When reliability isn't enough, what is the Honda Accord's appeal?

It's no secret. Modern vehicles are more reliable than ever, thanks to industry-wide quality processes that are more or less universally applied across all auto manufacturers. Though quality surveys differ in the specifics, most present the same clear trend: the gap between the best- and worst-performing vehicles is much narrower than it ever has been. How, then, does the Honda Accord hold onto its reputation as a default choice among midsize sedans?

As reliability becomes less of a differentiator between competing midsize sedans, savvy car shoppers are changing their focus. Fuel efficiency, in-car connectivity and interior appointments are more important than ever among shoppers seeking maximum value. In each of these areas, the once-trailblazing Accord finds itself squarely mid-pack. Subtract older Accords' visceral charm, and factor in the current vehicle's pedigreed pricetag. It's a formula that could forecast a fall from grace for the Honda Accord -- especially if the competition maintains its half-step lead.

The beginning

The Honda Accord owes its roots to the first-generation Civic's American success. In the 1970s, as the oil crisis halted the optimism and excess of the decades prior, car manufacturers struggled to meet sudden and stringent emissions standards. The fastest route to compliance robbed car buyers of power, and involved the use of expensive new technology called a "catalytic converter". Skeptical car shoppers found shelter in the Civic CVCC, which met all emissions standards without the use of a catalytic converter. The peppy, right-sized Civic CVCC was one of the most successful Japanese vehicles to capture Americans' attention to date. Its success helped establish the business case for a larger model: the Accord.

In 1976, the Honda Accord bowed as a three-door hatchback. A four-door sedan followed one year later. Each was powered by the clean-burning fuel-efficient engine first found in the Civic. Thus began a tradition that would set the Honda Accord apart for five vehicle generations to come: the engine set the tone for the development of the rest of the car.

Major milestones

Eventually, society learned to accept the necessity of the catalytic converter. The second-generation Accord incorporated this technology, and coupled a smoother engine with a fully automatic transmission. Accords bound for East Coast garages were built in Marysville, Ohio beginning in 1982. The Accord became America's best-selling Japanese car, a title it would hold for 15 years. The stage was set for the Accord's next technical revolution.

The third-generation Accord bowed with a secret underneath. In 1986, four-wheel double wishbone suspension was a technology reserved for open-wheel racecars and Italian supercars. Few Japanese automakers seemed interested in incorporating what was thought to be an engineering excess -- but Honda jumped at the opportunity to establish leadership in the field. Honda paired this exceptional suspension with an available dual overhead-cam engine. Daring flip-up headlamps hinted at the Accord's hidden capability. A sporting spirit was instilled without sacrificing efficiency or reliability. Buyers were thrilled. Buff books were smitten. This was the car that set the love affair in motion.

Mass appeal

1990 marked the American introduction of the fourth-generation Accord. Its conservative exterior lines softened with the times, but the overall theme was still familiar enough to provide repeat buyers with a sense of lineage while concealing the car's newly enlarged stature. American-market Accords were fitted with an all-aluminum 16-valve 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine, a technological marvel compared to competitors with less-efficient pushrod engines. Though the previous-generation Accord Coupe had been exported to Japan in limited numbers, the fourth-generation Accord Wagon was the first vehicle to be "re-imported" from Ohio to Japan in significant scale. In just three model years, the Accord firmly established itself as a common choice among midsize buyers. Instead of using this popularity as an excuse to proceed carefully with minimal changes, Honda took a chance on its successor.

When the fifth-generation Honda Accord debuted in 1995, not one angle was instantly familiar. The car was wider, wore completely different taillamps and had an unfamiliar face. Beneath the changes, however, lay the same core goodness: straightforward interior ergonomics rendered in respectable materials; handling that pleased both the casual commuter and weekend warrior; and, for the first time, a V6 engine that found instant praise among auto industry analysts and engineers alike. The overall execution and impeccable construction of the fifth-generation Accord contributed to retained resale value that became the envy of competitors. Well-maintained examples of "the first modern Accord" are still considered a desirable buy among used car shoppers to this day.

Its successor, the 1998 Accord, represents the pinnacle of the nameplate from an engineering standpoint. All trim levels incorporated the same sharp handling characteristics, sophisticated engines and easy maintenance that made its predecessors so endearing. However, for the first time, the Accord grew into a livable size comfortable enough for growing families. V6-powered examples exhibited a restrained but remarkable athleticism. Door and dash textures were rendered in quality soft-touch material of a noticeably higher quality than most American and Japanese competitors. Top-trim Accords upholstered in leather built upon that baseline to create a positively luxurious interior ambiance, giving upscale credentials to an already famous nameplate. The sixth-generation Accord was a bumper-to-bumper marvel, and buyers were willing to pay a premium for the privilege of entry.

