First Drive: 2003 Honda Accord sedan honda first drives
Photos: Honda. Click image to enlarge

by Jim Kenzie

Malibu, California – Was it the harsh, noon-day California sun? The barren, dried-out landscape? Whatever, I just couldn’t take a good photograph of the 2003 Honda Accord. I hate to even contemplate that maybe the new Accord just isn’t a very exciting-looking car, because I had dinner with the two guys most responsible for its design – Junji Tanabe, Chief Exterior Stylist with Honda R and D in Japan who completed the design, and Shinji Takashima, who started it and got promoted mid-way through to Design Director, Honda R and D in Los Angeles – and their hearts seem to be in the right place.

They wanted the car to look more agile, more muscular, more emotional. In that curious Japanese way, they took the cheetah as their design theme. Well, OK. But next to a Nissan Altima or Mazda6? It’s easy to take good pictures of those two…(I should note that I’m talking of the Accord sedan here; there will be an Accord coupe too, arriving about a month after the sedan.)

At least the Accord’s styling doesn’t lie – it looks bigger, and it is, albeit fractionally, the more rearward C-pillar (rear roof pillar) and higher belt line presenting more sheet metal to a side-on view. The downside to the higher belt line is that the “driving-it-from-the-second-floor” forward visibility, a long-time strength of Accord, has been compromised.

First Drive: 2003 Honda Accord sedan honda first drives
Click image to enlarge

The total gain in passenger volume is about 30 litres, or one cubic foot. Headroom and front leg room are up, rear-seat leg room and hip room front and rear are down, the latter due primarily to new door trim panels designed to accommodate side air bags.

The new car has lots of nice little touches – door map pockets moulded to accommodate one-litre water bottles (OK, so the Citroen AX had these fifteen years ago), a sliding arm rest to accommodate drivers of different dimensions, “no excuses” cup holders up front, and a card holder (for garage access passes, etc.). Plus, that lovely Great Big Hole at the front of the centre console into which you can dump all manners of stuff.

They still put the sunroof switch in the wrong place though – on the dash to the left of the steering column, instead of on the ceiling where it belongs. Charlie Baker, Executive Engineer (in Honda-speak, “Large Project Leader”) for the 2003 Accord, at least had a new excuse. “We don’t want children playing with it and maybe hurting themselves,” he said. Right – and where is that cigarette lighter again? Honda does this right on Acura 3.5RL and Civic SiR – it can only be a matter of time…

The body is 27 percent stiffer in torsion, surpassing the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. In bending, Honda says only S-Class beats it. No underbody components are shared with the outgoing car, but the chassis is a development, rather than a pure clean-sheet design. Double wishbone front and five-link rear suspensions are further refined for improved ride and handling.

Honda’s torque-sensitive power steering system – the boost depends on how much steering force the car is trying to generate – has been upgraded with a damper to smooth out the changes in boost level, leading to improved high-speed stability, and a kickback reduction valve to counter harsh steering feedback on rough roads.

Huge kudos to Honda for making ABS standard, even on entry-level cars with rear drum brakes. Four-wheel disc cars also get electronic brake force distribution, which ensures that each wheel is working as hard as possible before ABS cuts in.

First Drive: 2003 Honda Accord sedan honda first drives
2,354 cc four cylinder

First Drive: 2003 Honda Accord sedan honda first drives
Honda Accord 3.0 litre V6
Click image to enlarge

Honda has always really been a four-cylinder company. They offer a V6 on Accord because the market demands it, but you get the feeling they’d just as soon not have to bother. No wonder, with a four as good as this one. The 2,354 cc (up from 2254) all-aluminum double-overhead cam 16-valve balance-shaft-equipped unit has both i-VTEC – Honda’s “intelligent” variable valve lift system – and continuously-variable timing for the intake cam.

160 horses at 5,500 r.p.m., 10 more than before, doesn’t sound like much compared to Nissan’s 175-horsepower Altima. Charlie Baker stopped just short of calling Nissan cheaters; he says his car is a bit heavier than Altima, yet outruns it in a 0 – 60 sprint. With 15 fewer horses? Draw you own conclusions.

He didn’t reveal those acceleration times. “We’d rather wait for Motor Trend,” he said. “They always do better than we can.” Draw you own conclusions again…

The peak torque of 161 lb.-ft. of torque arrives at a rather high 4,900 r.p.m., but the engine pulls strongly across the rev range. It’s clean too, meeting “LEV II LEV Tier 2 – bin 5″ emission levels – whatever that means.

The optional V6 remains a 2,997 cc 60-degree design, but an improved VTEC system, 30-percent freer-flowing exhaust system and a higher compression ratio (10.0:1 versus 9.4:1) enable a huge increase in power (200 to 240 horses), a smaller gain in torque (211 lb.-ft. at 5,000 r.p.m. versus 195 at 4,700), improved fuel economy and lower emissions – all on regular fuel.

The four comes standard with a new five-speed manual transmission – smaller, lighter, smoother-shifting than before. A new five-speed auto is the one-up choice.

The V6 has only a five-speed auto, shared with Acura CL coupe and TL sedan. A high-performance variant of the Accord coupe, coming in early 2003, will offer a six-speed manual.

First Drive: 2003 Honda Accord sedan honda first drives

First Drive: 2003 Honda Accord sedan honda first drives
Click images to enlarge

Of course, being a Honda, the automatic shift quadrant is wrong. But it’s wronger than ever – now when you pull the lever back, you slide all the way to third (out of five) instead of third (out of four), so you drive around all day TWO gears lower than optimum. For the four-thousandth time, 90 percent of all driving is done in Drive, so surely the “default” position should be Drive. Baker repeats the old Honda mantra that some drivers like to shift for themselves, especially in hilly country. Yes, isn’t that why they offer a manual? For the four or five people in the world who DO want to shift an automatic themselves, a push button on the shift lever to lock out the overdrive fifth is ergonomically superior. Or a gated shift linkage, like Ford’s Thunderbird, whose lever stops in Drive (fifth); if you want fourth you slide the lever to the right. For third, tug back one more notch. Simple. Logical.

It’s amazing that a company as smart as Honda keeps making this same stupid mistake. It has never made sense; it will never make sense, and I promise to be extremely gracious when they finally do it right…

Otherwise, the mechanical package on the new Accord is little short of brilliant. The four cylinder really is so strong, smooth and quiet that the V6 seems pointless.

Despite its apparent bulk, the car feels very nimble. Honda has even specified large tires – by their standards, anyway – so the fancy suspension can show itself off to best advantage.

During one test run through a hilly, twisty stretch of road, a young man in a modified Ford Mustang 5.0 LX tried to chase me down. Now, I don’t know how good a driver he was, but he surely must have been a bit surprised that a fairly mundane-looking family sedan was running away from him.

First Drive: 2003 Honda Accord sedan honda first drives
The Accord coupe will arrive about a month after the sedan. Click image to enlarge

Honda hasn’t announced prices yet, but expect the new Accord (in showrooms in late-September/early October) to fall in about the same range as it does now – $24,000 for a cloth-upholstered five-speed manual DX, to about $34,000 for a loaded V6 auto EX. The “volume” car is expected to be the LX cloth four cylinder automatic.

Honda flogs nearly half a million Accords every year in North America, putting the lie to some car makers’ belief that you need a unique model for every demographic niche. Accord simply appeals to everybody.

This also tends to put the brakes on radicalism, which is why Honda, despite what their stylists say, has stayed conservative with Accord’s styling. But with more room, more equipment, improved safety, better ride, handling and performance, there’s no way the new Accord can miss.