First drive: 2018 Honda Accord [Review]

Honda's mainstay is new from the ground up.

hen we sat down for Honda's product briefing, the opening salvo in what would be a barrage of marketing slides was a collection of headlines (none ours, unfortunately) heralding the debut of the production 2018 Accord (including one from USA Today titled, "There's a new Honda Accord. Does anyone care?").

We were then presented with charts meant to demonstrate that there's no truth to the narrative that the midsize sedan market is going away, including one which depicted the segment's volume relative to others and showed the midsize sedan in third place, but curiously omitted full-size pickups. The midsize sedan: third-biggest as long as you don't include the actual biggest.

Honda further confused the point by asking us just how dead a segment can be if its volume exceeds that of some manufacturers'--such as Volkswagen's or Mazda's--entire lineups. The question was posed rhetorically; Honda intended us to reflect in the absurdity of the notion that we'd consider any mainstream automaker irrelevant to the market. However--and Leftlane is not alone in this--we've called that very relevance into question on more than one occasion. If you've read any of our sales articles, you've probably seen that argument articulated in one form or another.

Lest the subject completely take over this write-up, we're going to leave that philosophical tangent for another time. Let's stick to the facts. As of August (September data will not be available until after this article is published), the midsize sedan segment is down more than 15 percent compared to 2016--a deficit of more than 230,000 units year-to-date.

To its credit, Honda is doing better than most. The Accord is down only 4.5 percent (just 10,000 units or so). The Toyota Camry (likewise undergoing a model transition) is doing only slightly worse, with the likes of the Hyundai Sonata, Chevrolet Malibu Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima taking the brunt of the impact. Malibu aside, that's a list of models in need of replacement.

The short version? Americans are going to purchase just shy of two million midsize sedans this year, and Honda sits on a large chunk of that volume. Is the segment shrinking? Yes. Is it dead? No, but nuance is.

Oh, and so is the coupe. Disco.

Clean sheet
Many manufacturers may not feel comfortable investing heavily in this segment. Honda, on the other hand, seems to believe it cannot afford not to. Like the recently redesigned Civic, the 2018 Accord is not a simple nip-and-tuck affair. Both of Honda's sedan programs have benefited from what one company representative referred to as "pent-up development." In other words, years of conservative product planning left quite a bit on the table, and the new Accord and Civic represent the purging of that backlog.

The 2018 Accord is an all-new car on an all-new platform. It's lighter and has a smaller footprint than the 2017 model, but boasts more interior passenger and cargo volume. The interior was gutted and rebuilt with a focus on tech and safety--two categories that have been central to all of Honda's recent redesigns.

In fact, the only significant carry-over from the outgoing car is the Accord Hybrid's powertrain. Even that is oversimplifying things, however, as the hybrid components were repackaged to eliminate any intrusion into the passenger or cargo compartments. As a result, every 2018 Accord has the same interior configuration.

Another significant commonality between every car carrying the nameplate is Honda Sensing--a comprehensive collection of safety and semi-autonomous features which comes standard on every 2018 Accord. Yes, that includes manual transmission models, and we'll discuss how that works later on.

The rundown
Since our time in it was brief and the one Honda had on-hand was a very early pre-production example, we'll save detailed driving impressions of the hybrid model until we've had a chance to more thoroughly evaluate a production model. Outside of general specs, we'll cover just the gasoline-powered Accords.

That may seem to simplify things, but eliminating the Accord Hybrid from the narrative only removes one of five different possible configurations. There are two different gasoline engines mated to three (technically four, but let's not over-complicate this) different transmission options, and if rhyme or reason are your thing, well, sorry; it's about to get weird.

Let's do this by engine, starting from the bottom. The base offering is Honda's 1.5L Turbo--the same found in the Civic and CR-V. Here, it's tuned for 192 horsepower and 192lb-ft of torque across the board (as opposed to, say, the Civic, where it can be had in three different states of tune). Two transmissions are available: a six-speed manual and a continuously variable automatic.

The big engine for 2018 is a turbocharged two-liter four making 252 horsepower and 273lb-ft of torque. It's available with either a six-speed manual (borrowed from the Civic Type R for its extra torque capacity) or a 10-speed automatic.

The Accord Hybrid splits the difference at 212 total system horsepower and 232lb-ft of torque. This model also has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the only Accord sold with a naturally aspirated engine.

A new order
Honda has simplified the Accord's trim structure for 2018, making it easy to spot the fun ones (Sport) and the comfy ones (Touring) without the use of a spreadsheet. Manual transmissions are only available on Sport models; everything else is strictly automatic.

Both the 1.5L and Hybrid start at the LX trim. 2.0T models start at Sport (which is essentially equivalent to an EX model content-wise, with a few omissions such as HD Radio and SiriusXM). EX, EX-L and Touring follow. Navigation is the only stand-alone option, and it's limited to EX-L models (and standard on Touring). Some features are trim- or transmission-exclusive, such as shift-up/-down indicators and wheel-mounted paddles.

There are no optional extras for the Sport models, so WYSIWYG, but the content packaging reminds us a lot of Honda's approach to the Civic Si; it's not loaded, but it has all of the essentials (including the upgraded eight-inch HD Display Audio system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay). Superfluous niceties--a mobile hotspot and wireless device charging, to name just a couple--are reserved for Touring models, but the real chase feature there is an adaptive damper setup.