"Profit by perception" marked the Honda Accord's chief function from then on.

When the enlarged seventh-generation Accord debuted in 2004, gone were the subtle cues of athleticism that made it the default choice for enthusiasts. The racy narrow body grew wider and softer, and the low, pointed hood was now blunted and round. Suddenly, the Mazda6 became a viable option among buyers willing to give up a measure of refinement in favor of a dash of individualism. Loyal buyers smitten by the memory of exceptional predecessors still recommended the Accord to family and friends, so the Accord continued its successful tack. However, auto analysts who dared to dig deeper were already finding cause for pause.

At the time of the Accord Hybrid's debut, nickel-metal hydride battery technology had not yet matured enough to provide a useful benefit to most drivers. Rather than focusing on fuel efficiency, the Accord Hybrid was positioned as a V6-powered flagship model, delivering 15 horsepower more than the non-hybrid Accord V6. Despite the slight performance improvement, the Accord Hybrid was not the fastest Accord in the lineup -- that title belonged to the Accord V6 Coupe mated to the six-speed manual transmission. Its modest fuel economy improvement over the four-cylinder Accord, coupled with a $3000 premium over the conventional V6 model, translated to slow sales and eventual cancellation.

The introduction of the Accord Value Package in 2006 was a clear demerit to the name. Wheel covers, unpainted mirrors and door handles, a two-speaker sound system and various minor interior decontenting amounted to a window sticker savings of approximately $1500 compared to the next trim level -- at the expense of the Accord's overall reputation as a well-contented car regardless of trim. The Ford Fusion SE -- equipped with leather seating, alloy wheels, foglamps, a color-keyed exterior and a sophisticated eight-speaker sound system -- undercut the Accord Value Package by hundreds of dollars, while garnering quality accolades from Consumer Reports. Buyers willing to look past the persuasion of pedigree found that, among the Accord's positive qualities, value was not at the top.

The eighth-generation Accord grew into a full-size car at an expensive pricetag, powered by a range of engines that were neither the most efficient nor the smoothest in the class. Worse, reliability ratings had slipped, culminating in a series of massive recalls. The threat to perception was so great that even Honda officials acknowledged the need to re-evaluate internal development processes.

The current Nissan Altima captures top honors for fuel efficiency among midsize sedans. The Subaru Legacy is a natural choice for buyers in snowy states. The Mazda6 carries sporting credentials with a top-notch interior. The Ford Fusion continues to fight to claim the best value title. Where, then, does that leave the mildly updated ninth-generation Accord?

It's an interesting question. Loyal buyers who grew up with the Accord find themselves as empty-nesters facing a choice: to downsize due to the full-size Accord's unneeded space, or to step into a different marque that offers a more potent total package.

What, exactly, makes the Honda Accord a mid-pack contender? It's not that the Accord is a bad car. It's that the competition has caught up. Gone is the race-inspired four-wheel double wishbone suspension, and in its place is a cheaper MacPherson setup similar to its competitors. Conservative interior materials and styling are a stark contrast to the exotic finishes available in the Mazda6 and the engaging lines inside the Hyundai Sonata. Unlike the Fusion's cloud-connected and media-savvy Sync system, the Honda Accord's navitainment system is less polished, less connected and less intuitive to command using natural human speech. The Accord captured the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick Plus designation -- just as the Kia Optima did. And, if you believe at love at first sight, the Accord's generic lines aren't likely to inspire romantic poetry.

In spite of the objective shortfalls, not enough can be said for the power of perception. A name that falls to mind comfortably is always an easy starting point and helps justify a choice. Visit a Honda dealer or browse the Honda website, and the refrain is the same: "legendary quality", "reputation for reliability". It's a reassuring chorus, but there is an inherent problem with simply relying on dozens of trophies from bygone decades to sell a car: heritage is not necessarily a reflection of the current status quo. The Accord's proud tradition of being a rolling technological showcase of Honda's engineering might has been displaced in favor of a level of capability and content that is merely enough to satisfy an unconscious driver. Some buyers might not mind paying more for the Honda Accord's badge cachet, even though the latest iteration fails to deliver any measurable competitive advantage. Shoppers seeking substance would do well to consider a competitor.

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