Test Drive: 2003 Honda Accord EX L sedan car test drives honda
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge


by Greg Wilson


A good family sedan that keeps getting better

The Honda Accord is one of those benchmark cars that other car companies disassemble in secret warehouses to see what makes it so successful, and how they can emulate it. When a new Accord arrives, big things are expected of it – yet, as with previous Accord introductions, there is nothing dramatically, earth-shakingly different about the new 2003 Accord sedan. It’s about the same size, with attractive, if not remarkable styling. It’s got new and improved engines, but they’re not terrifically bigger or more powerful than the competition. And there are no new ‘whoop-de-do’ high-tech features like intelligent cruise control or dynamic stability control. The new Accord is simply a sensible family sedan with sensible improvements that families can appreciate – such as more interior room, smoother quieter engines, more comfortable ride, and more safety features.

Major changes for 2003 include new, more aerodynamic styling, a longer wheelbase, more interior room, a new 160 horsepower 2.4 litre four cylinder and 240 horsepower 3.0 litre six cylinder engine, new 5-speed automatic and 5-speed manual transmissions, a modified independent suspension, larger standard tires and wheels, standard ABS on base models, and a new tilt/telescoping steering wheel.

Thankfully, Honda Accord prices haven’t increased significantly for 2003, despite all the changes. 2003 Accords with a four cylinder engine and a standard 5-speed manual transmission come in three trim levels: DX ($23,800), LX-G ($25,000), and EX-L ($28,500). For comparison, 2002 four cylinder Accord sedans were offered as LX ($23,000), SE ($24,800) and EX-L ($27,300). 2003 V6 Accord sedans are offered with a standard five-speed automatic transmission in LX-V6 ($29,000) and EX-V6 ($32,500) trim, replacing the 2002 SE-V6 ($28,300) and EX-V6 ($31,100).

Same size, more room

Test Drive: 2003 Honda Accord EX L sedan car test drives honda
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

The 2003 Accord sedan’s dimensions haven’t changed much: the most significant changes are a 29 mm (1.1 in.) increase in width and a 25 mm (1.0 in.) increase in the Accord’s wheelbase – both of which add cabin space. In particular, I noticed a notable difference in rear seat legroom. Overall interior volume is up by about one cubic foot. The trunk is about the same — a roomy 399 litres (14.0 cubic feet).

The Accord’s new body is also more aerodynamic than the previous one – in addition to its rounder nose and more steeply-raked rear window, the 2003 Accord sedan has revised A-pillars, mirrors, and recessed wipers – all of which help reduce its coefficient of drag from 0.33 to 0.30 – which helps reduce wind noise and fuel consumption. As well, the gaps between the body panels have been reduced from 4 mm to 3.5 mm for a more quality look.


Revised powertrains

Test Drive: 2003 Honda Accord EX L sedan car test drives honda
2.4 litre i-VTEC. Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

2003 Accords with a four cylinder engine (DX, LX-G and EX-L models) have a new 2.4 litre four cylinder engine with chain-driven twin overhead camshafts, twin balance shafts, and i-VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) with a new Variable Timing Control which provides continous adjustment for the intake camshaft — the latter improves torque, driveability, fuel economy and emissions.

Horsepower is a healthy 160 at 5500 rpm and 161 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm – that compares to 150 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 152 lb-ft of torque at 4900 rpm for the previous 2.3 litre SOHC VTEC four cylinder engine. The 2.4 litre 4 cylinder engine offers 9.8 l/100 km around town and 6.3 l/100 km on the highway, slightly better than the 2.3 litre engine. As well, the new engine meets 2004 LEV regulations for lower emissions.

All Accord four cylinder sedans can be bought with a revised, standard five-speed manual transmission, but more significantly, a new optional 5-speed automatic replaces last year’s 4-speed automatic. It should be noted that V6 sedans are available only with the 5-speed automatic.

2003 Accord LX-V6 and EX-V6 sedans offer a more powerful 3.0 litre V6 engine, now pumping out 240 horsepower instead of 200. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Accord’s upstart V6 competitor, the Altima SE-V6, also puts out 240 horsepower.

Two-door Honda Accord Coupes are offered in LX-G, EX-L and EX-V6 trim levels with the five-speed manual as standard and the five-speed automatic as optional. The EX-V6 Coupe comes with a standard 5-speed automatic, and next Spring, Honda will introduce a sporty new Accord Coupe EX-V6 with a 6 speed manual transmission, bigger brakes and standard 17 inch tires. Autos will review the Accord V6 sedan and V6 coupes in future test-drives.


