2013 Honda Accord: First Drive

September 10, 2012
If there's been some kind of communique planning out the obsolescence of V-6 engines in mid-size sedans, Honda must have missed the memo.

With the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima already two years into an all-four-cylinder engine lineup, and for 2013 the Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion both banishing V-6 engines from their lineup in favor of turbo fours, here we were, climbing first into a 2013 Honda Accord V-6.

And as we found, it's in the top V-6 models that the 2013 Accord surprisingly hits an Acura-like strut and stride. The powertrain is even smoother than before, with a refined responsiveness that could carry a luxury badge. And with the adoption of i-VTEC valve controls for the 3.5-liter engine, it now makes 278 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque, so the Accord is quicker yet.

Now's when we should tell you why quite a few shoppers might still consider the V-6: because it earns an astounding EPA highway rating of 34 mpg—the same number as the four-cylinder engine last year, and essentially the same as the Sonata Turbo.

Smooth, relaxed, and efficient with the V-6

Over several hours of real-world driving with the V-6—a mix of expressways, two-laners, and mountain roads, and some of it spirited—we managed an impressive 29 mpg overall; that's a figure we can't imagine beating in those turbo fours, and we much prefer the smooth, relaxed demeanor of the V-6 most of the time. And the new six-speed automatic has better calibration than the five-speed before it; there are no stumbles on light throttle, and it's decisive but not obtrusive.

The V-6’s gains in fuel economy are due to the wider ratio spread of the six-speed automatic transmission, as well as an expanded range for the Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) system. Yet with the additional power and the six-speed, the V-6 can get to 60 mph about 0.5 seconds earlier than the 2012 model. And seriously, it's about all the torque that this front-driver can handle; nail the accelerator and it even squawks the tires dramatically shifting from first to second.

The base engine on Accord Sedan and Coupe models is a direct-injection, 2.4-liter i-VTEC four-cylinder engine, making 185 horsepower and 181 pound-feet in standard form or 189 hp and 182 lb-ft in Sport guise. The addition of direct injection gives some additional torque in the mid-rev range, as well as a small boost in efficiency, but the even bigger news for those who scrutinize EPA ratings (earning 27 mpg city, 36 highway) is the new continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which completely replaces the five-speed automatic transmission for 2013.

Before you rush to judgment about this Honda-engineered-and-manufactured CVT, hold on; it’s probably a powertrain that will fit the bill just fine provided you don’t expect high performance. While the combination of the four-cylinder engine and CVT is by far the least exciting powertrain offered in the new Accord, it’s way more refined than we expected, and it feels more responsive and ‘natural’ from the driver’s seat than many other models with this kind of transmission.

CVT feels more 'natural'

Under typical light-to-medium acceleration in traffic, the Accord’s CVT lets revs rise quite rapidly to the 2,500-3,500-rpm range, then revs almost stop climbing for a moment, after which they rise again, as if now engaged to a particular gear (as long as you’re still at part throttle). Even though Honda might have given a half a mile per gallon or so in calibrating it this way, rather than just keeping the engine in its sweet spot, it’s clever as it keeps the seat-of-the-pants G-forces more constant, while also avoiding the drone of constant-rpm revs. If at any point you mash the accelerator to the floor, all bets are off and the tach pins to redline, 6,600 rpm, and stays there until you’re at the desired speed.

We also found it interesting that in a four-cylinder model with the CVT we averaged pretty much the same 29 mpg as with the V-6, in a comparable loop for distance and terrain—so while the four-cylinder combination returns better EPA ratings it might not be as impressive in real-world conditions.

In a back-to-back drive with the Nissan Altima and its four-cylinder/CVT combination, we noticed that from about 15-20 mph—effectively rolling around a tight corner—then flooring the accelerator, the Accord managed to take off a lot faster, while it took the revs longer to rise in the Altima. We look forward to comparing these models—and their mileage—in future drives.

A controversial change to struts—but excellent steering

While introducing an essentially all-new CVT in the volume models of the Accord lineup might seem like a pretty risky move, loyal Honda fans might find it more unsettling that Honda has at last given up its worshipped double-wishbone setup in the Accord, instead opting for more tunable MacPherson struts that it claims will improve ride and handling while cutting cabin noise and harshness. Honda has also reduced weight and keeps away harshness with a new aluminum-and-steel front subframe and some careful underbody aerodynamic work.

The electric power steering that all Accord models now have is another case of technology that’s not loved in other models, but it’s done right here. We really could see or feel no issue with the steering in four-cylinder or V-6 models, and it behaves as electric systems should, with a mostly linear weighting, a good sense of center, and a sense of the road surface and the cornering loads. It also has a nice natural feel, and Honda points to a non-contact torque sensor as one of the keys to this.

Honda acknowledges a weakness with cabin noise for the Accord, compared with some other models in this class, so it’s added more sound deadening—and, especially noteworthy, all 2013 Accord models receive active noise cancellation. The instrument panel itself is now made in-house for the first time, in one continuous piece (instead of four separate ones), so as to get a consistent texture and grain, and keep excess noise or rattles away.

