Coverage of the new 2003 Accord has tended to concentrate on how Honda has aimed to goose the Accord's appeal by adding some Passat-like style to a car that's only popular because of its high quality and despite an insipid driving experience. The Accord is the safe play; the mainstream sedan (or coupe) buyers buy when they lack the imagination and youth to buy something more daring. It's not the car anyone discerning would consider. And besides, look what much more stylish cars like the VW Passat and Nissan Altima are!

What a load of crap.

The truth is that the Accord has always been an engaging car to drive. The engines have always been responsive, the handling always sweet and the composure outstanding. It's always been well built and it's always been keenly priced. How many Car and Driver 10Best lists has it been on? How many comparisons tests has it won? The truth is the Accord has become spectacularly successful because it deserves to be spectacularly successful. But familiarity breeds contempt, and there's a significant portion of the mush-headed press that figures the Accord has to be tepid simply because anything that sells in such huge numbers must be built to the lowest common denominator.

Familiar stuff, reconfigured

While the seventh-generation 2003 Accord looks completely new, it's actually a comprehensive redevelopment of the sixth-generation car, which itself was a thorough update of the fifth generation which, naturally, was a hearty rework of the fourth generation. Over the generations just about every element of the Accord's engineering has been modified or evolved significantly in some way or another, but the basic layout of the 2003 Accord is amazingly similar to the 1990 model that inaugurated the fourth generation. There's still a double wishbone suspension up front and multi-link rear suspension, the engine still sits transversely up front driving the front wheels and the structure is still a robust unibody. However, the only sheetmetal that actually comes over from the sixth-generation car intact is the trunk floor stamping.

The 2003 sedan's wheelbase has grown an inch and overall length is up just 0.1 inches. The coupe's wheelbase is unchanged at 105.1 inches while overall length goes up 0.8 inches. There is a relatively large increase in overall width, which is up a full 1.2 inches in the sedan and an inch in the coupe, but shoulder and hip room don't increase while leg and head room are both up. Also for the first time, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock control are standard across the range.

The most substantial changes come in the engine bay where a version of Honda's now nearly ubiquitous, clockwise rotating "K-series" i-VTEC four-cylinder engine has taken up residence as the base powerplant. While it displaces the same 2.4-liters as the K in the new CR-V, it runs a slightly higher compression ratio (9.7:1 as opposed to 9.6), and makes its peak 160-horsepower rating (the same as that small SUV's) 500 rpm earlier (5500 rpm) and its peak 161 pound-feet of torque 900 rpm later (4500 rpm). As in the CR-V, the engine uses dual balance shafts to smother secondary vibrations and a silent chain to drive the dual overhead cams and 16-valves. It also, as the i-VTEC name implies, carries Honda's renowned electronic variable valve timing technology. The new four comes mated to either of two new five-speed transmissions - manual or automatic.

The new engine makes ten more horsepower than the 2.3-liter four it replaces, but that's the least of its advantages. This is a far less raucous engine with a much friendlier torque curve that's well matched to its transmissions. It's still not as creamy or muscular as a good V-6, but its competent, confident and composed in daily traffic and gets terrific fuel mileage. Most 2003 Accords will have this engine and their owners will never feel they're driving a compromise.

Still, the V-6 is better. This is the same 3.0-liter, SOHC, 24-valve V-6 offered last year, but extensively tweaked to make more power. A compression ratio bump from 9.4:1 to 10.0:1 works in conjunction with a revised VTEC system, "high-inertia" intake manifold and low restriction exhaust to bounce output from last year's 200-horsepower to a full 240 this year. And the V-6 continues to operate on regular-grade fuel. The V-6 also gets new transmissions with all sedans and most coupes getting a five-speed automatic and a few sport-oriented coupes getting a six-speed manual.

The V-6 is terrifically silken and effortlessly athletic, but it's not the most muscular V-6 out there. While the Accord V-6 matches the 3.5-liter V-6 in the Altima in making 240 horsepower, the Nissan has a significant advantage in low-end torque production. The Accord V-6 makes its peak 212 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm, while the Altima V-6's peak 246 lb-ft come at just 4400 rpm. The Honda's automatic transmission is better and has one more gear than the Nissan's, but the Altima engine pulls harder and sooner off the line. And our guess is that in most acceleration contests, the Altima V-6 sedan would easily overwhelm the Accord V-6 sedan.

The V-6 six-speed manual transmission ('MT') coupe that brings some sporting attitude to the Accord line for the first time. Besides the six-speed manual transmission swiped from the Acura CL Type-S, the MT's brakes are slightly larger and this is only Accord that comes from the factory wearing 17-inch wheels (base DX models wear 15s, while up-level LX and top-level EX versions get 16s). It also has its own slightly modified intake system (a resonator is deleted) that allows for some throaty roar. But the MT lacks the CL Type-S's limited slip differential and that keeps it from being the perfectly poised cornering machine the Acura is.

