Randy LeBlanc has owned a Honda Accord for more than 20 years. A 41-year-old real-estate agent in New Orleans' suburbs, LeBlanc bought his first Accord, a used 1988 model, in the early 1990s. He replaced it with a brand-new Accord in 2001. Some 125,000 miles later, LeBlanc and his wife are looking for another sedan.
LeBlanc says he's 90 percent sure it won't be a Honda.He's shopped Toyota, Hyundai and Kia lately, and when I spoke with him last week, he was leaning toward Toyota. LeBlanc says Honda requires moving up too many trim levels to get features like Bluetooth, and the Accord is too noisy.
Noise "has been a knock on Honda for how many years now," LeBlanc asks. "It doesn't seem to be a concern of theirs. I don't anticipate them to be any different [in the future]."
Honda rolled out standard Bluetooth for some newer models like the redesigned CR-V. And any car with six figures on the odometer — like LeBlanc's '01 Accord — won't be silent as a library on the highway. But he has a point. A four-cylinder Accord EX placed fifth out of eight in Cars.com's $25,000 Family Sedan Shootout two years ago, with road noise a recurring complaint. Even today's Accord requires stepping up to the leather-clad EX-L trim for Bluetooth.
So LeBlanc will likely jump ship. He isn't the only one: Shoppers by the thousands are choosing competitors over the Accord, once a must-drive for anyone shopping family cars.
Experts point to a number of reasons for this. Inventory shortages after Japan's earthquake affected sales through the end of 2011. But the issues go beyond inventory. The Accord's position atop the family-sedan segment — in a perpetual rivalry with the Toyota Camry — could shift if Honda doesn't chart the right course.
A redesigned 2013 Accord hits dealerships this fall. It remains under wraps, but Honda foreshadowed it in January with the Accord coupe concept. The redesign will be smaller and lighter, Honda says, with a host of crash-avoidance technology and a reprisal of the Accord Hybrid. The competition, however, is fiercer than ever. Honda needs to make up lost ground in a lot of areas to retain owners like LeBlanc and pick up some new ones.
The Camry has owned the family-car segment since 2001, when the Accord last beat it out. Honda strung together nine years at No. 2, but then hamstrung by low inventory after Japan's earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, the Accord slipped to No. 3, bested by the Camry and Nissan Altima. It took until early December for Honda to sort out inventory issues.
But sales continued to fall. The automaker threw upwards of $1,000 in dealer cash atop discount financing to keep interest in the 5-year-old car, but the competition ratcheted up its appeal to match. J.D. Power and Associates data show nearly a quarter of Accord buyers cross-shop the Camry; about one in five shop the Altima. A redesigned Camry steamed into dealerships last October, and by spring, Nissan had thrown up to $2,250 on the aging Altima's hood. It worked: Sales through March boomed 39% for the Altima and 37% on the Camry. In the same span, the Accord fell 8%.
Put another way, one in every 6.7 family cars sold a year ago was an Accord. Today that's fallen to around one in 10. The Accord isn't in second place anymore. It's slipped to fourth, falling behind the Ford Fusion which will also be redesigned this year.
Accord’s Share of Family Cars
Year Percent of segment Rank (cars ahead)
2007 17.5 2 (Camry)
2008 17.7 2 (Camry)
2009 17.7 2 (Camry)
2010 18.0 2 (Camry)
2011 13.6 3 (Camry, Altima)
2012 (Jan.-Mar.) 10.4 4 (Camry, Altima, Fusion)
Includes variants reported in the same sales group (e.g., Passat CC or Camry Solara). Midsize/Family cars in this time span include the Chevrolet Malibu/Classic, Chrysler Sebring/200, Dodge Stratus/Avenger, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda6, Mercury Milan, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Altima, Pontiac G6, Saturn Aura, Subaru Legacy, Suzuki Verona/Kizashi, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat.
Source: Automotive News data
No Alarms Just Yet
Honda spokesman Chris Martin says the Accord's slow sales this year are "absolutely a concern, but you have to look at the competitive marketplace and the fact that Camry just had a full model change, [Hyundai] Sonata had a full model change in 2011, [Kia] Optima had a full model change in 2011. The [Volkswagen] Passat entered the marketplace as an actual, credible contender. So if you look five years ago, a lot of these people weren't playing seriously."
That means staying near the top will be harder than ever.
"You're going to be fighting for buzz with Altima and Fusion, and the rest of the [Chevrolet] Malibus will start coming out," AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan said.
Martin disagrees. He says there's no "zero sum game" in sales for the segment, and the flurry of redesigns will pull new shoppers in. A rising tide, in effect, can lift all sedans.
Sales for what AutoPacific calls the Premium Midsize Segment — the Accord, Camry, Fusion, Malibu and eight others — will increase 16.3% between 2011 and 2013, with six redesigned cars fighting for pieces of that expansion, according to the firm. The Accord should gain 10.4% over the same period, a percentage AutoPacific predicts the Camry and Altima to beat. Honda will see some new buyers, but it remains to be seen whether they're enough to satisfy the automaker.
Significant Revamp Needed
A big question revolves around exactly how different the next Accord will be considering current owners like LeBlanc have become disillusioned.
We've only seen the Accord coupe concept while competitors like Nissan and Ford have gone the full monty on their redesigns. The Altima and Fusion will sport impressive mileage numbers to match the new designs. Honda won't likely reveal mileage figures about the new Accord until the day it goes on sale if previous history is any indication.
Honda has a habit of being secretive about its new models, but perhaps it should have made an exception this year while shoppers compare the new Altima, new Fusion, new Malibu, Camry, Sonata and Optima before making a purchase decision. And there's four more months before Honda plans to release the information on the Accord. That's a lot of research being done that will likely exclude the Accord entirely.
Civic or CR-V?
Honda stumbled with the redesigned Civic, which we've dinged for its cheap interior and subpar handling. Sales improved 19% for the nameplate through March, but that outpaced the market's increase by just 6% — and some of it came thanks to dealer incentives, which a redesigned car shouldn't need. Compare it to Honda's shining star, the redesigned CR-V crossover, whose sales are up 30% with zero incentives in just as competitive a segment.
Will the next Accord be a Civic or a CR-V? We'll find out this fall. Honda's Martin says he's confident the 2013 Accord will put Honda "back into a segment leadership position in many areas."
"We are bringing a four-cylinder engine with direct-injection and all-new CVT transmission," he said. "We're going to have a very powerful and efficient [V-6] engine with a six-speed automatic transmission. So [the] '13 Accord is going to make some major strides in fuel economy and feature content and level of technology and safety."
Honda doesn't have much choice but to make major strides if it wants to woo LeBlanc and those like him back to the Accord.