GOLETA, CA – Honda’s stalwart midsize car’s ninth generation debuts this fall, and a lot has changed in the five years since the current Accord launched.

WardsAutos Middle Car segment remains hot and is the biggest group in the U.S. this year with 2.14 million units sold through August, up 24.4% from like-2011. But, unlike in 2007, the majority of that volume is no longer coming from just Accord and Camry or domestic-brand fleet sales.

Today, there well-equipped and attractively styled entrants from the Koreans, as well as Detroit, including the sexy, Aston-Martin-inspired ’13 Ford Fusion due this fall. There’s also a new Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat publicly gunning for Camry’s No.1 spot, with the credentials to back up that boasting.

All models in the segment essentially are on equal footing in terms of their powertrain lineups, fuel-economy ratings and safety and comfort features, meaning design, both inside and out, is more important than ever.

Unfortunately, the new Accord, though tightened up from the outgoing model, with a shorter front overhang and more sculpted rear, still lacks the looks that set hearts aflutter. While it matches or beats the competition on the spec chart, it doesn’t break the styling mold.

The new ’13 Accord is shorter, wider and lower than the model it replaces. Passenger volume is reduced 2.8 cu.-ft. (0.08 cu.-m) in the sedan, but increased 3.5 cu.-ft. (0.10 cu.-m) in the coupe.

LX-grade Accord sedan and coupes are down 24 lbs. (10.9 kg) in overall weight, putting the car roughly on par with other midsize models.

With the eighth-gen Accord, Honda upped the car’s sport quotient, thinking it saw a market opportunity. But consumers kept buying Camrys, and more of them. Accord sales foundered, failing to hit the 400,000-mark Honda had targeted. So it’s no surprise the new ’13 model is more refined than the car it replaces.

But it’s not a total wash.

The ’13 2.4L direct-injected 4-cyl., 6-speed manual Accord sedan lacks the heavy-feel steering and stiff accelerator of the outgoing 4-cyl. 4-door. But it does weigh less, making the new car light on its tires and more agile than its bloated predecessor.

The new 6-speed manual’s shifter eliminates the notchy feel of the ’12 car’s gearbox, although the short throws of the double-H pattern take some getting used to. On flat roads, acceleration in sixth gear is only slightly labored.

Honda’s electric power-steering system, with a non-contact torque sensor to improve on-center feel, is good but can’t replicate the more direct feedback of the outgoing model’s hydraulic system.

After a couple hours behind the wheel, it’s clear the 4-cyl. model is all the car anyone really needs.

Peak horsepower of 185 (189 in the Sport grade we tested) and peak torque of 181 lb.-ft. (245 Nm) is plenty sufficient for 99.9% of Americans’ daily travel.

But a shorter drive of a 3.5L V-6 sedan with a 6-speed automatic and Honda’s improved Variable Cylinder Management cylinder-deactivation technology proves there’s no penalty to be paid for shunning the smaller engine. Acceleration is linear with the V-6 and the transmission responsive. Mid-range torque is improved, with the peak knocked down from 5,000 rpm to 4,900 rpm, although a slight lag still is detectable.

A quick jaunt in the 2.4L Accord sedan with its new continuously variable transmission, a configuration Honda expects to make up the bulk of ’13 sales, shows there indeed is less of a rubber-band feel to this CVT than those of yore.

A slight vibration in the gas pedal is noticeable at low vehicle speeds and about 1,500 rpm. However, a ’13 Altima S with a CVT tested here produces vibration at highway speeds, from 2,000-3,000 rpm.

While they aren’t perfect, most Americans don’t know the difference between a CVT and BLT and are just relieved to not have to row their own gears, so both transmissions suffice.

Unfortunately no Accords with CVTs and optional paddle shifters are available to test drive here. Prior tests of Nissans with paddles show the fake gears really bring out the athleticism of a CVT-equipped model.

Honda fans online already are complaining about it, but the switch to MacPherson struts from double wishbones for the front suspension is a good move, lowering Honda’s costs, cutting weight, and minimizing bounce. To make up for any resulting added road noise, Honda has increased insulating materials for the ’13 Accord and added, as standard, active noise and sound control.