Yes, we said Sport models with an s. The trim is available for either engine. This is a change from the previous Accord, where the Sport was essentially a distinct model with unique engine and chassis tuning. 2018 Sport models still get a firmer suspension, but there are no changes to the powertrain aside from the availability of a stickshift.

The 1.5- and 2.0-liter versions are separated by 60 horsepower and roughly 140 pounds, and take our word for it: the former more than makes up for the latter. It doesn't hurt that the horsepower bump is backed up by an additional 80lb-ft of torque.

We started our day in the Sport 2.0T, and its meaty midrange spoiled us on the inclines of New Hampshire's White Mountains. Passing power is the Sport 2.0T's forte, and it has plenty of composure when you throw it into corners. Honda's variable-ratio electric power steering is standard on every trim, but it's tuned a bit quicker in the Sport, which makes the helm feel a bit more crisp and precise.

Like most EPS systems, it's not going to drown the driver in feedback, but it inspires enough confidence for you to get the job done. Honda had a 2018 Camry V6 on hand for comparison, and while it held up rather nicely in just about every category, its steering felt more detached than the Accord's.

When we switched over to the 1.5L, we immediately missed the power. Steeper inclines will have you chasing gears if you're expecting to make a quick move when a passing lane opens up, and as we mentioned before, the weight gap is not so big that you immediately notice it in the curves. This is a good entry-level option for a more frugal buyer (or one who simply wants more room than you'd get in a Civic with the same setup), but there's no other upside here vs. the 2.0T. It might give Mazda 6 engineers fits, but it's not going to be setting the performance world on fire.

We took a similar approach with Honda's cruising-oriented models, starting with the 2.0T Touring and then switching to the 1.5L in the same trim. The 10-speed automatic in the 2.0T Touring is responsive and unobtrusive, and its standard paddle shifters get the job done when commanded. Shifting ten gears manually can be a bit of an unnecessary chore, and we found ourselves leaving well enough alone most of the time, but it was fun to play around when appropriate opportunities presented themselves, including a fun set of switchbacks not far from where we started our drive loops.

Honda also brought along a loaded-up 2017 Accord V6 as a baseline, and the differences were readily apparent. The new Accord responds more quickly in gear, has much tighter, more immediate steering and conveys a much more lithe and capable presence on the road. The 2017 felt heavy and distant by comparison.

Stepping down to the 1.5L Touring proved less of a disappointment than we'd anticipated. This is where Honda expects the volume to be, and we believe it. It's the sweet spot, with enough power and torque for everyday situations, adaptive dampers for an excellent ride/handling balance, and a laundry list of included features--tech and otherwise. The big-ticket 2.0T Touring may tickle our performance fancies, but it's incredibly hard to argue with the value proposition here, even with that CVT.

Maybe it's because our expectations were so low, but we were genuinely impressed by the 1.5L/CVT combination on steep inclines. There was never any lag in the power when we needed it, and there was more than enough to sustain a climb without any drama. The Touring's paddle shifters (Unlike the two-liter's 10AT, the CVT doesn't come standard with paddles unless you get a Sport or Touring model.) were handy in downhill sections too, letting us use the engine to keep the Accord's speed in check rather than relying on the brakes. As an added bonus, there weren't nearly as many ratios to flip through in pursuit of the ideal "gear" for descending.

Making Sense of Sensing
If you're unfamiliar with Honda Sensing, it's just the automaker's term for its safety and semi-autonomous driving suite. It's composed of the usual acronym salad (A.utomated E.mergency B.raking, L.ane D.eparture W.arning, etc.) and it is standard on the 2018 Accord from top to bottom, period. No incremental packages. No upgrades for a "full" experience. The only feature that isn't universal is Blind Spot Monitoring, which requires an EX or higher trim. Everything else, from the aforementioned features to Adaptive Cruise Control, is standard.

There are not too many vehicles for sale in the United States with both manual transmissions and some form of forward collision mitigation/automatic braking, and if you're curious as to how that was implemented, you're not alone. Honda's solution turned out to be the simplest: If you're in a situation where the Accord has to brake for you, it's going to. If you don't take what Honda's engineers (and I would presume its lawyers) deem "appropriate" action based on the car's warnings (read: flashing lights and blaring noises) and depress the clutch, the car may stall.

Honda's reps pointed out that anyone who has any experience driving a manual transmission car is very likely to instinctively depress the clutch in an emergency braking situation, and in this case, we're buying what they're selling. Could a stall lead to a collision in a case where the driver has become incapacitated and is unable to depress the clutch during/after emergency braking? Yes. But a fender-bender beats something far more catastrophic, which is more likely in the absence of such a system.

Leftlane's bottom line
We applaud Honda's decision to bring its A-game to a segment that desperately needs an injection of energy. The 2018 Accord is an excellent ambassador for what many view as a design whose heyday is behind it. If all sedans were this good, maybe fewer people would be looking elsewhere.

2018 Honda Accord LX base price, $23,570
Sport base price, $25,780; as tested, $26,655
Touring CVT base price, $33,800; as tested, $34,675
Sport 2.0T base price, $30,310; as tested, $31,185
Touring 2.0T base price, $35,800; as tested, $36,675
Destination: $875

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Honda.

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