2013 Honda Accord

The 2013 Honda Accord will come in many different trim levels and offer multiple engine and transmission combinations.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Honda built a reputation on economy cars that displayed a touch more quality than the competition. To this day, Honda's lineup consists of practical, well-built cars. However, the company has not had a new idea in years. The 2013 Honda Accord heralds the revivification of Honda's collective brain cells, bringing with it new technologies necessary for the company to face off against its already modernized competition.

At a press preview, I drove a few of the many variants of the 2013 Accord about to be unleashed on the American public. Honda's sales model has always been a bit different from other automakers'. Rather than adding options piecemeal, Honda buyers have to settle for whatever equipment comes with the trim levels they select. Even navigation is considered a different trim level within the Honda system.

However, this lack of optional equipment does not mean there is little choice. The body of the new Accord can be had in sedan or coupe styles. Honda makes two engines available, a direct-injection 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a 3.5-liter V-6. For all but one body style and engine combination, buyers can choose an automatic or manual transmission, and that automatic comes in two flavors, continuously variable (CVT) and six fixed gears. Then there are the different trim levels: LX, EX, EX-L, EX-L with Navi, Sport, and Touring. And coming soon will be a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid.

I drove four of these models on a sunny day in California, tackling freeways, back roads, and light-traffic suburban streets. Starting with the navigation-equipped top-trim EX-L V-6 sedan, the one engine body combo that can only be had with Honda's six-speed automatic, I immediately noticed an area of improvement I had long awaited: Honda has finally implemented a truly integrated dashboard electronics suite.

Honda's current cars were designed in such a way that navigation was an add-on, which leads to duplication of buttons and displays. These cars generally have a voice-command Bluetooth system standard, with an additional, separate voice command system brought in as part of the navigation system. Likewise, the cars would keep a radio display, which would show similar information as on the navigation LCD.

LCDs for all
For the 2013 Accord, Honda puts an 8-inch LCD at the top of the dashboard, standard at all trims. Models without navigation use that display to show phone and stereo information. Only the EX-L and V-6 Touring trim get navigation, a hard-drive-based system on which I noticed maps much improved over Honda's current offering.

One odd addition to the interface in the top-trim Accords is a monochrome touch screen just above the climate controls. A jog dial, similar to that used by Acura, operates the color LCD at the top of the dashboard. Honda could easily show all infotainment functions on the 8-inch LCD, so I don't understand the necessity of the smaller screen, except as a means of showing current audio information while the main LCD shows route guidance. The models without navigation get a slightly altered control interface, lacking the monochrome touch screen but keeping the big, color LCD and jog dial.

2013 Honda Accord

The navigation option adds a touch screen below the standard, color LCD.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Although Honda actually shortened the Accord sedan by 3.6 inches from the outgoing model, the cabin felt roomy enough that my co-driver and I never had to brush elbows. And in EX-L trim, which includes power-adjustable leather seats and a pleasant interior design, the Accord seems to threaten Acura's place as Honda's premium brand. To help reduce interior noise, Honda included a technology it has long used in its Acura models, active noise canceling. A microphone in the cabin picks up road noise, and the stereo emits frequencies that cancel it out. While driving the car, I could easily hear my co-driver as he related story after story from back in the day. Maybe that noise cancellation is not always a benefit.

The Accord uses a fixed suspension, but Honda revised it to deliver a better ride than the current car. The results were good, and I found it so smooth that it was often difficult to judge the car's speed without looking at the speedometer. A 3.5-liter V-6 may sound familiar from the current Honda lineup, but this engine now includes i-VTEC technology, which controls valve timing and lift to deliver better efficiency. However, the engine only makes 278 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque, plenty for the Accord, but only 7 horsepower over the previous engine. Honda estimates fuel economy with this engine-transmission combination at 21 mpg city and 34 mpg highway, a gain of up to 4 mpg over the current V-6 Accord.

I tried for a "VTEC kicked in, yo" moment but found that the six-speed automatic transmission did not include manual gear selection, just a standard Drive and Sport mode, making it difficult to wind up the rpms. The engine offered easy power for hill climbing and passing other traffic, aided by a slight reduction in curb weight from the outgoing model.