More stylish - but not that stylish

Honda obviously had its eye on the Passat as it drew the lines of the new Accord and, in general, they've successfully brought over most of that Teutonic elegance to their car. The new Accord's shape, whether sedan or coupe, is clean, tautly drawn and unfussy. But no matter what trim level, the car lacks the detailing that makes the VW such a pleasure. Where the Passat uses a large, multi-piece grille with chrome elements, the Accord has just a single plastic bar with no grille texture behind it. The new Accord combines all the headlights, turn signals and driving lights into a single unit above body color bumper, while the Passat's headlamp assembly above the chrome-trimmed bumper is complemented by driving lights below it. In the back, the Accord's taillights are simple, while the Passat's have readily apparent compound elements. Compared to the Passat the Accord looks cheap and almost incomplete - it lacks the delightful elements that make the Passat compelling. Which is okay, because in most cases the Accord will be significantly cheaper than the VW.

Other than the fact that it looks slightly more contemporary than the car it replaces, the new Accord's exterior isn't much of an improvement. The interior, on the other hand, is a big step forward. The seats are now better shaped, the materials used all seem higher quality and shape of the panels and controls both attractive and free of ergonomic hiccups and it feels roomier in every dimension. But the star is the new dashboard, which uses LED instrumentation that looks rich and is supremely easy to read. Even in the pedestrian DX, the instrumentation looks like it belongs in a more expensive car.

Most of the switches that support that instrumentation have a high-quality, distinctly Honda feel. The new steering wheel integrates the cruise control switches on both LX and EX models and redundant audio controls are built into the EX wheel as well. And for the first time the wheel is adjustable for both tilt and telescope. The ventilation controls are intuitive and easy to reach and on dual-zone climate controls come on EX four-cylinder models equipped with leather and all EX V-6s.

Honda is also offering its DVD-based satellite navigation system on the Accord EX. For those of us who think navigation systems are $1,200 answer to a question best answered with a $4 map, even this neat, voice-activated one is needlessly complex and a fundamentally stupid distraction. In fact trying to make the voice activation system work takes some commitment on the part of the driver and a certain amount of frustration that must be worked through. But for the gizmo-addicted, this system will seem a delight of high-tech wizardry and an exciting adventure in future-think. To this reviewer, it's all just a pain in the ass - the vast majority of my driving is to places I've already been along depressingly familiar routes.

Honda has also pitched in a variety of new sound and entertainment systems including an MP3/Windows Media Player or a DVD player for the rear seat passengers. When it comes to keeping the belted-in kiddies occupied during their rear seat sentence, no sedan has the potential to do it better than the Accord.

Solid drive

Driving the Accord is an amazingly diverse experience depending on what trim level is being piloted. Take a basic DX out and it's like the best $29.95 per day rental car ever built. It's plain, its cornering limits are low, but it's comfortable, relatively quiet, the steering is light and precise and the five-speed shifter is perfect. It feels better than the sub-$15,000 car it will be.

Move up to the LX and the experience is more subdued, slightly more comfortable on-road and significantly quieter. The LX is the sort of car you wouldn't mind borrowing from your mother on occasion. It feels like a solid value at around $20K or slightly less.

The EX V-6 sedan feels more Mercedes-like than even some Mercedes; it's serene, comprehensively equipped and imperturbable. In fact the EX V-6 sedan is so composed that it makes the Acura TL (non-Type S) seem a silly waste of money. This car will be a bargain at about $26,000.

A quick spin in a pre-production EX V-6 manual transmission coupe proved it to have solid reflexes, a nearly perfect shifter and some real verve when its throttle was opened. It's not so much a sports coupe as an athletic luxury coupe; more Cadillac Eldorado ETC than BMW 3-Series alternative. Sort of the car the Chevy Monte Carlo SS wants to be.

The Accord will be either the first- or second-best selling car in America next year, just has it has been for most of the last several years. Compared to its archrival the Toyota Camry, the Accord drives with slightly more verve, but glides with slightly less ease. The Accord V-6 clearly outpaces the Camry V-6 in power and its automatic transmission has one more gear. In the four-cylinder ranks the competition is closer when equipped with manual transmissions (which few of them are), but the five-speed automatic again gives an edge to the Honda. On merit and first impressions, the Accord is better than the Camry.

But the mid-size segment the Accord competes in grows more competitive all the time and the Camry is hardly the only player. As good as the new Accord is, its advantages over cars like the Passat and Altima can be overcome in many buyer's minds with other compensating virtues. It may be that the Accord, for so long all things to all drivers, will from here on out find itself playing a tougher sales game against more targeted competition that keeps knocking off buyers at the margins until the mainstream itself is marginalized.

It may be that this is the last Accord that can afford to be an Accord people take for granted.

2003 Honda Accord EX Sedan
Base price: $25,500 (est.)
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 240 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 189.5 x 71.5 x 57.1 in
Wheelbase: 107.9 in
Curb weight: 3360 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 21/30 mpg (est.)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors, cruise control, CD player with six-disc changer, keyless entry
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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