SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- For all the sheet-metal similarity to its predecessor, the 2013 Honda Accord is as close to a clean-sheet redesign as possible.
It loses 3.5 inches of overall length, and a new engine, transmission, suspension and body structure are among the key changes for Honda's mid-sized sedan entry. It marks the first use of Honda's plug-in hybrid technology. It also re-unifies the Accord platform; no longer does the United States get its own version.
The basics: With the Earth Dreams engine family, Honda has caught up with other automakers in offering direct injection engines. With the Accord, it is standard across the lineup. Also, Honda has updated its VTEC variable valve timing system to include variable cam timing. The four-cylinder offers more power, better fuel economy and fewer emissions than its predecessor.
While some automakers are shifting to turbo-four engines for their upmarket trim levels, Honda is sticking with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, paired with a six-speed automatic in the sedan.
The V-6 has variable cylinder management, which runs the engine in three-cylinder mode when cruising. That enables the V-6 to get 21 mpg city/34 mpg highway while shaving a half-second off its 0-to-60-mph time. The V-6 has gained 6 hp but lost a couple pounds-feet of torque.
Perhaps the most radical change for the Accord is switching from a geared transmission to a continuously variable version for all four-cylinder automatics. Honda believes it has developed a solution to the CVT's traditional lack of refinement, even though its design is basically the same as Nissan's disparaged version.
"Historically, CVTs had a 'rubber band' feeling or a nonlinear acceleration feeling," said Art St. Cyr, American Honda Motor Co. vice president for product planning and logistics. "Ours has a more natural shift feel and an earlier rise in g-force acceleration compared to the five-speed automatic. And it has quicker acceleration than the Camry or Altima."
Gearheads also may screech at Honda's changing from a front double-wishbone suspension to MacPherson struts. Honda has prided itself on the Accord's track-inspired double wishbones since the automaker dominated Formula One in the 1980s.
However, packaging realities intervened. Double wishbones lend themselves to crisp, precise handling. But they are heavier, take up more space, provide a busy ride on long trips and let more noise into the cabin.
Honda changed to a strut design to quiet the ride -- both dynamically and sonically. Honda engineers say the car is more agile, predictable and responsive with better high-speed stability -- thanks to the addition of hydraulic compliance bushings. But they admit there was difficulty in overcoming the off-center numbness inherent in the car's electric power steering system.
Honda also changed the Accord's body construction. New safety guidelines that test "overlap" impacts -- headlight shearing an oncoming headlight -- show that crash energy is harder to dissipate through traditional frame rails. For the Accord, Honda created an additional side member and an upper frame and increased the amount of high-strength steel surrounding the cabin.
To save about 14 pounds, Honda used a new "friction stir welding" technology to bond steel to aluminum in the subframe. Overall, the body in white weighs 55 pounds less.
As for the sheet metal itself, while the front and rear fascias retain their distinct Honda flavor, the greenhouse, door cuts and body creases closely mimic those of the BMW 3 series.
Notable features: Inside, the instrument panel features an 8-inch telematics screen, the largest in the segment, as standard equipment. While the previous instrument panel was made from four distinct pieces with 16 seams, the new design is one single, seamless piece. That will reduce the chance for squeaks and rattles. To calm the cabin further, the stereo speakers emit noise-canceling sound waves.
Despite the car's shorter length, it gains a cubic foot of trunk space, thanks to a higher bulkhead and a narrowed and relocated torsion bar.
The base Accord LX model with the CVT costs $23,270 with shipping compared with the Toyota Camry LE's $22,850 starting price. The Accord comes standard with 16-inch wheels, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, an alarm system with remote locks, Bluetooth connectivity, a rear-view camera, auto-off headlights and a 160-watt CD stereo with USB and Pandora Internet radio. The V-6 version starts at $30,860, including shipping.
Optional safety features include lane-departure warning, a pre-collision warning chime and a camera mounted in the right-side mirror that displays the blind-spot area on the navigation screen when the right-turn indicator is flicked.
What Honda says: "All companies are coming forward with good fuel economy, so we needed to bring a car with these winning features," said Shoji Matsui, Accord chief engineer and large project leader. "This is a product you can't go wrong by. It excels in all areas."
Compromises and shortcomings: Purists will despise the CVT and the loss of the front double wishbones. The standard mouse-fur cloth seats are grabby to occupants' garments. The PRND gearshift tree does not offer a kick-over into manual-shift mode; paddle shifters are offered only on the sedan's sport trim level.
The market: The sedan's on-sale date is Sept. 19. Honda hopes to sell 350,000 Accords a year. About 80 to 85 percent will be sedans.
The skinny: Some big changes were needed to the current bland, bloated Accord. Its look is crisper; its engines, stronger. But in the case of the suspension and transmission choices, some may argue Honda went too far.