Test Drive: Sweet new Accord does Honda proud

Honda has stretched its mainstay Accord sedan enough that the redesigned 2008 model moves up, barely, to full size from midsize.

It's the biggest Honda car, and the automaker hopes it now will compete against the full-size Toyota Avalon as well as the midsize Toyota Camry.

The '08 Accord, on sale Sept. 12, is roughly an inch wider, an inch taller and 3 inches longer than before.

"As our customers grew up, Accord grew with them," and the latest move is "in the right direction" to keep up with buyer preferences, says Dan Bonawitz, vice president of corporate planning and logistics for American Honda.

Also of note:

•The optional V-6 engine has a cylinder-cutoff feature designed to run on three cylinders, four, or all six. Previously, it was a choice between three and six.

There hasn't been a three-mode cylinder deactivation system since the 1981 Cadillac V-8-6-4, which proved unreliable and was discontinued after a year.

Honda says there's no chance of that.

Turns out the previous Honda V-6-3 wasn't spending much time in three-cylinder mode, but tests show it will spend a lot of time running as a V-4, up to about 70 mph, time that it previously would have been back into full V-6 mode.

Honda figures that the new version of VCM, or variable cylinder management, boosts fuel economy one mile per gallon in town, three on the highway vs. the same engine without VCM.

•The optional 190-horsepower four-cylinder gets the same fuel economy as the 177-hp base engine in the low-end LX version of the Accord.

Why, then, would Honda bother with the base engine? Cheaper. It doesn't have all the variable-valve timing hardware, which helps lower the cost and price of the LX Accord.

Most important, though, is that Honda did a sweet job on the overhaul. The combination of pleasant driving, practicality and refinement probably is unmatched among mainstream sedans.

Seats in the preproduction test cars gave pause, though, generally too stiff. Honda says that's been changed and production models should feel better.

Unless you're a complete power junkie, don't bother with the V-6. The 2.4-liter, 190-hp four is a sweetheart.

It is powerful enough to be fun and to avoid anxious moments pulling into fast-moving traffic or the passing lane. It has sufficient low-end power to burble around town without a hiccup. The automatic transmission shifts superbly under hard acceleration and almost as quickly and smoothly on hard-throttle downshifts, a uniformity of polished execution beyond the transmission-tuning skills of some automakers.

The 190-hp engine, standard in the EX model, comes with a stiffer suspension than the LX, which has the 177-hp version of the 2.4-liter engine. EX feels solid, not stiff, and it handles bumps and corners as if it were specifically tuned for each one, rather than having a general tuning engineers hope will cope.

If you step up to the V-6 model, you'll get blazing engine performance but rougher downshifting than in the four-cylinder cars. Also, a sensitive driver can feel the V-6 go through its multicylinder transitions.

A variety of preproduction test cars were driven on realistic routes around here that mixed traffic, low-speed burgs, higher-speed rural roads and a little freeway. Some observations:

•Roomy. The extra size isn't wasted. Back seat riders benefit most, getting, Honda says, an inch or more extra leg and knee room. There's enough back there to be comfortable, even when front seats are far back.

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