wholly adequate performance. Then we checked the numbers and saw that it was doing zero to 60 mph in seven seconds flat.
For comparison's sake we brought along our long-term Nissan Altima SE, equipped with that model's 240-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and a four-speed automatic, and ran it only moments after testing the Accord (meaning essentially identical testing conditions). While the Nissan felt far quicker than the Honda Accord due to increased engine roar and vibration, we could only manage a 6.8-second 0-to-60-mph time. It would appear that, while the new Accord isn't setting the performance pace in the midsize sedan category, it's certainly keeping up with the front-runners.
Actually, the Honda Accord keeps pace with the segment's fastest sedans in terms of straight-line acceleration, but when it comes to outright handling prowess, the Passat, Altima and new Mazda 6 have it beat. Honda continues to utilize a double-wishbone suspension front and rear on the new Accord, and refinements to suspension geometry at both ends, plus a rise in torsional rigidity of 27 percent, have further improved the car's ride quality. Steering weight, and associated road feel, has risen to near Germanic levels, and confidence under relaxed — or even moderately aggressive — driving conditions is again on par with anything in the segment.
However, Honda has foregone offering a sport package on the Accord, meaning a trip to your local wheel shop is necessary if you want something more than the 16-inch alloys offered on the top-of-the-line Accord EX V6 sedan (our LX test car had 16-inch steel wheels). Of course, you could buy an EX coupe if you really want an Accord with factory 17-inch alloy wheels, but getting the kids into and out of their child safety seats just got a lot tougher. Or, you could buy a Nissan Altima SE and get four doors and 17-inch wheels (17s are standard equipment on the Altima SE). As a company that wants us to believe the Accord is getting more "passionate" and "cheetahlike," the absence of a sport package makes no sense.
Both at our test facility and in the real world we found the Accord fully adequate at up to seven-tenths driving. Body roll is nicely controlled and the suspension manages to soak up most bumps without feeling overly harsh or too floaty. Push it harder and the tires are the first components to leave the party. The P205/60R Michelin MXV4s simply aren't meant for serious road holding and tended to "wash out" easily on twisty roads. We also noticed a bit more rear-end movement than we'd like, especially during quick transitions (we suspect this would be less of an issue for better-balanced Accord sedans equipped with the lighter four-cylinder engine).
But throwing away Honda's rhetoric about the new Accord's performance (as 95-plus percent of likely buyers will) allows one to see the car's true strengths and weaknesses. For instance, its driver's chair is one of the best seats we've experienced in any market segment. On Honda Accord LX sedans equipped with a V6 (like our test model) the driver seat has power adjustments for legroom, seat-bottom height and angle and seat back angle, but there's no way to alter lumbar support. You'd think this would be a glaring omission, but the Honda seat engineers spent time analyzing how people sit in cars and designed the lower seat back angle to properly orient the driver's torso for maximum comfort. We were as skeptical as anyone regarding this "one size fits all" approach to seat design, but, after putting five road test editors behind the wheel, none of them had anything negative to say about the Accord's driver seat, and several commented specifically on how supportive it felt.
The rear seating arrangements were similarly top notch, particularly with regards to headroom and toe-/footroom (there's plenty under the front seats). The lower rear seat backs aren't quite as supportive as those in the Toyota Camry (though the Camry offers less headroom), but overall the Accord's rear seating accommodations are, once again, equal to or better than anything in the segment.
Interior design and material qualities continue the high-caliber standards established by previous-generation Accords. The first thing a driver will likely notice is the large and crystal-clear gauge cluster. Lexuslike in appearance, the electroluminescent gauges are tied to the interior lights, meaning they come on, minus needles, by simply opening the door. Once the key is inserted, the gauges further brighten, as if to say "ready." Turn the key and all warning lights, plus each gauge needle, illuminate as the engine fires. This same lighting pattern happens in reverse when shutting the Accord down, including a slow fade of the gauge cluster and interior lights after hitting the remote key fob's "lock" button.
Interior materials, whether you're talking the cloth seat covers in a base Honda Accord DX sedan or our LX test car, along with the leather seats found in EX models, are better than you'll find in Nissan's Altima or Mazda's new 6. We weren't fond of the foam rubber headliner in our test vehicle, but otherwise there was little to gripe about. Overall, only the current Camry equals the Accord in terms of high-quality materials, but the Passat still beats them both for pure "premium-ness."
