Shot of Charisma Fails to Transform Accord

Honda hopes its new Accord will create a more lasting impression than the previous version. For 1996, the Mondeo-competing sedan has been revised in a bid to inject a healthy dose of charisma to the once anonymous machine.

The latest model, on sale now, has been face-lifted to boost visual appeal. The restyle distances the Accord from the mass-market competition, presenting a stronger, more upmarket identity, and forging a more coherent link with Honda's other new products, including the new Civic and Shuttle models. Similar front-end styling treatment is also applied to the face-lifted versions of the U.S.-built Accord Coupe and Aerodeck station wagon models due imminently in Europe.

A notable feature of this latest Accord program is its use of newly developed, top-quality European-sourced components in such key areas as the power assisted steering, the anti-lock braking system, and the power-operated sunroof. These moves have lifted the EC-content of the Japanese Accord to around 90 per cent.

Beneath the new skin is a wider range of engines, revised suspension, more equipment and improved levels of safety and security. These changes are not before time, as the Accord faces increased competition from the likes of Audi's A4, Peugeot's 406 and Vauxhall's Vectra. So, can it strike the right chord and find wider interest?

Where the Accord previously featured two 2.0-liter engines with different power outputs and a 2.3-liter unit, a new 85kW 1.8-liter engine marks the starting point of the current Accord range. Next up comes a 2.0-liter petrol unit with 96kW, and then a direct-injection diesel boasting 77kW.

We have picked out the most exciting newcomer from the range, though -- the 2.2i VTEC -- to see whether Honda's latest efforts have paid off. This new engine tops the range, accordingly boasting the highest price of all -- ?20,995 ($31,500) in the United Kingdom. But bear in mind a list of standard equipment that's enough to make any BMW or Audi driver weep. The cabin boasts leather upholstery, air conditioning and electric adjustment for everything including the driver's seat and sunroof. Two airbags are also provided, along with cruise control, anti-lock brakes and alloy wheels.

Little has changed on the inside. The dash layout is as clear and concise as ever, with a good helping of storage space and ample legroom. If you're over six feet tall, headroom will be restrictive throughout, but there's enough room for three adults across the back seat. The seats have been re-shaped and are more supportive as a result.

This is the first time the Accord has packed a VTEC engine beneath its hood, and in this case it's a high tech, high-revving 2.2-liter unit which replaces the previous 2.3-liter engine. It's not only more powerful, but lighter and more economical too. The VTEC system alters inlet valve timing and lift, under the control of the engine's electronic control unit. The system uses three rocker arms -- each actuated by engine oil pressure -- to alter the valve timing and lift. At low engine speeds, differing amounts of valve lift are provided for the two inlet valves, creating additional combustion swirl to promote more efficient burning of the fuel-air mixture and improve exhaust gas recirculation. The result is reduced fuel consumption and decreased emissions. At high engine speeds, on the other hand, both inlet valves are switched to provide longer opening periods with increased valve lift, so substantially increasing the engine's power output. The moment at which the VTEC system switches is determined by a number of factors, including engine speed, load, throttle position and temperature, and the switching point varies from approximately 2300 rpm at full throttle to 3750 rpm under gentle acceleration.

Out on the road, the engine works its magic imperceptibly. At low revs, power is delivered in the most fuel-efficient manner possible, but from 2,500 rpm you get the wholesome maximum torque of 200 Nm, delivered in a silky smooth, yet sporty-sounding manner.

There's enough pace available to make the Accord fun to drive, with short gear ratios which keep it on the boil. Sadly though, the gear change is poor, with a long, notchy throw that's at odds with the slick engine.

In town and across country, the revised damper settings enable the suspension to do a far better job of soaking up rough surfaces. But as the speed picks up, the Honda floats and wallows slightly over undulations, which doesn't encourage spirited driving. Nor does the steering, which still lacks any feedback, and needs too much twirling in tighter corners.

Take to the main roads and the Accord does a fine job of pampering occupants with a comfortable cabin and good levels of refinement. But when it's up against the Mondeo and 406 -- leaders in the handling department -- it needs to do a lot more than that.

Standard equipment on all versions of the Accord includes twin airbags, remote central locking with alarm, electric sunroof, power windows and door mirrors, engine immobilizer, high-level stop lamp, driver seat height adjustment and a split-fold rear seat, with anti-lock brakes standard on all versions bar the 1.8i.

As it is, the 2.2i Accord is a superbly well-finished car with lots of equipment and fine performance. But that's not quite enough to hit the right chord -- Honda's latest recital remains distinctly unmemorable and lacks the accomplished, all-round abilities of the class leaders.

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