LOS ANGELES - In early 1999, nine months before the first engineer would put pencil to paper, American Honda's product planners were determining the direction for the flagship Accord that would arrive three years later.
Two dozen Honda research analysts, executives, designers and engineers visited six cities to find out what people wanted in the next Accord. This meant polling Honda loyalists, as well as those who had selected a Camry or Passat instead.
Their findings would change the typical Honda product development path, a big risk for a car as important as the Accord. Normally, with each new generation, Honda makes the new edition bigger, faster and safer, with better packaging and higher quality goals.
But consumers told the researchers that Honda had hit the benchmark in many of those areas. Consumers wanted more style, more emotion and more performance.
As a result, Honda willingly sacrificed some of its core strengths, said Tim Benner, senior manager of advanced product planning and consumer insights for Honda R&D Americas. With the Accord moving slightly upscale with each redesign, the 2003 edition would face increased pressure from the booming near-luxury segment. Consumers liked the current Accord for how it suited their needs but for Honda to retain them, next time buyers wanted:
Some Accord fundamentals had to survive: package size, build quality and reliability, and the consumer perception of safety and value. But people wanted more pride and prestige from owning an Accord and were willing to make tradeoffs to get it, Benner said.
"Styling and dynamics were higher on the list than refinement and comfort," he said. "There were a lot of requests from VW and Audi owners for a more high-tech attention to detail. They said the Accord lacked personality, not just in terms of features and buttons, but in the tactile feel, the choice of materials, the layout and logic of the instrument clusters."
For example, to get a European driving feel, top-end engine smoothness was traded for more low-end torque. Rear passengers gave up some leg and hip room to make space for a redesigned rear suspension geometry.
"Anything we do with Accord changes the perception of Honda overall," Benner said. "We didn't want to do anything too predictable."