BOSTON – Honda Motor Co. Ltd. stands at a crossroads as it launches the eighth generation of its venerable family sedan, the Accord.

The car has been the perennial second-best seller in Ward’s Upper Middle sedan segment in the U.S., lagging behind the Toyota Camry in recent years and the Ford Taurus a decade ago. And Ward’s data shows the hard-charging Chevy Impala outsold U.S.-built Accords through the second quarter of the ’07 model year.

Honda grasps the ferocity of the Upper Middle segment, which includes 23 vehicles, so the auto maker is attempting, delicately, to recast the Accord’s image: It needs to be traditional enough to attract buyers who like plain-Jane styling, yet sporty enough to draw intenders who think only librarians drive Accords.

On the whole, Honda should be able to fulfill its mission with the ’08 Accord. It’s definitely more expressive than the Camry, and the Accord coupe is one of Honda’s best-looking designs in years.

With a wide, stubby nose; long, flat hood; severely raked rear greenhouse; and just the right amount of chrome, the Accord coupe will give the supposedly ailing 2-door market in the U.S. a much-needed shot in the arm.

The coupe harkens back to the first-generation Accord hatchback, which launched in 1976 with two doors, a 5-speed transmission, great fuel economy and a sporty disposition.

The internals of the new Accord are up to Honda standards, as well. The available engines are peppy and fuel efficient, handling is crisp and the interiors successfully reflect Honda’s notion of “attainable exclusivity.”

Much like the previous-generation compact Civic, the midsize Accord hit a rough patch in the early part of the decade, as the No.2 Japanese auto maker forgot that snappy looks can be just as important to some buyers as its storied engines.

The schizophrenic nature of the seventh-generation Accord – yawn-inducing sheet metal coupled with a dynamic ride – could be the reason sales never lived up to Honda’s expectations of 400,000 units annually. U.S. deliveries amounted to 354,441 units last year, Ward’s data show.

The ’08 Accord design team ditched the subtle roundedness of the old model, opting instead for creased sheet metal, an angular grille and bulging headlamps and taillamps. Some of the styling cues appear to be inspired by BMW and Hyundai brands.

Honda has thrown its usual modesty out the door and porked up the new Accord.

The sedan, which in recent years has accounted for nearly 90% of total Accord sales, gains 2.3 ins. (5.8 cm) in the wheelbase and 3 ins. (7.6 cm) in length. The increased dimensions equate to greater interior room.

Materials in the cabin of the ’08 Accord are top notch. Unlike Toyota, Honda is using higher-quality interior materials in its volume models.

A modern, clean circular knit fabric adorns the headliner, while the available leather seats are soft and sumptuous.

A minor complaint: The instrument panel is not new at all, but a copy of what’s available in recent Acura models. A large central control knob protrudes from an IP that seemingly envelops the driver and front passenger. Honda’s use of an Acura IP further muddies the product image and relationship between the two brands.

The Accord comes available with three engine choices: two DOHC 4-cyls. and one SOHC 3.5L V-6 – the most powerful mill to date in a Honda-brand U.S. vehicle.

The base engine is a 2.4L I-4 capable of 177 hp and 161 lb.-ft. (218 Nm) of torque. It is standard in the base sedan LX trim, with or without the premium package.

Moving up to the EX in the sedan, or selecting the base LX-S trim in the coupe, gives buyers 13 more hp from the same size mill. This is achieved via a high-flow muffler and a reprogrammed powertrain control module.

Honda says the output of the 190-hp 4-cyl. surpasses Toyota’s I-4, which churns out 158 hp in the Camry and 187 hp (combined with the electric motor) in the Camry Hybrid, and the Nissan Altima’s 175-hp I-4.

Honda’s punchier 4-cyl. has the same projected fuel economy, 21/31 mpg city/highway (11.2/7.6 L/100 km), as the 177-hp 4-cyl. in the base Accord sedan. (Honda calculated fuel economy using the more stringent 2008 Environmental Protection Agency methodology).

Like most Honda engines, the new 3.5L V-6 is high-revving, making for a spirited drive to Cape Code in the Accord coupe with a 6-speed manual transmission. Sadly, Honda has nixed the 6MT option in the sedan due to poor sales.