If there's an area where the Honda Accord stomps the competition, it has to be in cupholder design. For 2003 the Accord offers a total of eight, including one in each lower door panel. Seven of these can accommodate one-liter bottles with ease (there are two cupholders in the rear seat's fold-down center armrest, but one of them is too small to house a one-liter bottle). The two primary cupholders, ideally located in the center console, use spring-loaded tabs to secure drinks in the one design point that does indeed smack of BMW-ness. There's also a two-tier center console, complete with a power point in the lower section, and a large center stack bin with a spring-loaded door. The glovebox is also quite large as midsize sedans go.
Functional control layout and high-quality switchgear are both Honda hallmarks, and the new Accord generally sticks with tradition. Whether you're talking about the meaty headlight/turn signal stalk or the large combination power button/volume knob for the audio system, you'll find most controls easy to master. We did miss a tuning knob for the radio and we questioned the use of so many buttons for the ventilation controls when a simple dial could have replaced most of them. There's also no simple "off" button for the system, though turning the fan speed dial all the way to the left accomplishes the same effect. You'll also find a one-touch down and up driver window, but all others require you to hold the button for either direction.
One item we did appreciate was the steering wheel controls that offered both audio and cruise control functions including the main cruise control on-off button. Honda has placed this button on the lower left of the dash for years. We're glad to see the company address this long-standing design issue...
The display for the sweet-sounding audio system is also improved this year. It's larger and easier to read, and it uses a circular graphical display, along with numbers, to represent volume, bass, treble, fader and balance levels. In Honda Accord LX models with the V6 you also get an in-dash six-disc CD changer.
If you really want to experience high-tech nirvana in a midsize, nonpremium sedan, you'll want to step up to a Honda Accord EX with an available DVD-based navigation system. This year the system not only includes a responsive touchscreen and the entire North American continent's roads on a single disc (as it has in years past), but also a voice-activated feature, a calculator and an event calendar. You can even specify a male or female voice as your own personal tour guide. "Direct me to the nearest Texaco station, Hal no, make that Halle."
An area we've yet to discuss is the Honda Accord's new "skin." We don't normally spend much time focusing on aesthetics because, in the end, there is simply no way to qualify a vehicle's beauty or lack thereof. We did, however, drive this Accord alongside the current Camry and Altima, not to mention the new Mazda 6. After studying all four midsize players from various angles it became apparent that no one on staff liked the new Accord's exterior styling. The front end lacks a true grille or any formal hood line, and there's barely a hint of a bodyline running from the fender to the quarter panel. What might be dubbed as "simple and clean" by some was collectively identified as antiseptic and droopy (even as mainstream sedans go) by our staff.
It's important to note that the percentage of Honda Accord buyers seeking a sexy shell is probably about as high as the percentage looking to compete in local SCCA events every weekend. Sure, as driving enthusiasts we'd like the Accord to offer sportier handling and a more seductive appearance. We'd also like Ferraris to be cheaper and SUVs to be purchased only by those people who really need them. At the end of the day, we don't always get what we want... but we're betting most 2003 Honda Accord buyers will.
System Score: 8.0
Components: We're always curious to see what Honda will do in the stereo area. It wasn't too long ago that the venerable Japanese automaker offered bare-bones sound systems in its vehicles, particularly in the entry-level models in each class. Then, about a year ago, we started to notice a change. First the Civic, then the CR-V, came to market with sound systems that, while not straight-up competitive with the best in class, at least held their own in the marketplace. We had always theorized that Honda did little in this area because it didn't need to; Honda vehicles moved off the lot briskly, regardless of the radio in the dash. This has now changed. Perhaps in response to the competition, with Toyota and, in particular, Nissan offering state-of-the-art audio in the cabin, Honda designers have felt the need to improve the sorry state of its stereos. Whatever the cause, it's a boon to consumers, and one more reason to buy a Honda.
The newly redesigned 2003 Accord is another case in point. We recently had the pleasure of spending some time in the vehicle, putting the stereo system through its paces, and while not blown away by the experience, we were sufficiently impressed to add this vehicle to the growing list of midpriced sedans with exceptional audio.
Let's begin with the electronics. As many know, Honda vehicles have a user-friendly feel second to none. Ergonomics are a hallmark of the brand, and nothing pleases this reviewer more than sliding behind the wheel of a new Honda and finding everything exactly where it should be, right at one's fingertips. This took a little adjustment in the new Accord, since the design is a bit of a departure from the traditional. Instead of a standard head unit, Honda has opted to spread the radio readout and controls across a wide topography within the center stack. Most surprising is the volume knob, positioned in the exact center of the dash instead of the traditional placement to the immediate left of the digital readout. The volume knob is a full two inches in diameter, a large, detented affair with excellent feel, positioned directly below the other radio controls. Although it took a little getting used to, this reviewer quickly fell in love with the logic and feel of the volume knob. Perhaps this is because Honda has also designed a large LCD display into the upper-center of the dash. Approximately five inches wide by two inches high, this readout has a graphic display showing the position of the volume setting; it also displays other functions, such as the radio call number, in large white letters a full half-inch high against a black background. It's classic Honda, with ergonomics second to none. Add to this an in-dash six-disc CD changer and steering wheel controls for volume, mode and seek-scan, and this system is quite competitive in its segment.
