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Accord Seeks Mega Midsize Role

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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."

If a new model -- especially a brand flagship such as Accord -- struggles at launch, history shows it not only means mediocre sales for that model, it also can sour buyers on the whole brand.

By rights, Honda should know the American market better than Toyota or other foreign-based rivals. Accord was the first Japanese car made in America, with the first one rolling off the Marysville, Ohio, line on Nov. 1, 1982. And it became the first to be exported back to Japan, in March 1988. That milestone signaled Honda's embrace of the U.S. as a core manufacturing location.

Accord has also been a party animal compared with Camry, livelier and more agile, usually a little more stylish. Those attributes, along with a strong reputation for reliability, have made Accord a safe purchase for a broad swath of American buyers that is conservative, but wants more than an appliance, car-savvy people who'd stop short of calling themselves auto buffs.

Honda might have pushed too far in the wrong direction on the last-generation Accord now being replaced. Introduced as a 2008 model, it had grown just enough to be called a full-size car instead of midsize. Honda said at the time it wanted to compete with both the midsize Camry and the full-size Toyota Avalon.

"The old one lost a little bit of its 'Accordness,'" Mendel says. "It was right for the time, but with everything moving smaller, it was time to get back to our roots."

The 2013 is 3.5 inches shorter and rides on a wheelbase almost an inch shorter. Both the sedan that most buyers will choose and the sportier coupe, coming in October, give up a little passenger space for a bigger trunk. Honda notes that rear-seat legroom improves, however.

Despite the downsizing, Honda trimmed just 24 pounds from the new sedan, edging it down to 3,192 pounds. The coupe is 2 pounds heavier than the car it replaces. Cutting weight is a key to improving mileage without sacrificing performance.

A plug-in gasoline-electric hybrid version goes on sale early next year as a 2014 model. A conventional hybrid, without the plug-in feature, is scheduled for next summer.

Key features, and how they might play out:

Styling. The car's most vulnerable point.

Lindland says that when she saw the car, "What struck me is that this wasn't going to win any design awards." But, she adds, "I don't think anyone would say the Camry (styling) lights the world on fire. And it's important to remember that the midsize buyer isn't looking to light the world on fire."

Says Schuster, "From a design standpoint, they obviously went conservative."

And that's by design, says Mendel: "Radical doesn't age well."

On the other hand, more dramatic styling has propelled Hyundai's Sonata and Kia's Optima into the midsize front ranks, so at least some family-sedan buyers like a jazzy appearance.

Technology. Accord boasts about direct fuel injection, which can boost both mileage and power. But it's late to the party. Several rivals already have direct injection.

A unique camera view of traffic lanes to the right and behind the car takes the place of the more-common blind-spot warning system. That could wow some shoppers.

But on the driver's side, blind-spot help is a special mirror, which some might see as inferior to the warning lights that some others offer.

Most of the new Accord's tech features aren't exclusive, but are the price of entry nowadays. Honda says standard items include a Bluetooth hands-free phone link, cord-free audio streaming, rear-view camera and dual-zone climate control.

High-tech features on the up-level trims, often found on premium cars and now moving mainstream, include lane-departure warning, collision warning and adaptive cruise control, which adjusts speed when the car gets close to others.

Noise. Not much after all the refinements, Honda says. But Lindland, who drove Accords at a Honda event, says she found it "a little louder than I would have liked" on some surfaces.

Drivetrain. Four-cylinder models with automatic transmissions use continuously variable-ratio transmissions, which not all drivers like. CVTs deliver better mileage, but rev the engine hard and keep it revved when accelerating fast, resembling the sound and feel of a manual-shift car with a slipping clutch. The V-6 models use a conventional six-speed automatic.

Honda says the new four-cylinder has more horsepower than the base four in the outgoing car: 185 hp vs. 177 hp. But it also has 5 hp less than the other four-cylinder in the 2012, which was the engine many people bought. The new one could seem like backsliding to people who pore over specifications online before deciding which cars to put on their shopping lists.

Suspension. The front now has "MacPherson struts." Honda says they deliver "superior ride and handling qualities, while also reducing interior noise, vibration and harshness." But some buyers will consider it "dumbing down" compared with the sports-car style "double-wishbone" design of the outgoing model.

Lindland found the cars she drove "rough" and "a little bit harsh" on some roads, but overall, she says, Accord was "very, very well behaved."

Damned with faint praise?

No matter, Mendel says. Accord can succeed without being best in any single category. It's the whole, not the parts. "There is no one thing that will make it better," he says, "It's everything."

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