With a redline of 6,800 rpm, the new V-6 achieves a peak 268 hp at 6,000-6,200 rpm and is a worthy successor to the outgoing 3.0L V-6, a favorite of Ward’s 10 Best Engines judges.

While the 3.0L boasted a generous 81 hp per liter, the 211 lb.-ft. (286 Nm) of torque at 5,000 rpm was lacking. The new mill’s 248 lb.-ft. (336 Nm, also at 5,000 rpm) is a welcome boost.

The coupe’s manual gearbox, carried over from the outgoing Accord, is smooth and precise, while the clutch, dogged by some critics as being “too light,” is perfect for less leg-strong drivers.

At the media drive, Honda offers the chance to test three competing midsize sedans, as well as an ’07 Accord. On hand were volume configurations of the Toyota Camry (4-cyl., 5-speed automatic transmission) and Nissan Altima (4-cyl., continuously variable transmission). Also available was the Saturn Aura (V-6, 6-speed automatic).

The three ranged in price from $21,794 (Camry) to $29,265 (Altima).

Despite debuting only a year ago, the Camry seems older when stacked against the competition. The light gray interior is ultra-bland, and the ride and handling merely reinforce the Camry’s long-standing soft-roader status.

The ’08 Accord matches up most closely with the Altima and Aura, all three of which carved up the modest switchbacks around Cape Cod.

The ’07 Accord, with V-6 and 5-speed automatic, exhibits noticeably more body lean than the new model. The new Accord offers a ride that successfully blends comfort and sportiness, as well as steering that is nicely balanced and direct, with only a slight bit of wheel play.

The decrease in body roll comes from a lower center of gravity, as well as lowered engines.

The ’08 Accord rides on a double wishbone front and new in-wheel multi-link rear suspensions, the latter having 40% greater lateral rigidity, thanks to the use of nitrogen gas-filled coil-over dampers, stamped steel upper A-arms and various links that are mounted to a floating sub frame to lessen noise, vibration and harshness.

’08 Honda Accord Coupe EX-L
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 2-door coupe
Engine 3.5L SOHC V-6 with aluminum heads/block
Power (SAE net) 268 hp @ 6,000-6,200 rpm
Torque 248 lb.-ft. (336 Nm) @ 5,000 rpm
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 89 x 93
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 107.9 ins. (274 cm)
Overall length 190.9 ins. (485 cm)
Overall width 72.7 ins. (185 cm)
Overall height 56.4 ins. (143 cm)
Curb weight 3,544 lbs./1,608 kg
Base price range $20,000-$30,000
EPA fuel economy city/highway (mpg) 17/25 (13.8/9.4 L/100 km)
Market competition Toyota Camry Solara, Nissan Altima, Pontiac G6

The new Accord also comes with the next generation of Honda’s Variable Cylinder Management cylinder-deactivation system, available on V-6 models mated to the 5-speed automatic.

VCM now has a 4-cyl. mode in addition to 3-cyl. and 6-cyl. settings. The 6-cyl. mode is used during startup, acceleration and uphill climbs. One bank of three cylinders is used for moderate speed cruising, while the new 4-cyl. mode uses two cylinders per bank and is activated during moderate acceleration maneuvers, higher-speed cruising and mild hills, Honda says.

The Accord comes in three trims in the sedan body style (LX, EX and EX V-6), with packages available for each (Premium-LX, Leather-EX, EX V-6). The coupe has three trims.

Honda expects the EX trim in both the sedan and coupe to account for the majority of sales (50% sedan, 45% coupe).

Standard safety features include Honda’s Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure, which helps lessen frontal impact forces to protect passengers.

Honda has not released ’08 Accord pricing, but the projected range is $20,000-$30,000.

The Accord sedan is due to go on sale Sept. 12 in the U.S., while the coupe arrives Sept. 20. The majority will come from Honda’s Marysville, OH, plant, with nominal units from Sayama, Japan.

With its more stylish sheet metal, luxurious interior materials and increased power, the ’08 Accord should return the car to a neck-and-neck battle with Toyota’s Camry, while also giving Nissan’s Altima and other sporty, affordable sedans a run for their money.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com