More interior room, better instruments

Test Drive: 2003 Honda Accord EX L sedan car test drives honda
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

Before you get into the 2003 Accord sedan, you’ll notice a new ignition key that has the remote locking/unlocking/trunk release/panic button functions built into the head of the key – no need to carry a separate fob.

The Accord’s new door handles are the large, pull-type that are easier to grip, particularly if you have gloves on. The doors are large, and I noticed that the rear doors are longer than those of the previous model, providing a larger entryway to the rear seats.

The driver sits 40 mm higher than in the previous Accord, although with a new taller dash, you may not notice it. To accommodate larger frames, the front seats are 40 mm wider and have more substantial side bolsters; and a new ratchet-style height adjuster makes it easy to find a good position. As well, the steering wheel now telescopes in and out as well as tilting. The centre armrest/storage bin is too low, in my opinion — I couldn’t rest my arm on it while driving on the freeway. Still, the bi-level storage bin is quite large with an integral 12 volt powerpoint inside.

Test Drive: 2003 Honda Accord EX L sedan car test drives honda
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

My EX-L model came with standard leather upholstery, and the front seats include two-position seat heaters. If you want cloth seats, you have to go with the Accord DX or LX models.

I really liked the Accord’s new gauge cluster — large, illuminated numerals make it very easy to see it at a glance — particularly the extra-large central speedometer. The gauge cluster lights up as soon as you get into the car. As well, the centre control panel now includes a large liquid crystal display with bold white letters on a black background. The display shows the time, radio functions, and in some models, the dual zone climate control functions which can function in single or dual zone modes. Three large prodruding dials on the lower centre panel control the dual zone temperature functions and radio volume in the EX-L model, while DX and LX models have just two dials. Some functions, such as fan speed and ventilation mode, are operated by pushbuttons — it could have been simpler, in my opinion.

At the bottom of the centre stack is a large storage area with a lid — it’s big enough for cameras and small purses and the bin floor slopes down so that items don’t fall out when driving. My test car also had a covered ashtry receptacle with a sign that read “this is not an ashtray”, and a powerpoint beside it which didn’t say, “this is not a cigarette lighter”.

The floor shift lever pulls straight back to engage Drive, but the détente is on D3, not D, so if you’re not careful, you’ll engage D3, and drive around without realizing you’ve locked out fourth gear. The advantage of this setup is that you can quickly drop the transmission into third from fourth when approaching a hill for example, but I think its disadvantages outweigh its advantages.

Behind the shift lever are two cupholders with spring-loaded grips which keep cups firmly in place while in motion. Like all Hondas and Acuras, the power moonroof controls are on the lower left dashboard near the steering wheel — a location that puts less strain on the arms than controls located on the roof.

The Accord’s interior is quite roomy for four or possibly five adults — headroom and legroom is generous at the front and rear. Rear passengers have large door pockets with built-in bottle holders and a centre fold-down armrest with two built-in cupholders.

All Accords come with a single folding rear seatback that’s lockable from the inside, and an optional pass-through through the rear centre armrest — split folding rear seatbacks are not offered. I find this strange, because split seatbacks are so useful when you need to carry long objects on one side and one or two people on the other side. This is particuarly true for parents with young children — since you can’t leave young kids at home when both parents go shopping, you need to be able to accommodate them and your extended cargo on the way home.

The look and texture of the Accord’s interior materials is of a very high quality, but there were a couple of things that didn’t look quite right to me — the gap between the front doors and the dashboard is quite wide (about a quarter of an inch when the door is closed), and I noticed the black dash insert on the dashtop was not quite flush with the rest of the dash.


Safety improved

Test Drive: 2003 Honda Accord EX L sedan car test drives honda
Photo: Honda. Click image to enlarge

’03 Accord sedan owners can feel a little safer in the new model – dual stage front airbags, five three point seatbelts, two height adjustable rear head restraints, front load limiters and pretensioners are all standard – and all models except the base model have standard side airbags. But a centre rear head restraint, and side curtain airbags are not offered.

