New Accord Updates Styling, Powertrains
No longer can the Honda Accord cruise along above the midsize wannabes on its merits, and for the first time in its 36-year history it must prove it can reclaim its status as the standard of technology and efficiency. The ninth generation Accord rolls out well-equipped to face the challenge with a new and smaller shape, and improved power and fuel-efficiency.
The first generation of the Accord was from 1976-81 and was built in Japan. Generation changes came in 1982, with the opening of the Marysville plant, and followed in 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2003, 2008, and now, 2013. Back when the current Accord was being designed, Honda debated whether to make it smaller, keep it the same size, or make it larger, and when Toyota introduced a new and larger Camry, Honda decided to make the 2008 Accord the largest car in the midsize category.The current eighth-generation Accord has maintained its popularity and ranks No. 2 in retail sales so far in this, its fifth year. But being larger, bulkier, less agile and less fuel-efficient also left the Accord vulnerable for several competitors to either catch or pass it up. Hyundai with its 2011 Sonata, soared in popularity with a highly efficient engine that raised the standards of power and fuel economy in the segment, and the new Camry, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion and others.
Honda has addressed those competitors by building the 2013 model, with an overall length of 191.3 inches — 3.6 inches shorter than the current car — on an inch-shorter wheelbase of 109.3, yet still increasing interior room. The more stylishly sculptured form is filled with features and new technology, including new engines and transmissions to improve power and fuel economy throughout the line, with a new hybrid system at the top of the model array.
Shoji Matsui, who joined Honda 30 years ago, just in time to work on the 1986 Accord, designed the new Accord. He said the new car, inside and out, has “all the power of Honda, with no excuses. The sedan has the winning formula of universal styling, that will never get old. We didn’t want high side sills,” he added, without mentioning the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Ford Taurus, or others that have that design.
Despite an overall length 3.6 inches shorter, Honda designers found a way to carve out more interior room in the new Accord sedan. During the first walk-around at the Accord introduction at Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, Calif., in August, a Honda design expert said making the Accord smaller outside with shorter length and wheelbase makes it more agile. That aroused my skepticism. Did designers of the current model want it to be less agile?
Accords come in LX, Sport (a new level), EX, EX-L, and the loaded EX-L Navi. The price range for the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder models is from $22,470 for the LX, $24,180 for the Sport, $25,395 for the EX, and up to $30,785 for the top EX-L with navigation. Choosing the 3.5 V6 will cost from $30,860 for the EX-L, up to $34,220 for the Touring sedan.The Accord Coupe is its own car now, also on a new chassis, with what Matsui called “an athletic and premium interior,” and a rear seat specifically targeted to be roomy enough to actually house occupants under the fastback roofline. At 188.6 inches, the Coupe is 2.7 inches longer than the sedan, while its 107.3-inch wheelbase is 2 inches shorter than the sedan.
Another dose of sarcasm swelled over the all-new 2.4-liter 4-cylinder base engine, because Hondas have been powered by a 2.4-liter 4 since 1998. Then I met Yasuhide Sakamoto, the chief engineer on the Accord powertrains, and Sakamoto’s credibility clicked on and my skepticism clicked off with the answer to one question: What was his previous role at Honda? He said he had been chief engineer of Honda’s Indy Car racing engines. For those who don’t follow racing, Honda’s Indy Car engine program was so dominant that Chevrolet and Toyota withdrew a year after Honda came into the series, and for six consecutive years all 33 starters at the Indianapolis 500 were Honda-powered, until rule changes required new engine configuration for this year.
Clearly, this was not just a marketing guy trained in PR-speak. Sakamoto said he switched to overseeing the new Accord engine three years ago, and finds a great similarity in objectives.
“The new Accord 2.4 has a new crankshaft, new pistons, new cylinder heads, new valve angles, and even the new intake manifold and valve covers, which are now made of resin,” said Sakamoto. “It has a new block, made of different material, and while the spacing between cylinders is the same, it has a different bore and stroke. The emphasis was on improving weight and rigidity.
“Engines have a common area, like a mind,” he added, sounding like he might have been dictating a Honda engineering proverb. “Indy Car engines need more power, but the things we needed to do on this engine are basically the same.”
