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Radical--and Reliable

July 31, 2002|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The guy in the brand-new Mercedes C-Class kept pulling up, then dropping back, obviously eyeballing the car we were driving down the Ventura Freeway.

Finally he pulled up alongside, flashed a big grin and gave us a hearty thumbs up.

"Wow," my driving partner said. "It's not often you get a thumbs up from a Mercedes driver when you're in a Honda."

Wow, indeed.

We were in the all-new 2003 Honda Accord, successor to what has been the best-selling mid-size family car for nine of the last 10 years.

Honda Motor Co. executives have promised all year that the new Accord would represent the most radical model change ever for the company. And though the words "radical" and "Honda" rarely go together when it comes to styling, they weren't lying.

The new Accord, which hits showrooms in September, is at once sleeker and more muscular than its predecessor. It replaces a body designed five years ago, when flat surfaces and hard edges were in vogue, with all-new sheet metal that flows.

It isn't sensuous--although the coupe version gets close--but it is the best body ever on a mainstream Honda, and it puts to shame the new Toyota Camry and Ford's positively geriatric Taurus, the other perennial contenders in the family car segment.

Honda didn't stop outside.

The new Accord comes with two new engine choices, a 160-horsepower inline-4 or a 240-horsepower V-6; three new transmission choices; anti-lock brakes standard at all trim levels; an improved suspension and steering setup; and a new interior that features more headroom and legroom and redesigned front bucket seats that put the Accord at the top of the class among Asian brands for comfort and support.

In short, Honda's designers, engineers and product planners took an already good model and made it better.

Inside, the only potential problem I found during a day with the cars in the mountains between Agoura Hills and Malibu was a somewhat flimsy-feeling release mechanism on the capacious center storage bin that might not last as long as the car does.

Neat touches included water bottle holders in the sedan door panels; flat passenger compartment and trunk floors in all models (carpet underlayment fills the dips and hollows and has the additional benefit of muffling road noise); and sufficient headroom so that even in models with sunroofs, taller people can sit in the front seats without planting chins on chests.

Honda paid a lot of attention to wind noise, redesigning the side mirrors and windshield pillars and increasing the slope of the windshield to minimize air turbulence around side windows.

The company also tightened its already impressive tolerances of gaps between body panels, eliminating them altogether where fender panels meet bumpers.

The Accord's new instrument panel features a technology previously seen only on luxury brands: The instruments are dark when the car is empty and not in use, gradually growing brighter as doors open, the key is turned and the engine ignited. Honda says it "welcomes" the driver and other occupants by lighting up in sequence with their preparations to get in and go.

There's even an oversize sunglass holder, an acknowledgment that a lot of people wear sporty goggle-type sunglasses that don't fit the standard skinny Ray-Ban slots.

Of course, the more you pay, the better it is: The 2.3-liter, four-cylinder models with five-speed automatic transmission are adequate machines, and most Accord loyalists will love them unreservedly. But they won't keep up with a similarly priced and equipped Nissan Altima, with its heftier 2.5-liter, 180-horsepower four-banger with 181 pound-feet of torque.

Honda's five-speed manual helps a little, though, allowing the driver to manage the Accord's 161 pound-feet of torque with more precision than the automatic permits.

And when pushed on curvy roads, the four-cylinder Accords tend to be a little light in the stern, the rear trying to lift even after the shocks and springs have reached their limits.

The base level DX, which will be priced about $15,000 but which Honda doesn't expect to be more than a blip on its sales charts, doesn't have a rear sway bar.

Honda engineers say they think the reason the V-6 models do what the four-cylinder versions won't--sit tight and don't try to bounce out of the curves when pressed to their limits--is the improved grip and stance from their bigger tires.

The four-cylinder DX and LX models come with 15-inch rubber, which ratchets up to P205/60R16 on EX and all V-6 models except one.

That one is the V-6 coupe with six-speed manual transmission, a car that Honda calls the "ultimate Accord." It runs P215/50R17 rubber, and the smooth, short-throw six-speed coupled with the new 240-horsepower 3.0-liter engine makes it easy to smoke those tires at will in first and second gear.

Honda's V-6 is rated at 212 pound-feet of torque, which peaks at 5,000 rpm on an engine redlined at 6,700 rpm.

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