Honda talked up how it refined the electric power-steering system for the new Accord. A noncontact torque sensor is supposed to make the steering feel linear. I have not found other electric power-steering systems to lack a linear feeling, so I did not quite get this improvement. In general, the steering wheel felt a bit overboosted, light and easy to turn. Handling was good, if typical for a modern midsize sedan. The front-wheel-drive Accord did not roll much in the turns, but it felt like the front end would wash out if really stressed.

Camera for a side mirror
One really intriguing feature in the car was Honda's new blind-spot monitoring system, called LaneWatch. Unlike other automakers, Honda puts a camera in the right side mirror, and shows the view from that side of the car on the center LCD. I could see the lanes next to the Accord on the display without having to look across to the right side mirror, or turn my head around to look through the rear side windows. The left side does not get the same treatment, as Honda says it would be counterintuitive to look to the right when trying to make a left lane change. I found myself undecided about this type of blind-spot monitoring, and preferring that used by other automakers, which lights up a warning icon somewhere around the side mirror if a car is in the next lane over.

Honda is putting LaneWatch in lower-trim models as well. I took the wheel of a four-cylinder model with six-speed manual transmission, which lacked navigation. It also had the LaneWatch feature, along with a Bluetooth phone system and a USB port for iPod and USB drives. For app integration, the car had Pandora and the new HondaLink service, which comes standard in all EX-L and Touring trim sedans, and in the EX and EX-L Coupes. HondaLink uses the driver's own smartphone as its data connection.

2013 Honda Accord

Honda gives the driver a camera view out of the right side of the Accord.

Honda

HondaLink is based on the Aha service, and delivers a variety of Internet-based audio channels into the car. Beyond just music, the audio channels include podcasts and audiobooks. Even more innovative, Aha takes usually text-based Internet sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and translates them to audio. Drivers can listen to their own Facebook updates or Twitter feeds. HondaLink also has some Yelp functionality, narrowed down to searches for nearby restaurants or coffee shops. Again, the driver listens to the search results. The Yelp search is also smart, in the sense that it takes into account the direction and the road on which the car is traveling, only serving up results ahead of it.

Direct-injection efficiency
What I was really looking forward to in driving the four-cylinder Accord was trying out the new direct-injection engine. This 2.4-liter engine makes 185 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. That is only 8 more horsepower than the previous 2.4-liter, but 19 more pound-feet of torque. This Accord drove as easily as the V-6 version, and the six-speed manual was enjoyable to shift, as the gate felt precise yet comfortable.

With the hood up, the clatter of the injectors was very audible, but that sound did not intrude into the cabin. The only spot where I noticed the lessened power was on an ascent. Forced to downshift to third, I found the rising engine speed sounded off with an unholy whine that overcame the fancy noise cancellation in the cabin.

2013 Honda Accord

Honda reduced the number of buttons on its steering wheel and dashboard.

Honda

After the four-cylinder with the manual, I took a shorter drive in one with the new CVT, the automatic transmission option for all the four-cylinder Accords. As CVTs do, this one delivered linear acceleration, without any big rpm drops for big gear changes. When I put the gas pedal down, the CVT dutifully grabbed a lower ratio to give the car more speed. It did not eliminate the struggle I had felt with the other four-cylinder when trying to get the power up.

Honda says the CVT-equipped four-cylinder will do 27 mpg city and 36 mpg highway, very nice for a midsize sedan, while the manual transmission delivers a slightly lower 24 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. The real mileage leader among the new Accords will be the plug-in hybrid, which we'll take up in a separate article.

Honda needed the technology boost represented by this new generation of Accord. But rather than lap the midsize sedan competition, Honda seems to be merely keeping pace. Honda's style of blind-spot monitoring and app integration technology is certainly different than other automakers', and I am not sure buyers will take to the split. However, Honda has its reputation and the apparent quality of its interiors to use against the likes of the new Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion. The prices for the new Accord models, ranging all the way from $21,650 to $33,340, also keep Honda competitive in the midsize sedan segment.