By Andrew Ganz
Monday, Sep 10th, 2012 @ 6:00 am
 

Americans really like Honda Accords. Even with a new model just weeks away from showrooms, more retail buyers took delivery of new Accords last month than any other car in the country.

So it's safe to say that expectations are pretty high for the redesigned Accord you see here, a more-than-meets-the-eye rethink that brings with it a degree of innovation we haven't seen out of Honda in a while.

For one, value is finally part of the deal. Once-stingy Honda is now including alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth and a high-resolution eight-inch screen with a backup camera as standard on the entry-level $21,680 Accord LX. Clearly, change is afloat at an automaker that made buyers pay extra for air conditioning and a radio just a few short years ago.

This reinvigoration extends beyond just "on paper" changes. Although the 2013 Accord might have the same overall shape as its predecessor, the two are substantially different in person. A simpler, more elegant design permeates the Accord both inside and out, and even though the look isn't wholly original - we see lots of Hyundai Genesis, for example - it is far more cohesive than before.

Underneath, Accord now stretches more than two and a half inches shorter, a welcome change since the outgoing model was nearly a full-size sedan. In addition, the double wishbone front suspension setup has been shelved in favor of a more compact MacPherson strut setup. It's undoubtedly a cost-saving move, but that's not to say that struts don't offer a few advantages of their own.

In the engine room, Accord ditches its outgoing motors in favor of two all-new units and one that has been thoroughly revised.

Most Accords will be motivated by a new 2.4-liter four-cylinder developed under Honda's new "Earth Dreams" eco-friendly engine program. With direct injection and Honda's VTEC variable valve timing system, the 2.4 puts out 185 horsepower and 181 lb-ft. of torque. A new Sport trim level adds dual exhaust for an extra four ponies.

Eschewing a trend away from manuals, a six-speed stick shift is standard, while an all-new CVT (with paddle shifters on Sports) is optional.

The CVT/four-cylinder model is rated by the EPA at 27/36 mpg, which is impressive but still trails the 38 mpg Nissan Altima overall.

Upmarket Accords offer a revised 3.5-liter V6 that, with the new addition of VTEC and a carryover cylinder deactivation system, cranks out 278 horsepower and 252 lb-ft. of torque. The V6 is mated only to a six-speed automatic in sedans, but the coupe offers a six-speed manual.That cylinder deactivation system reaps rewards on the highway, where the sedan is rated at 34 mpg. City consumption, at 21 mpg, is more V6-typical.

Exclusive to sedans is a new plug-in hybrid powertrain for the late-introduction Accord PHEV. Capable of motivating the Accord on solely electric power for around 10-15 miles, the hybrid is actually reasonably peppy at 196 horsepower and 226 lb-ft. from a combination of gas and electric motivation powering a CVT. EPA figures for the Accord PHEV are due out closer to its on-sale date early next year.

The Accord PHEV's battery takes up a good deal of its trunk space, though a quick charging system means the battery is full in less time than it takes to enjoy lunch as long as the sedan is plugged into a 240V outlet.

A bevvy of Accord trim levels are on offer, but we think the entry-level LX ($21,680) and step above Sport ($23,390) (which adds 18-inch alloy wheels, a dual exhaust and a few leather bits inside, but no chassis changes) represent the Accord's high-value sweet spot. On those models, selecting the CVT adds $800. Notably, navigation is not available until you step up to the $29,995 EX-L with navigation model.

Inner trappings

This latest Accord might not set the standard for style in the segment the way the Kia Optima does, but its cabin is undeniably a comfortable place to whittle away the miles.

Accord's interior is fresh and upmarket, with the new screen mounted high on the dashboard commanding the most attention. That screen's presence clears up the button-heavy dashboard of the outgoing Accord. Further improving matters is a general upgrade in materials quality throughout. Our only kvetch is that we would like to see more than two interior shades on offer.

Higher-trim versions with a new HondaLink infotainment system have a second, smaller touchscreen mounted on the center of the dashboard (which is pictured in the photo gallery), where it is framed by a metallic gloss black panel. Generally, the system is intuitive, but we would have preferred traditional switches for commonly-used functions like radio presets. At least Bluetooth pairing was a cinch.

Accord's excellent packaging was retained, meaning the new car has more usable space than its predecessor despite the smaller overall dimensions.

On the road

Accords have long been notable for their slightly more enthusiast-oriented driving dynamics and this latest model appears to continue that tradition.

Firm but nonetheless compliant suspension tuning and higher-effort electric power steering impart a feeling of confidence on the road lacking in softer or less precise rivals like the Hyundai Sonata and Chevrolet Malibu. Though the steering is a little dead right on center, effort builds predictably and, ultimately, the Accord proved a delight to toss around the curvy roads we encountered outside of Santa Barbara, California.

The six-speed manual will account for a low take rate, and that's a shame since it could set the standard for the segment. Luckily, the CVT isn't a bad companion either. Set to become Honda's highest volume CVT ever, this unit did its best to keep the Accord within its power band without the elastic feel that plagued some earlier units by other automakers. We're still not used to the concept of not feeling shifts, but this ranks up there with the Nissan Altima's unit as one of the best efforts in the industry.

Power comes on strong and buttery smooth with either engine, but we did notice a bit more thrum at idle than we expected with the 2.4-liter. The V6 remains robust and torquey, not to mention a bit more refined than before. Similarly, the extra cog in the V6's conventional transmission made this a stellar combination. Our time in a V6/six-speed manual coupe was limited, but we found it to be capable if considerably less sporty than the two door proportions might suggest.

We also didn't get much seat time in the Accord PHEV. What little driving experience we did have showed it to be a robust performer. Notably, the PHEV has a steering wheel-mounted button to allow drivers to decide just when they want to use only battery power. In other words, drivers can use EV mode around town, where they'll get more miles out of it, and stick in normal hybrid mode otherwise.

EX ($24,405) and above sedans - that's one step above Sport - include an all-new blind spot monitoring system dubbed LaneWatch that, instead of flashing orange lights to warn drivers, uses a camera integrated into the passenger-side outside mirror. When a driver signals that he wants to turn right, the camera fires up and displays a live image of the blind spot in the upper dashboard screen. The camera can also be kept on at all times, presumably for passenger amusement. While there's undoubtedly some value in this system to salespeople looking to close a deal, we think a radar-based system with flashing lights is far less distracting.

Still, it's that kind of outside-of-the-box thinking that catapulted Honda to the top years ago - and it's finally back all throughout the 2013 Accord.

Leftlane's bottom line

After the disappointingly redesigned Civic arrived last year, we were prepared for the worst with this latest Accord. Fortunately, Honda has done more than just assuage our concerns: It has built a genuinely good vehicle that very well might put Honda at the top of its class.

Substantially upgraded inside, outside and underneath, the 2013 Accord pushes all the right buttons, especially in its new high-value lower specification models. We're especially smitten with the just-right Accord Sport trim level for sedans.

2013 Honda Accord sedan base price, range, $21,680 to $33,430. (Full pricing details here)

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.