Last year, the Nissan Altima brought shame upon the Toyota Camry by grabbing North American Car of the Year accolades and stealing what little thunder ever reverberates through the usually lackluster midsize car segment.

Both the Altima and the Camry were seriously overhauled for the '02 model year, and both emerged as fine vehicles — the Altima, thanks to its peppy powertrain, and the Camry because it arguably is the most rock-solid car on the road.

But critical response — embracing the Altima, yawning at the Camry — was telling. People were craving excitement in a boring segment. The Altima exploited Camry's car-as-appliance approach, and Nissan officials also made it clear they expected to do damage to Honda Motor Co. Ltd.

For '03, Honda gets to respond, with a completely reworked, 7th-generation Accord sedan. The extra year may have given Honda the competitive edge in a stagnant, but intriguing, 2 million-unit segment.

The Accord manages to strike a balance between the emotion-driven Altima and the left-brained Camry — as well as outdoing the already-excellent previous generation. While its V-6 matches the Altima's power horse for horse, the Accord also equals Camry's attention to detail.

The Accord sedan still is conservative and definitely not as overtly stylish as the eye-catching Altima, but it also doesn't have the stolid comportment of the Camry. The looker in this family is the sleek and stylish Accord coupe, whose Honda badge is liable to cause double-takes. And the Accord V-6 MT Coupe, with its 6-speed manual gearbox, emerges as a driver's car.

While both powertrains are derivatives of the previous-generation Accord, they also both emerge more refined than before — with more peak power and torque, and lower, class-leading emissions and heightened fuel economy.

In the i-VTEC 4-cyl., displacement rises to 2.4L from 2.3L, while horsepower increases to 160 at 5,500 rpm — 10 hp higher than its predecessor, but still trailing Altima 2.5L's 175 hp at 6,000 rpm.

The 3L V-6 — expected to grab 35% of sales — gets a significant, 20% power boost to 240 hp at 6,250 rpm and 212 lb.-ft. of torque, up 9%.

The 4-cyl. is mated to a new, lighter-weight 5-speed automatic transmission or a 4-speed manual, while the V-6 gets a new 5-speed automatic as well, integrated with a new Electronic Throttle Control system.

The V-6 MT Coupe gives credibility to Honda's performance pledge. This low-volume, image leader sports something the Altima just doesn't have — a 6-speed, short-shift manual gearbox — as well as 17-in. tires, a stiffer suspension and high-torque intake manifold.

While styling and powertrain were priorities, Honda also worked on braking and even tweaked an already-amazing chassis and suspension.