When you are America's best-selling passenger sedan, it's big news when you change the cigarette lighter. When you get a new personality, it's really bound to make headlines. You can't blame the folks at Honda for sitting on their collective laurels, or their dollar bills.

Unlike many automakers that launch a new car and leave it to putrefy for nearly a decade, Honda prefers to tinker, rework, think, ponder and change again. Never satisfied with a spot near the top of the midsize pyramid, Honda is constantly looking at ways to make the best better.

So, just in time for a new model year, a new 2003 Accord arrives - even if the old one is still fresh to the market.

Calling it "the most dramatic change in (the Accord's) 27-year history," this time Honda's after something a little more elusive for 2003: passion.

Honda has never had a problem making its meat-and-potatoes, apple-pie family sedan appeal to the masses. Since the first Accord took shape for the 1976 model year, the car has built a reputation for incredible reliability, top resale value and economy. It's the car that every other sedan out there wants to be.

But what about pizazz, vim, vigor and chutzpah ? This year should take care of at least some of that.

With boosted power, improved suspension and reworked transmissions, the new Accord arrives with more oomph and eye appeal. Of course, no new transformation would be complete without the addition of a sport model (that's our take on life, anyway), so Honda has created a new V-6 sport coupe with fat tires and a notchy six-speed manual transmission.

Just how different is this attitude toward family transportation? Honda even went out of its way to include the words "cheetah-like styling" in its press literature.

We'll simply settle for something a little different than the everyday.

It starts with two new advanced powerplants: a 160-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder; and an extensively revised 3.0-liter V-6 that pumps out an impressive 240 horsepower. Both have more peak power and torque than their predecessors, as well as improved mid-range and bottom-end performance. Both feature Honda's latest variable valve timing system, called i-VTEC, and offer lower emissions and improved economy, a Honda staple.

Four-cylinder Accords come with a new five-speed manual transmission. A five-speed automatic (replacing the previous four-speed auto) is also available for both engines. Then, of course, there's the six-speed manual that's available with the two-door coupe.

Underneath, Honda has decided to stick with the previous-generation Accord's double wishbone suspension. Overall changes for this year, however, are aimed at keeping it flat in all driving conditions. Torsional rigidity is also up by 27 percent. A stronger chassis with reduced flex means a more solid, rattle-free driving experience in all conditions. In fact, Honda says it's like no other car it its lineup - ever.

Exterior styling is more attractive and definitely more distinctive than its previous versions. You only need a passing glance to make that discovery. In fact, the coupe and sedan are so different from each other that their headlights are the only shared body components.

The sedan is available in a variety of trim levels - base DX, LX, EX, LX V-6 and EX V-6 - which means there's a little something for everyone and for every budget. The coupe, which runs a little more upscale overall than the sedan, comes in LX, EX, LX V-6 and EX V-6 trim.

Inside, the seats have been redesigned to provide improved comfort and support. There's also more front interior room, increased rear knee room, upgraded audio system, available dual-zone climate control and even a new multifunctional key that eliminates the need for a separate remote. Built into the head of the key are functions for locking and unlocking the doors as well as rolling down all the windows.

Additional standard equipment this year includes four-wheel-disc brakes with anti-lock as well as tilt and telescopic steering. EX buyers can even opt for a new DVD-based navigation system with a voice-control feature.

For the first time on any Honda, upper-end Accord coupes will feature a side-curtain air bag system, available on EX V-6 models. There are also standard dual-stage front air bags that adjust the force depending on the severity of impact, as well as driver and front-passenger side-impact air bags that feature the Occupant Position Detection System that sense when someone is seated on the passenger side.

The new Accord's drawbacks are few - the trunk is relatively small, and the handlingin V-6 models is a little mushy for sports-minded drivers.

The Accord has always been a perennial favorite of those seeking reliable, practical and economical transportation.

The 2003 model stands on the shoulders of its predecessors to add new good looks, power and, as Honda puts it, passion.

Again: Passion? An Accord?

You bet your big sales.

It not only makes the Accord a more attractive package, but keeps Honda at the head of the pack.

SPECS - 2003 HONDA ACCORD

Rating: 3.5

High gear: With boosted power, improved suspension and reworked transmissions, the new Accord arrives with more oomph and eye appeal.

Low gear: The drawbacks are few - the trunk is relatively small and the handling in V-6 models is a little mushy.

Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive, front-engine midsize sedan.

Standard equipment: Bucket front seats; cloth upholstery; height-adjustable driver seat with lumbar support; bench rear seat; split-folding seats; rear heating ducts; remote power locks; power windows, mirrors; cruise control; five-speed manual transmission; four-wheel independent suspension; tilt, telescopic steering wheel; audio and cruise controls on steering wheel; front 12-volt power outlet; 16-inch tires; power glass sunroof; four-wheel ABS brakes; front side-mounted air bags; anti-theft system; AM/FM in-dash 6 CD stereo w/six speakers.

Competition: Ford Focus, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand AM GT

Engine (DX model): 160 horsepower, 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder

Torque (DX model): 161 foot-lbs. @ 4,500 rpm

Wheelbase: 105.1 inches

Length: 187.6 inches

MPG rating: 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway

Manufactured: Marysvile, Ohio

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; powertrain warranty is three years/36,000 miles; rust perforation warranty is five years/unlimited miles.

Base price (DX model): $15,800

Price as tested (includes options, destination and delivery charges): $16,260