Last year's best-selling car just got a whole lot better.
For 2003, Honda's Accord has new sheet metal, more refined interiors, more powerful engines, a revised chassis and bigger wheels and tires.
Even transmission offerings are new, with all automatic-equipped Accords coming with a five-speed, not the old four-speed transmission. And the top Accord coupe with V6 is available now with a six-speed manual. It's the same six speed that's in Acura's sporty 3.2CL Type S.
Through it all, though, the new Accord models -- sedan and coupe -- have virtually the same dimensions as the 2002 models.
So they retain their mainstream mid-size proportions, providing seating for five inside.
Rear legroom is less -- down to 36.8 inches in the new Accord from 37.9 last year. But front legroom has grown to 42.6 inches from 42.1 inches last year.
Honda officials said customers didn't really ask for a larger car. They asked for more style and emotion, according to Dan Bonawitz, vice president of corporate planning and logistics at American Honda Motor Co. Inc.
So, the Accord's new styling is more expressive than before, even on the sedan, and the Accord is more wedge-shaped than before.
The look is not over the top, by any means. But it is a definite move up from the predecessor Accords, which ranked as America's No. 1 selling car in calendar 2001 with sales of more than 414,000.
Bonawitz said buyers asked for less noise in their Accords, too. And they get it in the 2003s.
The test car, an Accord LX sedan with V6 and automatic transmission, gave the impression of being a much more expensive car than its $23,460 sticker might indicate. The interior was that quiet and the driving experience was that unfettered.
I heard the engine on acceleration, but otherwise, engine sounds were quite subdued. Road noise was low, so I conversed in normal tones with passengers in the Accord's back seat without a problem.
About the only complaint I had about sounds was a seemingly faulty front passenger window where wind noise emanated at highway speed.
The refined sense inside the Accord went beyond interior quiet. It includes the interior layout and look of controls and the use of upholstery.
For example, the large gauges in the Accord's instrument cluster are brightly illuminated, day or night, now. This LED (light-emitting diode) effect reminded me of pricier Lexus cars which have had this kind of illumination for years.
JUST THE FACTS
2003 Honda Accord LX V6 sedan.
BASE PRICE: $15,800 for base DX sedan with four-cylinder engine and manual transmission; $16,600 for four-cylinder DX with automatic; $19,200 for LX sedan with four-cylinder and manual; $20,000 for four-cylinder LX with automatic; $23,000 for LX sedan with V6 and automatic.
AS TESTED: $23,460.
TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, mid-size sedan.
ENGINE: 3-liter, single overhead cam, VTEC V6.
MILEAGE: 21 mpg (city), 30 mpg (highway).
TOP SPEED: 130 mph.
LENGTH: 189.5 inches.
WHEELBASE: 107.9 inches.
CURB WT.: 3,309 pounds.
BUILT AT: Japan and Marysville, Ohio.
DESTINATION CHARGE: $460.
The seat fabric on the test Accord looked dense, not thin. Beyond the seats, the fabric was applied to places you're likely to touch inside the car -- such as the top of the center console storage area and on the armrests on the doors. It was even on the back of the front seats. Some cars have hard plastic back there, instead.
Check out the new Accord's ceiling material, too. Its textured and looks like the same stuff that's in Lincoln's new, $40,000 sport utility vehicle, the Aviator.
It did take a bit of time for me to stop reaching for the big, prominent knob in the middle of the Accord's dashboard center stack, though, when I wanted to adjust the air conditioning or heater.
Despite the fact it's situated between two ventilation knobs, the bigger, middle knob -- which has a mod, touch-me look -- is for radio adjustments such as volume. And yes, I'd get the knobs confused.
That's about the extent of the complexity that buyers will find inside the new Accord. Everything else is relatively straightforward and easy to understand.
It won't take a rocket scientist to feel the Accord's new power, either.
The base engine -- a 2.4-liter four cylinder now rather than last years 2.3-liter four -- provides 25 more horsepower, to 160, and torque rises to 161 foot-pounds at 4,500 rpm.
The 3-liter, single overhead cam V6 with Hondas Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control (VTEC) now generates 240 horsepower, up from 200 last year. Torque goes from last year's 195 at 4,700 rpm to 212 at 5,000 rpm.
The V6 power improvement comes from a larger-diameter exhaust, more sophisticated VTEC system and new intake manifold, among other things.
In the test car, this was enough to push me firmly into the seatback as I accelerated on a highway ramp. It also was enough to keep me watching the speedometer, as city speed limits came up quickly.
I also passed cars on two-lane country roads with confidence.
Best of all, fuel economy ratings are virtually the same as they were for last year's Accord models.
Shifts were smooth and subtle from the five-speed automatic. The exception was when I slammed on the accelerator and the power would start to come on.
Honda kept the same basic suspension in the front-wheel-drive Accord -- double wishbone up front and multi-link in back.
But subframe stiffness and suspension geometry is changed to convey what seemed like a firmer ride in the test Accord. My body jiggled, in fact, over several road bumps on city streets.
The tradeoff is greater control. For example, the Accord handled a sudden swerve -- brought on by a dog darting into the street in front of me -- without fuss. I moved away from the dog and then back into my lane with ease.
The new models debuted this fall, so Consumer Reports has no reliability reports for this, the seventh-generation Accord.
The U.S. government has no reports of safety recalls of the 2003 Accords. Neither does it have crash test results on this newly re-engineered Accord.
Honda officials said they expect Accord sales to continue at about 400,000 a year.
Just over half of the buyers of the Accord sedan are women, according to Honda. Median age is 46, and 70 percent are married.
Nearly two-thirds are college-educated, and median household income is $74,000.
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