EXPERT REVIEW

Boston.com's view


How much success is too much?

Consider the Toyota Camry and today’s test car, the 2008 Honda Accord EX-L. Maybe they have become so popular that some consumers pass them by, assuming both are ultimately uninteresting, despite their well-documented reliability. I’m sure marketing specialists, engineers, and designers at Toyota and Honda continually wrestle with the challenge of keeping the cars’ best-selling status from waning.

Make no mistake, this is the best Accord ever built. And its optional 3.5-liter, V6 engine continues a line of Honda engines that I consider the best in the world. We drove the smaller, 2.4-liter, 190 horsepower engine and found it to be sufficient. There is also a 177-horsepower version available.

So it’s a fine car, with a fine ride and great ergonomics. But where is the spark that will lure to a newer and younger group of buyers? In the past, certain Civics helped put Honda on the map with a younger generation.

This is a bigger Accord than in the past, with plenty of room fore and aft and a generous trunk. But we could say that about a lot of American big steel that became obsolete. That’s not going to not happen to the Accord, however, because it remains too fine a transport to disappoint its loyal crop of customers. Plus, a new design – chopped and low at the front, a big greenhouse as it advances toward the rear, and chopped and high rear deck with twin exhausts below the bumper – gives it at more aggressive look.

And finally, Honda is making stability control a standard feature. Thanks go to the Korean manufacturers who forced a lot of other brands into making this important safety system standard.

Both the 3.5-liter and four-cylinder engines are linked to a 5-speed automatic transmission. (Five- and six-speed manuals are also available, depending on the car).

Our automatic provided seamless shifting, and “grade control” was obvious as it held us back on long descents instead of letting the engine wind out and increase the car’s speed.

The ride was surprisingly stiff – not a bad trait in a performance car, though I’m not sure those still enamored of the Accord will like it. On the highway, it was a cruiser, without being “boaty” like old American cruisers were wont to be, and not plow-ahead defiant like a Mercedes-Benz sedan. Cornering was on-center, but when pushed, the direct feel of the steering wheel to the wheels thinned out.

Inside, the leather seats were firm and well-bolstered – a long trip in this Accord would not be taxing. Rear legroom is quite expansive for what is not considered to be a large automobile.

Typical of Honda, the ergonomics are superb. It features easy-to-read gauges with distinct backlighting, big knobs and buttons for basic controls, and a central control knob that makes many of the functions easy to understand and undertake.

It is a comfortable and quiet car, though not necessarily efficient for a four-cylinder. We got only 22.1 miles per gallon – something we have achieved in far more funky V6-powered autos. In fact, the Honda V6, with a shut-down program for cylinders when not being pushed, would do nearly as well.

But if point-to-point with reliability and comfort and enervated driving demands are your bailiwick, then this is the car for you. If not, check out the new Chevrolet Malibu and competing Infiniti models.

The basics

Base price/as tested: $26,000/$27,900 (estimated)

Fuel economy: 22.1 miles per gallon in Globe testing (regular fuel)

Annual fuel cost: $1,800 (at $3.06 per gallon, regular, 13,000 miles per year)

The early line

Honda keeps this horse running at the front of the herd.

The specifics

Drivetrain: Front-wheel-drive

Seating: 5

Horsepower: 190

Torque: 162 lb.-ft.

Overall length: 194.0 inches

Wheelbase: 110 inches

Height: 58.0 inches

Width: 73.0 inches

Curb weight: 3,570 pounds

The skinny

Nice touch: The central control knob’s simplicity.

Annoyance: Why doesn’t the entire rear seat fold down for trunk access?

Shop it against: Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Taurus, Toyota Camry, Subaru Legacy, Kia Amanti, Nissan Maxima, Pontiac G6, Saturn Aura.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

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