When the 2008 Honda Accord EX-L arrived in our garage, we initially weren't sure we had received the right car. The dark-red sedan was too large to be an Accord. The bodywork had more curves than we had ever seen on an Accord. Looking inside the car, we were sure it must be an Acura. It had leather seats and the same multitude of buttons we had seen in Acura models. But with the Accord label on the trunk lid and the Honda "H" badge on the grille, we had to accept this car as the new Honda Accord.
Honda performed a major upgrade on the Accord for 2008, making it unrecognizable from previous models and treading into Acura territory. The result is a big, comfortable sedan with a full load of electronics in the cabin. A 2.4-liter four cylinder is available, but our car was equipped with the 3.5-liter V-6, giving it plenty of power, reasonable gas mileage, and an excellently low emissions rating. Some things remain the same, however. The mediocre handling and bland five-speed automatic make it unsuitable for driving enthusiasts.
Test the tech: Eco performance
As we began our test-drive period with the 2008 Honda Accord, we noticed a green "Eco" light on the tachometer that would occasionally turn on. We deduced that this light comes on to let drivers know when they are operating the car in such a way as to get the best mileage. We like the idea, but we quickly noticed that the light had draconian standards, as any pressure on the gas of more than half an inch would cause the light to turn off. We couldn't even maintain speed on the freeway--unless we were going downhill--and keep the light on.
As we hadn't had a good challenge in a while, we set up a competition to see which of our staff could keep the light on the longest over a set driving course. Editors Kevin Massy and Wayne Cunningham took the car out to McLaren Park in San Francisco, a rare city space offering a good stretch of road with no stop signs or lights. The chosen course was mostly downhill, which would help keep the light on, although it had a number of turns and three rises, the last being particularly steep and long.
The rules were simple. Each editor would take off from the starting point, with the stopwatch beginning as soon as the Eco light came on. If the Eco light turned off for more than 2 seconds, the run was finished and the resulting time would be recorded. Massy made the first run, choosing to keep the car going slowly to maximize his time on the course. But that strategy failed at the first rise as the car didn't have the momentum to get to the crest. As Massy hit the gas, the Eco light came on, giving him a time of 53.71 seconds.
On Cunningham's first run, he hit the gas hard from the start, getting the car up to 35 mph, then lifted off so the Eco light would come on. The car cruised down the course, taking the corners at a reasonable 25 mph. Coming up to the first rise, Cunningham applied a little throttle, but just before the crest the Eco light turned off. Fortunately for him, the light came back on within the 2 second time limit, so the run continued. The Eco light stayed on through the next portion of the course, which consisted of a light downhill stretch followed by a small rise. Cunningham crested that without a problem, then hit the long uphill. The car went up the first quarter of it, gradually slowing down until Cunningham had to apply the gas, causing the Eco light to turn off. The recorded time for this run was 1:44.04.
For Massy's second run, he got the car up to 40 mph before lifting off. With the Eco light on, he kept his speed up through the corners, causing the tires to sing a bit, and easily made it over the first rise. He kept up his speed through the ensuing downhill portion, then cleared the second rise. With the car maintaining a good amount of its initial speed, it seemed he would get far up the third rise, but the car slowed quickly as it hit this uphill stretch, and no amount of feathering the accelerator would keep the Eco light on. His time for this second run was 1:35.75.
Cunningham tried to improve on his first run, but with his speed just below what Massy had maintained on his second run, he came in at a time of 1:33.66. With a first run time of 1 minute and 44.04 seconds, Cunningham came away the overall winner.
In the cabin
The dashboard of the 2008 Honda Accord experienced the same overhaul as the exterior. Honda sells its Accords with trim levels from LX to the top-of-the-line EX-L, with navigation or without. Our car was an EX-L with navigation, and as such, it gets the big multifunction knob we've seen previously in Acura models, plus a center stack literally covered in buttons. The previous model year Accord had a touch-screen LCD set on top of the stack. With this new model, the LCD loses touch-screen capabilities and gets set deep into the dash, a configuration that protects it from glare.