Though the Accord hasn’t been subjected to any official crash tests yet, Honda officials predict the sedan will receive the top rating in the 35 mph frontal crash tests conducted by the U.S. NHTSA, and a Good rating in the 40 mph offset frontal crash tests carried out by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. One reason for this is the Accord’s new front sub-frame which adds 100 mm to the frontal crush zone – 100 mm doesn’t sound like much, but apparently it makes a big difference in a serious crash.


Driving impressions

Test Drive: 2003 Honda Accord EX L sedan car test drives honda
Photo: Honda. Click image to enlarge

Refined, easy-to-drive, and user-friendly are the primary impressions I retained from my week-long test of the Accord EX-L four cylinder model. The car is nearly silent at idle with minimal vibration, and off-the-line responsiveness is so quick it reminds me of earlier V6 engines. If you listen carefully, you can still hear the distinctive sound of four cylinders, but this engine’s smoothness, power delivery, and responsiveness are a class above most four cylinder engines — with the possible exception of Toyota’s 2.4 litre four banger.

The new 5-speed automatic transmission, which replaces the 4-speed automatic, changes up and down with barely a ripple, and responds well to throttle input, and grade changes.

0 to 100 km/h goes by in approximately 9 seconds, a little better than the previous Accord’s 9.8 seconds, and competitive with other mid-sized cars. Mid-range passing power, often a weak point with four cylinder engines, is surprisingly lively for a mid-sized car. On the freeway, the engine is quiet and unobtrusive, doing just 2000 rpm at 100 km/h and 2400 rpm at 120 km/h in fifth gear.

The ’03 Accords’s improved speed-sensitive variable-assist steering requires minimal steering effort at slow speeds, yet doesn’t feel overboosted or lacking in precision – it contributes significantly to the Accords’ ‘easy-to-drive’ character. And at freeway speeds, the steering is firm but not stiff, and the car tracks very well in a straight line. The body is tight and rattle-free, due in part to a 27% increase in torsional rigidity.

Honda says the Accord’s revised independent double wishbone suspension produces less dive under braking and reduced ‘squat’ on take-off — I found vehicle dynamics to be very neutral and controllable, with predictable, safe handling characteristics and a comfortable ride over smooth paved surfaces — however, the ride over rough roads felt a bit firm to my posterior.

The Accord’s standard four wheel disc brakes (with electronic brake differential on EX models) felt firm and responsive — and for 2003, Honda increased the size of the front rotors by 8% to reduce braking distances and improve pedal feel.

The sum total of the 2003 Accord’s steering, braking, accelerating and cornering abilities adds up to a comfortable, quiet, refined, well-built sedan that’s not only easy to drive, but a pleasure to drive.


Competitor overview

The four cylinder Accord’s primary competitors are the Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry and Mazda6, but you might also consider the VW Passat, Saturn L-Series, and Pontiac Grand Am.

The latest variations of the Accord, Camry, Altima and Mazda6 all have different characters — the Accord is comfortable, refined and moderately sporty; the Camry is refined, roomy, and quiet but not very sporty; the Altima is very roomy and very sporty but not as refined; and the Mazda6 is very sporty but not quite as roomy.

The Accord is probably the best-rounded car of this bunch — while the Camry is rather tall and ungainly, and the Altima has a rather unrefined four cylinder powertrain, and the Mazda6 has a comparatively small cabin, the Accord has no major ‘character’ flaws, at least that I can see. Well, there is the matter of those split rear seatbacks..


Verdict

With its new 2.4 litre four cylinder engine, the 2003 Accord is amazingly smooth, powerful, quiet and fuel-efficient, and very easy to drive — there’s really no need to spend the extra money to move up to the 240 horsepower V6 model.


Technical Data:

Base price $28,500
Price as tested (EX-L) $29,500
Type 4-door, 5-passenger mid-sized sedan
Layout transverse, front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.4 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, I-VTEC
Horsepower 160 @ 5500 rpm
Torque 161 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Transmission 5-speed auto (5-speed manual standard)
Tires P205/60R-16
Curb weight 1447 kg (3190 lb.)
Wheelbase 2740 mm (107.9 in.)
Length 4813 mm (189.5 in.)
Width 1814 mm (71.7 in.)
Height 1456 mm (57.3 in.)
Trunk space 399 litres (14.0 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 9.8 l/100 km (29 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.1 l/100 km (40 mpg)
Fuel Type: Regular unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km




About Greg Wilson

Greg Wilson is a Vancouver-based automotive journalist and contributor to Autos.ca. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).