The addition of direct-injection, which controls the precision and pressure of the fuel injected directly to each cylinder, helps raise horsepower in the 2.4 to 185, and 189 if you select the Sport, and both have 181 foot-pounds of torque. The new 4-cylinder gets the nickname “Earth Dreams,” which nobody would admit or deny was Honda’s reaction to Mazda, which calls its recently introduced new engine technology “Skyactiv.”EPA fuel estimates are 27 city and 36 miles per gallon highway with the Accord 4. My driving partner and I were able to reach from 27.8 to 32.1 miles per gallon in combined driving, with the 6-speed stick. That should make the Accord competitive with Altima, Fusion, Camry and Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima, although I’ve personally gotten 40 mpg with the Sonata. All of them, along with the new Chevrolet Malibu, are going strictly with 4-cylinder engines for 2013, while the Accord will continue to offer a 3.5-liter V6 alternative.
With VTEC variable valve-timing and cylinder deactivation at cruising speed, the 3.5 V6 has 278 horsepower (a gain of 7) and 252 foot-pounds of torque (an 18-percent increase), and it gains 4 mpg, up to 34 in highway driving.
The V6 sedan comes only with a 6-speed automatic, while the Coupe comes in either the 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic. I mentioned to Sakamoto how much I liked the late and lamented Honda S2000 sports car, and he asked me to try the new 6-speed in the Accord and compare the shifting. I had to tell him he was right; the stick has an easy-to-operate clutch and the shift lever snicks from gear to gear with sporty, short-throw ease. In the V6 Coupe, by the way, the 6-speed manual transforms the Accord into a true sporty car.
The 4-cylinder Accord comes with either the new 6-speed manual, or, as its automatic, a new and impressive CVT — continuously variable transmission — which avoids what Honda engineers say is the “rubber band” feeling of most CVTs. In addition, the CVT on the Sport model offers paddle switches on the steering wheel for manually selecting different tensions on the CVT pulleys, simulating six different gear changes.
Sakamoto said the mechanical CVT has a greater torque-range than the Civic, with its smaller CVT, or the Insight, which has an electric CVT. “We made it efficient, sometimes for speed, and sometimes for fuel economy,” he said. “It’s all in the softwear. If you shift to ‘S,’ which is the sports mode, it holds a little more revs.”Handling is good with the new Accord, partly because of the more compact design perhaps, with much credit going to a structure comprised of 55.8 percent high-strength steel, up from 44 percent, which reduced weight by 551 pounds alone. A unique steel-aluminum bonded subframe adds to the feeling of stability. Product planner Art St. Cyr said the new car’s handling was improved by the combination of its new electronic steering and MacPherson struts, which replace hydraulic steering and double-wishbone suspension. I flinched, because I’m convinced the double-wishbone set-up is the best either on race tracks or highways.
As if the various new Accord sedans and Coupes weren’t enough, the Accord also has a Hybrid model. Honda tried that once before, but used its V6 combined with a battery pack, which had a lot of power but not much mileage, compared to the Toyota Camry, which used a 4-cylinder in its hybrid. Honda discontinued the Accord hybrid, but has brought it back for 2013.
It now uses a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine, with altered valve timing, and a high-output lithium-ion battery pack. Combined, the gas engine’s 137 horsepower are electrically boosted to 196, and the 122 foot-pounds of torque are electrically boosted to 226. A plug-in hybrid also will follow shortly. In a short loop at the Accord introduction, I attained 41.7 mpg in the Accord Hybrid.
The new Honda system will run in EV (electric vehicle) mode, using only electrical energy from the battery to the drive motor, with electrical energy coming from the engine generator to the drive motor, assisted by the battery. But the gas engine can also directly power the wheels, unlike the Toyota system where the gas engine alone never powers the car.
The Honda’s gas engine keeps the car going, of course, but the strict EV range of the Honda plug-in hybrid is only 10-15 miles, which is less than the Prius plug-in hybrid or the Chevrolet Volt. Its charging recovery is much better than either, though, gaining 8 miles of EV power with only 30 minutes of charging. Honda says its plug-in hybrid system will be offered on both 4 and V6 engines, and a two-motor hybrid will be following.