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'08 Accord: Honda bets big

The carmaker beefs up the former top seller to try to turn around sales.

August 22, 2007|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

"Aggressive" isn't an adjective many people would apply to the Honda Accord, a vehicle aimed squarely at the middle of the American market.

Honda is hoping to change that with the latest version of what was once the bestselling passenger car in the country. The Japanese automaker on Tuesday took the wraps off a redesigned 2008 Accord that is bigger, more powerful and, Honda said, more aggressively styled than its predecessor.

"Americans don't want a car that feels big on the outside, but they definitely want a car that feels like it's spacious and luxurious on the inside," said Chris Martin, a spokesman for Torrance-based American Honda Motor Co. "We wanted to make the Accord feel bold, roomy and refined."

Three inches longer than the 2007 Accord, the '08 is almost 5 inches longer than the rival Toyota Camry, which outsold the Accord by 94,000 units last year. A 3% increase in interior room edges the Accord into the U.S. government's "large car" category.

The biggest market for the Accord is California, where the '07 model ranks second behind the Camry in the mid-size car segment. If the clamor the salespeople are hearing at Colonial Honda in Glendale is any indication, the new model should get a warm welcome in the state.

"We've been getting so many calls from customers for the car," sales manager Arman Marsoubian said, "and they haven't even seen a picture of it yet."

Honda is downplaying its chances of recapturing the passenger car sales lead, which the Accord hasn't claimed since the early '90s, when annual sales peaked at 417,179. They slumped to 354,441 last year, including the since-discontinued hybrid version. The automaker does think the Accord's first redesign since 2003 will help return sales to the 400,000 range.

Whether the change is dramatic enough to achieve Honda's goal remains to be seen, said analyst Wes Brown of Iceology, a consumer and market research firm in Los Angeles.

"They're struggling to attract the younger generation, who want vehicles with a little bit more soul or character or flair," Brown said.

The Mazda3, the Subaru Impreza and the Mitsubishi Lancer have all done better jobs of drawing that demographic than Honda, he said, which has steadily up-sized its Civic as well as the Accord in its effort to retain its core audience of baby boomers.

"Honda seems to have focused on this segment of the baby boom generation that values quality, reliability and resale value more than anything else," Brown said. "That's fine and dandy, but that's pretty much what Toyota does -- and you're never going to out-Toyota Toyota."

Reviewers who had their first looks at the new Accord on Tuesday seemed impressed by its size.

"My, how you've grown, Accord!" Patrick Bedard of Car and Driver magazine wrote Tuesday.

"You were just a cute little three-door when you were born" in 1976. "Now you're 32 and crowding the ends of the garage."

Raved a poster on Car and Driver's website: "Well, all those who always wanted an Accord limo, your dreams have come true."

A larger, more angular grille and stylized headlamps are intended to give the new Accord a more aggressive stance, Honda's Martin said, and more powerful 4- and 6-cylinder engines are expected to entice buyers while delivering the same fuel economy as the '07.

For the two-door coupe especially, "there was a move to make it a lot bolder, a lot more powerful, a lot sportier in an effort to attract more young male customers," Martin said.

Honda isn't releasing pricing information yet on the new Accord, which is scheduled to be in showrooms Sept. 12. "It'll be roughly at 2007 levels," Martin said.

martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

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