Legend: Honda's Executive Cruiser Revamped

Flying Honda's flag in the executive market is its luxurious Legend sedan -- just as usual. But now it has emerged from an overhaul with more goodies on board and a fierce price with which to provoke the opposition.

Costing (in the U.K.) just ?500 ($750) more than the out going mode, the third generation of Legend comes with an 11-year pedigree. Although it was first built in 1985 as a joint venture with Rover, today's executive cruiser is solely a Honda product, and will be produced only at the company's Japanese Sayama plant.

Almost three quarters of a million Legends have been sold to date and this year's European sales target for the new model is 1,500. Potential buyers are likely to be managing directors and company chairmen, or those, at lest, who enjoy a very much above-average salary.

Compared with the outgoing Legend, the 1996 car boasts an improved carrying capacity, double the number of speakers (eight), heated seats, an immobilizer and a remote trunk-opening facility. The engine has also been boosted from 3206cc to 3474cc. It's still a V6 though, and power output remains virtually the same, at 202bhp.

For your ?32,995 you get a

216kph car that's decked out with leather upholstery, cruise control, a CD/cassette player ... in short, electric everything, along with a quiet cabin, a comfortable ride and superb build quality.

Available with a four-speed automatic gearbox only, this Legend is the first Honda sedan to feature Grade Logic transmission. In essence what this means is that the "thinking" gearbox calculates the gradient of the road and selects a gear accordingly -- eliminating the up and down "hunting" that troubles many more conventional auto transmissions.

This Legend has better body rigidity -- achieved by lessons learned in the design of Honda's NSX super-sports car -- and the most tangible result of this is much improved handling. It isn't designed to whip through twists with the agility of the NSX but it's certainly capable of providing plentiful driving enjoyment, although it's primarily designed to be a superlative long-distance highway cruiser.

The Legend's power-assisted steering is a touch too light to provide the driver with real feel and involvement, but history shows that this is the way pseudo-sporting fat cats prefer their driving -- with minimal effort. On long journeys almost all you need concern yourself with is the steering, as cruise control and the automatic transmission take care of everything else. As befits directorial types, the ride quality is excellent.

The leather-clad seats are fully adjustable by means of switches, and have memory facilities. They provide enough support and comfort to make even the longest journeys a pleasure rather than an ordeal. Legroom is generous throughout, although head space is slightly more conservative.

Three large instrument dials face the driver and illuminate brightly once the ignition is activated. The remaining instrumentation smacks of typical Japanese practicality rather than styling panache.

Smatterings of wood up front help the Legend's upmarket aura, and a CD player takes pride of place beneath the plush front armrest, which also houses a useful holder for two drinks. In the rear of the cabin are two map pockets and another central armrest that doubles as a drinks holder and cubby for trinkets. A lockable ski-hatch through to the trunk is also accessible once the armrest has been dropped. The rear seat bench doesn't fold but the trunk is large enough to swallow three of four suitcases, and it has a usefully wide loading area too, so practicality most certainly hasn't been forgotten.

Passenger comfort was top on Honda's list of desired improvements, and in this respect the design engineers succeeded in their quest for executive-grade quietness; just about the only thing audible to Legend travellers is the air conditioning system. Rear passengers get their own heater system controls, so the chauffeur-driven MD can certainly add the Legend to his list of candidate vehicles.

Honda believes its thoroughly revamped flagship comes as "a halo on our existing models" and is hoping it will build long, loyalty-based relationships with its customers. This fine new "casual prestige" car is generally less expensive than BMW and Mercedes rivals. If value for money at the executive end of the car market is your main criterion, the Honda Legend will most likely suit you.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.