Inside-out design approach

Of course, for those considering a mid-size sedan, passenger comfort, interior space, and cargo space are important differentiators. While some models in this class, like the Sonata might have a swoopy roofline that can cut into rear headroom, Honda is very intent on noting that the Accord was developed from the inside out, with a new man-machine approach that established packaging (front and rear seating) first and then had designers pen an exterior based around that.

And it all does lead to some very quantifiable improvements. While Honda has shortened the Accord just a bit, rear legroom increases about an inch, while shoulder room in front and in back is improved. And a couple of design traits that Honda draws attention to—the near-level beltline and ample window glass, with thinner-than typical front and rear pillars—not only keeps your rear passengers from needing Dramamine but also helps you stay safe with a better view outward. Trunk space is up somewhat, but the real news here is usability, as the cargo floor is now completely flat and better-shaped.

On the other hand, what they ended up with, from the outside, looks merely evolutionary. Walk around this new 2013 sedan—even with the badging removed—and even those who don’t know cars would be likely to call it out as an Accord. That said, there's a lot of interest in the side sheetmetal, including some expressive lift in the side sheetmetal—giving the car more of an aggressive, wedge-like look even if the greenhouse is mostly level—and creasing that flows around and into the contours of the taillamps.

If you like to row your own...

After spending a full day crawling behind the wheel, and around the interior of different variants of the 2013 Honda Accord lineup, the best of the bunch is the four-cylinder model with the manual transmission. With such a precise gearbox, neat clutch takeup, and the responsive, rev-happy feel, this Accord feels far more refined than other base-model. A manual gearbox is also offered with the V-6 in Coupe models only, but there it includes a rather heavy clutch pedal that we could see being more tiring in the commute. Meanwhile, the V-6 models are among the best highway-commuter and road-trip cars ever.

Instrument-panel design feels simplified and cleaned-up compared to the current car, and in the lower-cost models we felt a sense of the packaging charm of earlier Accord models. The base layout is superior, in our opinion, with the dual-screen layout you get in upper trim levels quite confusing, as between the two screens, one is touch screen and one uses the controller, but the controller below the lower screen is actually for the upper screen—and the two screens have different brightness settings. And the glittery black trim you get around the lower screen looks out of place and doesn't match the trim anywhere else inside.

You can indeed get a 2013 Honda Accord Coupe, and Honda put quite a lot of thought and design effort into it. While intentionally designing a more athletic package, engineers and designers managed to pack a little more cargo space and back-seat space than before; there's actually adult-size space back there, but getting into the space is difficult.

Especially considering the new packaging philosophy in the 2013 Accord, we had trouble making sense of why the Accord Sedan only has a one-piece folding backseat—no matter which trim. As a Honda official told us, is that none of the Accord's rivals offer it. But it is the sort of 'innovation' we'd like to see.

LaneWatch: Why hasn't this been done before?

As we drove onto a multi-lane highway, one of the most interesting and handy features proved to be the LaneWatch system, which only when you click the turn signal, displays on the screen a wide view alongside and farther back along the lane just to the right of the vehicle. It really is one of those features that, once you use it, you'll wonder how you lived without. Honda says it’s the first feature of its kind. Other available extras in the Accord include Forward Collision Warning and Lane Departure Warning. LED headlamps are also offered at the top of the lineup, and they're the first ever in a Honda, but daytime running lamps are included in all V-6 models and LED brake lights are fitted to EX-L and Touring models.

The 2013 Honda Accord Sedan will be offered in LX, Sport, EX, EX-L, V6, and Touring trims, with the Coupe available in LX-S, EX, EX-L, and EX-L V6 models. Bluetooth, and a USB port are offered in all Accord models now, along with dual-zone automatic climate control, a rearview camera system, the eight-inch i-MID info display. Among all of these, we tend to think that LX, Sport, and EX models are the best deal. Sport models in particular are new for 2013 and add a more upscale look—18-inch alloys, a dual exhaust, fog lamps, a rear spoiler, paddle-shifters (CVT), and a power driver's seat—for a relatively affordable price. To get the trick LaneWatch feature, you need to go for the EX (EX-L Coupes) or above, though otherwise the EX includes a moonroof, push-button start, and heated side mirrors. EX-L models are what you need to step up to for the V-6, or for HondaLink and Aha streaming Internet audio.

Prices range from $21,680, for the LX Sedan all the way up to $33,430 for the Accord Touring.

Honda has positioning the Accord in a way that will win over both repeat Accord owners as well as comparison shoppers on the test-drive. While it's taking a different path that stays away from overly swoopy styling and turbocharged engines, there's a lot of sophistication and appeal—and, quite simply, lots of evidence of the charming driving personality and technological prowess that Honda needs to tap into with all of its vehicles.

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