Speakers include a bounteous pair of 6-by-9s on the back deck, plus a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the front doors. These are complemented by a wonderful pair of tweeters tucked into the corners of the dashboard, firing upward into the windshield glass and reflecting into the cabin.
Performance: It sounds better than any Honda we've heard in the past. The dashboard-mounted tweeters provide an excellent soundstage, with superb depth and right-to-left stereo imaging. Bass notes are punchy and tight, with great depth and roundness. Female vocals have a naturalness and warmth in this system as good as most vehicles in its class; likewise acoustic strings. One minor complaint: We were a little bugged by the amplifier, which distorted and got grainy at higher volume settings.
Best Feature: World-class ergonomics.
Worst Feature: No speakers in the rear doors.
Conclusion: While this is not one for the ages, Honda has done a respectable job on the stereo in the new Accord. No consumer will be disappointed, and most won't need anything more. It's not as good a system as, say, the Bose system in the redesigned Nissan Altima, or the Bose setup in the new Mazda 6, but it packs a decent enough punch and makes for a very pleasurable listening experience. Scott Memmer
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
With little doubt, this is the best Accord ever. OK, OK, "best ever" is a cliché. But it's true. For what most people use their Accords for, this car does just about everything right. It's very roomy. The interior, while not quite luxurious, is solidly built. Little features, such as the "Lexuslike" illuminated gauges and damped grab handles, give it a premium feel. And, with the V6, it's fast enough to leave the majority of other sedans out there sucking wind at the last stoplight. If you see Honda advertising that wants you to believe that this is a sport sedan, don't believe the hype. It's not quite there, or at least with the stock suspension. The Nissan Altima 3.5SE is still more enjoyable to pilot on curvy roads. But around town, it does just fine. My personal choice would be an LX with the V6. For less than $24,000, you get a very enjoyable sedan.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Did Honda's design team consult with BMW's styling department? Or was it a series of "bad days" at the office? Whatever the reason, the new Accord's exterior doesn't do it for me. The nose resembles a Kia Rio's and the butt looks especially awkward with those upwardly angled taillights. Maybe it will grow on me, but I doubt it; the 1994 to 1997 edition never did.
Although I don't care for the body style, I was impressed with the car's dynamics. With the V6, the new Accord really scoots, the ride is supple and the steering has a nice heft to it. Overall, it provides a pleasant, if not particularly entertaining drive; I instantly felt comfortable behind the wheel. The cabin is typical Honda, meaning attractive with simple controls and comfortable seating.
Although the Accord wouldn't be my first choice in this class (I'd lean towards something sportier, such as the VW Passat), that doesn't mean I won't continue to recommend the car to family and friends looking for a well-built, fine driving and virtually bulletproof midsize sedan.
After shopping for four months, I was ready to buy an Infiniti G35 when I decided to test drive the new Honda. The build quality is great, handling is outstanding and the performance of the four-cylinder is amazing. Having owned two other Hondas, the car seemed to "fit" better than the more expensive Infiniti and the quality of interior of the Honda is much higher. It is not a sports sedan; however, it is a fun-to-drive family sedan.. good job, Honda. Shrewd Shopper, September 18, 2002.
I test drove everything under $32K that was midsize. Some were quicker (G35), quieter (Camry), handled better (used 528), more passionate (Passat), but none put it all together for $26K. This car is loaded for $26K! And it's quiet, quick, comfortable, nice-looking and well built. And, despite magazine reviews, I find it fun to drive considering it is a family car. It has better 50-70 acceleration than the G35, according to some test sources, so it moves quite well. And, it's front-wheel drive, which is good in the snow (five months a year in upstate New York). Keep in mind, this is not a BMW or BMW wannabe, and it's not $40K like a BMW 530, either. P-man, September 17, 2002.
Decided on the 2003 EX-6 after extensive comparison of Altima 3.5 and Maxima GLE. Altima maybe has a flashier look, but EX-6 beats it on handling and interior quality. Engine performance about the same. Plus insurance and walk-out price lower for the Honda. I'm thinking resale will probably be higher too. JRT JR, September 20, 2002.
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