Unfortunately, the new Accord earns the same complaint we've had about Acuras--there are too many buttons on the stack. The new Accord also brings in Bluetooth cell phone integration, an option previously reserved for the more upscale Acuras. But, although the Bluetooth system works well enough, it suffers from the same lack of integration as we've criticized in Acura models. You access Bluetooth using voice command, through a set of buttons on the steering wheel. But there is also a separate voice-command system to control navigation, the stereo, and other car functions. This other voice-command system has its own set of buttons stacked with the others on the steering wheel. We would like to have these systems integrated so that you would only need one set of buttons.
The new Bluetooth cell phone system has a feature we haven't seen in a Honda or Acura yet--it lets you import your phone book. We tried it with a Samsung SGH-D807, but the system said our phone was incompatible with that feature. Check Honda's Web site to see if your phone is listed as being compatible with the car.
We've previously raved about the voice-command system in Hondas. It is very intuitive and has a wide range of commands, even responding to "What time is it?" But we did notice problems with the system while we were driving down the freeway. It had a lot of trouble recognizing our commands, probably because of road noise.
The navigation system is little changed from previous model years. It has many good features, such as a complete points-of-interest database, but it is losing ground compared with other automakers' systems, which use hard drives and higher resolution maps. Of course, we still like the Zagat restaurant guide incorporated into this navigation system, and it seems to have improved a bit with more route options.
The stereo in the Accord EX-L isn't much changed from previous iterations. Its six-disc changer plays MP3 CDs, it can tune in XM satellite radio, and there is an auxiliary jack mounted in the console. The interface can be a little difficult--we found the touch screen easier. The big change with the Accord's stereo is that this one sounds decent. Oh, it's not fantastic. But its arrangement of two tweeters in front, four mids, and a subwoofer on the rear deck make its audio quality about average for today's cars.
Under the hood
As mentioned above, you can get the Accord with a 2.4-liter four cylinder or a 3.5-liter V-6, which we had in our car. The V-6 uses some impressive engineering, which is best shown in its performance. It puts out 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, all of which you can definitely feel when you put your foot down on the gas. But the car also gets an EPA-rated 19 mpg city and 29 mpg highway, that latter number being particularly high for an engine of this size. During our driving, we observed an average fuel economy on the low side of this range, down at 22.3 mpg. But we rarely see a number even that high from a 3.5-liter V-6. More impressive, the car gets a partial zero emissions vehicle rating, or PZEV, from the California Air Resources Board. That is a particularly impressive rating for an engine that puts out this kind of power. Honda has developed an engine that gives impressive performance all around.
But we wish Honda had followed through with the rest of the driving gear. The steering is plagued by loads of understeer, forcing you to crank the wheel far around while cornering. During our time with the car, we didn't push it particularly hard, and we didn't drive on any of our accustomed twisting mountain roads, as it was clear from the start that the 2008 Honda Accord is a sedate cruiser and commuter. The five-speed automatic transmission follows through on this theme. It has three low ranges, but no manual-shift function, and is solely programmed for fuel efficiency. You won't find it holding low gears as you attack corners. No, the Accord is meant for less-thrilling use.
As you would expect with a sedan such as the Accord, it's loaded with standard safety gear. Road-holding electronics include traction and stability control, antilock brakes, and tire-pressure monitoring. It has curtain airbags on both sides of the cabin, plus front and side airbags for the front seats. There are also side door beams and day-time running lights, all standard, showing that Honda wanted safety to be a primary feature of the Accord.
For our test car, we had the 2008 Honda Accord EX-L with a V-6 engine and the navigation system, basing at $30,260. At the low end of the spectrum, you can get an LX-trimmed Accord with a 2.4-liter engine, manual transmission, and no navigation, for $20,360. With no other options and a $635 destination charge, our Accord came out to $30,895.
For the price, the Accord makes for a well-equipped and comfortable techie cruiser. Its environmental credentials put it in league with many hybrids and its fuel economy is better than average for this type of car. But the cabin tech isn't cutting edge, so there are some things you might miss, such as an iPod connection or an internal hard drive. Likewise, if you enjoy driving fast on mountain roads, this isn't the car you want. A base Mercedes-Benz C300 comes in at just a bit more expensive, with more interesting driving characteristics, but optioning it up with tech will push the price much closer to 40 grand. A Ford Taurus, with all the tech and the new Sync system, offers an equally agreeable ride for a couple thousand more than the 2008 Honda Accord.