Fuel economy is a battle royal nowadays, but Honda exceeds competitors in only one metric: on the highway, with its V-6, rated 34 mpg (6.9 L/100 km). But real-world fuel economy bests estimates in test drives here.

The 2.4L, 6MT tester returns 32.2 mpg (7.3 L/100 km) in a 49-mile (79-km) run over hilly, mid- to high-speed, roads. Average 4-cyl./6-speed manual fuel economy is 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km).

An 18-mile (29-km) test of the 3.5L V-6 with a 6-speed automatic garners 28.5 mpg (8.3 L/100 km) besting the 25-mpg (9.4 L/100 km) estimated average.

Our time behind the wheel of the new Accord plug-in hybrid, on sale early next year, is brief, but the car appears as refined as all the other latest plug-ins, including Honda’s own Fit EV.

Braking is linear, system noise minimal and use of air conditioning isn’t detrimental to range. There is no range readout though, just a bar graph, so it is impossible to give exact figures. But range appears to hold steady start to finish, over 7 miles (11 km).

Like the new Civic and CR-V before it, the new Accord’s interior shows evidence of cost-cutting, mainly on the door panels, where soft-touch materials have receded and areas filled with hard plastic have grown.

However, Honda splurged for a single-piece, seamless cushioned instrument panel, no matter the grade. Very nice.

Comfort is high, especially in the huge back seat, where there are acres of head and leg room.

Center stack buttons and knobs are within easy reach. Not so ergonomic is the bin behind the shifter, which requires the latch be held down in order to open.

All sorts of safety and entertainment goodies are available for ’13 Accords. Best of the bunch is LaneWatch, on EX grades or higher. The system uses a camera mounted on the passenger-side exterior mirror that takes a clear, live, 80-degree image of the adjacent lanes, improving on the common visual and/or audible blind-spot detection warning.

In a two-horse race with its top rival, the Accord is on par with the Camry in most metrics and exceeds the Toyota in others. The Accord is more fun to drive due to its Sport grade, which offers a manual transmission and lives up to its name.

Honda is targeting 350,000 annual sales for the new Accord, not the 400,000 with the previous generation. The new goal still is ambitious, given the stronger competition and the fact the Accord hasn’t exceeded 300,000 sales in a single year since 2008.

The auto maker believes its history as a manufacturer of high-quality vehicles will be a key strength for the brand going forward.

However, with specs more or less equal and the competition’s quality continuing to rise, the gap is narrowing. If it wants to keep Accord volumes high, Honda, like Toyota, must get more aggressive with design.

The ’13 Accord sedan, on sale Sept. 19, starts at $21,680 for an LX manual model and tops out at $33,430 for the new V- 6 Touring grade with an automatic. The base price represents a $200 increase from ’12 and compares favorably with most of the competition, barring the Sonata which starts at $20,895 for a ’12 GLS grade with 6AT.

Accord CVT 4-cyl. models, expected to make up the bulk of sales, range from $22,480-$29,995.

Pricing has not been announced for the Accord Coupe, on sale Oct. 19, nor the plug-in, due in early 2013.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

'13 Honda Accord Sport sedan
Vehicle type 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive 4-door car
Engine 2.4L direct-injected DOHC inline 4-cyl., aluminum block, head
Power (SAE net) 189 hp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque 182 lb.-ft. (246 Nm)
Bore x stroke (mm) 87 x 99.1
Compression ratio 11.1:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 109.3 ins. (278 cm)
Overall length 191.4 ins. (486 cm)
Overall width 72.8 ins. (185 cm)
Overall height 57.7 ins. (147 cm)
Curb weight 3,192 lbs. (1,448 kg, 6MT model)
Base price $23,390 with 6MT, $24,190 with CVT
Fuel economy 24/34 mpg (9.8-6.9 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Chevy Malibu, Volkwagen Passat, Mazda6, Subaru Legacy
Pros Cons
More shapely than before Still oddly proportioned
LaneWatch camera Only on priciest trims
One-piece upper dash Door panels have more hard plastic