For 17 years it was a crucible and a standard, both a talisman of Asian supremacy in automobiles and a juju for the American industry.

Then Honda's Accord went lame.

In a snap, since Christmas, the ever evolving, always improving, ceaselessly reliable Accord slid from the nation's best seller to fourth and still fading. America's former family favorite currently lags behind Ford Taurus, Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Cavalier--ironically, mid-size cars originally built to pursue Honda's quality and refinement.

Believe the seriousness, but see nothing terminal in this sagging of Accord. Ford fattened its '92 numbers with bargain-basement sales to rental fleets. Camry, new in '92, is riding its image as the littlest Lexus. Cavalier dropped prices and added options to puff upsales.

And repeat Honda buyers have wisely held off because their darling was in the final year of its model cycle, and there were promises of V-6 power and higher values to come.

Next week, transporters deliver Accord's fifth generation to Honda dealers.

It may disappoint buyers anticipating racier and more radical styling, skunk-works technology or higher horsepower from a V-6 engine bigger than the competition. In fact, a V-6-powered Accord will not be available until next year.

Yet for those who purchase cars the way the cautious change spouses--as a gradual improvement of lifestyle, without deep disturbance of one's psyche or daily habits--the 1994 Accord will be seen as the logical continuum.

It certainly rides smoother, faster and quieter--high tribute for a car always considered smoother, faster and quieter than most. It is wider and higher, but with a slightly reduced length and wheelbase for a more gainly stance. Driver- and passenger-side air bags are now standard on the entry-level DX, with anti-lock brakes optional equipment on more expensive LX and EX models.

These days, expense is a cardinal consideration in the hearts and recession-withered bank accounts of mid-size car buyers. Honda won't announce Accord prices until post time, but executive vice president Tom Elliott promises 1994 stickers will be "at or near" 1993 levels.

So expect at or near $14,000 for the basic DX sedan; at or near $19,500 for the peppier and dressier EX coupe; at or near $18,000 for an LX wagon. Now let reality take over: Do not presume "near" means below current prices.

Unfortunately, two four-cylinder, 2.2-liter engines offered with the 1994 Accord also are rated at or near the old horsepower. That's 130 horsepower (only five more than last year) for DX and LX engines and 145 horsepower (another skinny increase of five) for EX models.

The bigger engine does have Honda's VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control--which should form VVTLEC, but doesn't), which automatically orchestrates valves and fuel induction for optimum efficiency. VTEC supplies an additi onal 15 m.p.h., quicker acceleration times and, oddly, slightly better fuel efficiency.

Still, minimal power increases may not sit well with those who prefer more substantial levels of change with their $19,500 investment in a new vehicle. Others will leap to Consumer Guides and be quick to yelp that 130 and 145 horsepower are scant, if any, improvements on what is available with Taurus, Camry, Nissan Altima and even the unsophisticated Pontiac Grand Am.

External changes to Accord are noticeable--a smoother, more aerodynamic improvement on last year's three-box design. Nevertheless, it represents only a gentle re-sculpting of cautious shapes already on the road.

Accord's snubbed rear end and short overhang are worn by the BMW 325i. In profile, the car is a cab-forward wedge that looks like an Acura Vigor with a tummy tuck. Or a downsized Chrysler LH.

Internally, as is a tradition with Honda, the sedan is an easy, comfortable dream. Gone are all s ale corners and angles. The cabin flows via a cushioned routing separating atwo-tone interior; its line runs across the dash, around padded doors and above armrests to surround occupants with an oval.

Controls for radio, windows and turn signals are solid without being clumsy. Hand brake? Map pocket? In this ergonomic paradise, instincts prevail and all objects are wherever they should be, which is precisely where hands and fingers are reaching.

The car is roomier, even for back seaters who were scrunched in older models. Fabrics, plastics and leathers are premium. Seats have been redesigned to blend comfort with a firm, anatomical fit guaranteed to reset the laziest of postures.

The instrument cowl is a softer, mild protrusion that does not detour the lines of the dashboard nor make drivers frown to find speedometer, tachometer, temperature and fuel needles.

There are a ton of neat touches.

An elastic strap for a garage door opener on the underside of a storage bin. Beverage holders within easier reach, behind the shifter. A coin bin.Larger, grabbier door handles. And the ashtray now doubles as a parking gate card holder.

Prior to this week's national unveiling at Honda of America's assembly plant at Marysville, Ohio, some privileged souls were allowed to hammer new Accords at the Honda Proving Center of California. It's a $32-million, 3,800-acre desert-tortoise playground at Cantil, close to California City and within asun-baked sonic boom of Edwards Air Force Base.

Two pre-production prototypes were offered for sacrifice--a snowball white Accord LX with a 4-speed, electronically tamed automatic transmission; and a burgundy EX with a five-speed manual, leather interior and all of the cosmetic options.

Two circuits were available--a three-lane, 7.5-mile oval simulating any freeway with the blessed absence of CHP and semis; and within this Indianapolis at Mojave, a 4.5-mile road course in search of a Sports Car Club of America sanction.

On such high-speed, hard-handling surfaces, the benefits of the new Accord go far beyond looks, comfort and coin holders. Here, computer-dictated body stiffness, liquid-filled engine mounts and urethane damping materials inside pillars and bulkheads combine as engineers' victories over noise, vibration and harshness of handling.

Race-car ground effects--dams and skirts that channel and direct a slipstream until it reduces a car's aerodynamic drag and lift--mean little between home and the Game Boy store.

At 130 m.p.h. on an unbanked oval, they are the difference between staying stuck or pirouetting ungracefully into the boonies.

The white LX, hampered by its lesser engine and an automatic transmission still prone to screeching and shift shock, wasn't too much fun. It did its thing, but just didn't care much about how.

But the EX, with 145 horsepower and a manual transmission that made Hond a a charter member of the Five-Speed Hall of Fame, was a full frolic in a precise, secure car offering greater zest on surer feet.

It converted speed bumps, Botts' dots and a stretch that duplicated the Harbor Freeway's precast slabs sans potholes into minor rumbles with zero steering kickback. It handled the road course like a moonshiner, the back end being the first to drift but remaining eminently manageable.

At twice the legal speed limit and beyond, and tracking within a single lane, the Accord's steering lightens too much and there's a noticeable loss of feel. Although certainly not overbraked, the 10-inch discs, front and rear, do a capable job of bringing the car to rest from anything but insane speeds.

And visibility, thanks to the size and long slope of the windshield, is a glass house allowing perfect positioning of the car's front corners.

The 1994 Accord--from crush-resistant cabin to energy-absorbing pads built into door linings at hip and shoulder levels--is a safe car.

And with more than 70% of its weight formed by recyclable materials, the Accord certai nly is a politically correct car.

If enough people appreciate the subtleties of technical thoroughness, solid assembly and middling price with no compromise in comfort or performance, the 1994 Accord just might become a comeback car.

1994 Honda Accord EX

The Good Upholds Honda standards of quality, value, reliability. Runs and handles well. Comfortable, modern interior and superior ergonomics. Heavy emphasis on safety and environment.

The Bad No V-6 in lineup. Borrowed styling might wilt in years to come.

The Ugly Nothing visible.

Cost Estimated base price: $19,000. (Includes anti-lock brakes, passenger and driver air bags, power moonroof, air conditioning, power locks and windows, cruise control and six-speaker sound system.)

Engine 2.2 liter, 16-valve, inline four with VTEC.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, mid-size sedan.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 10 seconds with five-speed manual. Top speed, track tested, 130 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 25 and 31 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,003 pounds.