Stand back, ladies and gents. Here comes the remade Honda Accord, and the fight for alpha status in midsize sedans is about to get bloody.
Once a perennial contender for best-selling car in the U.S., Accord hasn't taken the gold in more than a decade -- slapped down by Toyota's Camry.
Tired of that, Honda did a full makeover for the 2013 on sale Sept. 19.
Major changes include slimming the exterior, boosting mileage by as much as 4 miles per gallon to 36 mpg on the highway, adding more, and updated, technology, and raising prices for various trim levels up to $300. The new starting price with automatic transmission, the way most Americans will buy it, is up $200 to $22,470, including shipping.
Girding for battle, Honda has revamped Accord production in the U.S. so that, combined with some imports from Japan, it could build enough new Accords to pass Camry, though Honda won't specifically say that's the goal.
"There's no doubt they want to outsell Camry," says Rebecca Lindland of industry consultant IHS Automotive. The fight "is going to be ugly."
Being No. 1 is important beyond bragging rights; it can be self-sustaining. "People buy what other people buy," says marketing consultant Jack Trout at Trout & Partners.
But Camry, which was just refreshed for 2012, is not the new Accord's only tough rival in a heated battle for sales in the midsize market, the USA's biggest segment. Midsize accounts for one of every four new vehicles sold.
For 2013, there also are redesigned versions of big-dog challengers Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu. And there are recently redone, and still-fresh-looking, versions of the Volkswagen Passat, Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima. A radically overhauled Mazda6 due in several months will be an influential minor player, potentially able to steal enough buyers to make a difference.
Forecaster LMC Automotive has Camry holding the crown in 2013 -- barely -- rolling up about 390,000 sales to Accord's expected 375,000. It wouldn't take much to reverse that -- deeper discounting by one, a quality or recall gaffe that makes buyers wary, better salesmanship by one brand's dealers, snappy ads.
Or, one of the other new entries could strike buyers as just the thing and siphon away more sales than expected.
The new Accord's sales also will be a key report card on whether Honda has snapped out of a tendency with some recent models to underestimate the growing sophistication of rivals and the rising demands and tastes of U.S. buyers.
The latest example: Civic. Sales of the redesigned compact have been strong, but Honda underestimated new rivals, and accelerated changes are in the works for the Civic, says John Mendel, Honda's U.S. executive vice president.
Tetsuo Iwamura, CEO of American Honda Motor, says Accord avoids the Civic mistake. When he showed the new one to dealers, their reaction was "stronger than the Civic introduction."
"Once again, Accord will be the benchmark for the segment," he says confidently.
Honda plans to build 350,000 Accords per year in Ohio, he says. "Of course, we hope for more." With more from Japan, Honda could deliver up to 460,000 if demand is that strong, he says.
Regardless of whether it can best Camry, Accord must have big sales. "No question in my mind it remains the most important vehicle in Honda's stable," says Jeff Schuster, head of forecasting at LMC Automotive. "It really has been the image of Honda for a long time."
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