GOLETA, CA – Honda hopes to return to traditionally high Accord volume with the new, ninth-generation ’13 model, the sedan version of which hits U.S. dealer showrooms Sept. 19.

Once all models arrive, including the coupe in October and new plug-in and twin-motor hybrids next year, Honda is targeting sales at 350,000 units annually of the Accord, the No.2 Japanese auto maker’s longtime best-seller in the U.S.

With strong competition in the hotly contested midsize-car sector, including the recently redesigned Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Chevrolet Malibu, plus the upcoming next-generation Ford Fusion, Honda’s goal is shy of the 372,789 Accords sold in 2008, the first full sales year for the current model.

But the auto maker is confident it has the right mix of fuel economy, performance, size, safety and features for the ’13 Accord to sell well above 300,000 units, a mark it has failed to reach since 2009, WardsAuto data shows.

"It's an unbelievably hyper-competitive era in our industry, and there have never been more worthy competitors,” Vicki Poponi, assistant vice president-product planning for American Honda says here at a recent preview of the car.

“We see competitors are finding a single factor to focus on to differentiate themselves, maybe trendy styling or incremental fuel-economy performance – almost creating an ‘arms race’ with fuel economy,” she continues. “But we think the midsize customers aren't really enamored by a single greatness of a car.”

That philosophy is evident with the ’13 Accord, where Honda wins some bragging rights and loses others.

Honda is calling for city fuel economy of 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) in sedans equipped with an all-new 2.4L direct-injected gasoline 4-cyl. engine and continuously variable transmission, matching the ’13 Altima with its conventional 4-cyl. and CVT combination.

But the 4-cyl. Accord’s estimated 36 mpg (6.5 L/100 km) highway fuel economy falls shy of the Altima’s heavily touted 38 mpg (6.2 L/100 km).

Combined with Honda’s variable valve timing and lift electronic control technology with intelligence (i-VTEC) and variable timing control, the all-aluminum engine makes 185 hp and 181 lb.-ft. (245 Nm) of torque in the Accord sedan. Sport-grade ’13 Accord 4-doors get another 4 hp more, Honda says.

The 2.4L trumps the 182-hp Altima and 178-hp Camry, but not the 2-year-old Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima’s 200-hp 2.4L DIG engines.

Making the new Accord fun to drive was a key development goal, and the CVT’s “G-Design Shift Cooperative Control” helps achieve that, says Art St. Cyr, vice president-product planning and logistics.

G-Design Shift allows for “more seamless acceleration and natural shift feel,” he says. “Historically, CVTs have the complaint of having a rubber-band feel, (so Honda’s CVT achieves) an earlier rise in G or acceleration, and a continuous G buildup, compared to the previous (Accord’s) 5-speed automatic.”

A wide ratio range, “highly accurate” hydraulic control system and a high-efficiency pump make for responsive and direct acceleration, as well as good fuel economy, Honda says.

The Accord’s 3.5L V-6 largely is carryover, although peak horsepower rises to 278 from 271 in the ’12, edging out the Altima’s 270 hp and Camry’s 268 hp.

Torque peaks at 252 lb.-ft. (342 Nm), down from 254 lb.-ft. (344 Nm) for the ’12 model, but peak output is delivered 100 rpm sooner.

Honda’s updated cylinder deactivation technology eliminates 4-cyl. mode and allows the V-6 to run more often on three cylinders, thanks to new 28V active control engine mounts and a new i-VTEC system that can take into account engine load and speed, the auto maker says.

The ’13 Accord V-6, mated to a 6-speed automatic, is expected to achieve a best-in-class 34 mpg (6.9 L/100 km) highway, topping the Altima’s 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km).

To remedy complaints the current Accord is too large and doesn’t adhere to Honda’s “man maximum, machine minimum” directive, engineers shortened the sedan’s overall length 3.6 ins. (9.1 cm), largely by shaving down the front overhang. It also has a wheelbase that is 1.0 in. (2.5 cm) shorter than the outgoing model’s. Height is down slightly and width is up nominally.

The new shorter, lower and wider stance gives the ’13 Accord a sportier appearance, notes Dave Marek, director-design for Honda’s U.S. research and development operations.

Wheels have been pushed to the corners, and the car is more sculpted than the eighth-generation Accord, while boasting better visibility thanks to smaller A- and C-pillars and a low beltline and trunk lid, Marek says.

But current owners like the Accord’s spacious interior, so Honda added even more room in spots. Front-seat occupants sit 0.5 ins. (1.3 cm) further apart, and trunk capacity in the 4-door Accord is up 0.8 cu.-ft. (0.02 cu.-m) from the outgoing model, thanks partly to a fixed torsion bar.

Honda is claiming the quietest cabin in the class, with high levels of vibration-reducing insulation and active noise and sound control, the latter standard on all ’13 Accords.

The outgoing model’s hydraulic steering has been replaced with a new electric power steering system that uses a Honda-first non-contact torque sensor to improve on-center feel. It is “very responsive from all steering angles,” St. Cyr says.

The Accord’s double-wishbone front suspension is replaced by MacPherson struts to reduce vibration at high speeds and cut weight. Thanks to a hydraulic compliance bushing, the MacPherson design is 34 lbs. (15.2 kg) lighter than the double-wishbone.

New dampers with a rebound spring also are added to limit body roll and bounce on uneven pavement.

To achieve the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s new Top Safety Pick Plus award, which means achieving a ‘Good’ rating in a crash test with a narrow object, such as a thin pole, the Accord’s body structure now uses hot-stamped steel in the B-pillars and door sills and high-grade, high-strength steel to bolster the cabin.

“The typical method for maintaining crash energy is to employ the frame rails, but because the frame rails are so far inward this doesn't help in a collision with a narrow object that's outside that little part of the vehicle,” St. Cyr says.

Overall, the Accord boasts 55.8% high-strength steel content, up from 48% with the outgoing generation, and trimming 57 lbs. (26 kg) in weight.

Honda is claiming a world-first hybrid structure with the front subframe consisting of steel and aluminum bonded together in a new manufacturing process called friction stir welding.

The hybrid structure alone trims 13 lbs. (6 kg) off the Accord, St. Cyr says.

The new model also offers several driver-selectable safety features.

A rear backup camera is standard as is an expanded-view driver’s-side mirror.

LaneWatch, available on upper trim levels, mounts a camera on the passenger-side mirror that views an 80-degree area. The image is projected onto an 8-in. (20-cm) screen in the car’s center stack.

"Blindspot indicators are great, but they don't tell you when the guy two lanes over is going to go into the lane you want to,” Poponi says.

LaneWatch can be left on or off or activated momentarily via a stalk-mounted button, St. Cyr says.

Forward-collision- and lane-departure-warning systems also are available.

Many of the same specifications and features of the ’13 Accord sedan apply to the new Accord Coupe, which offers both the 2.4L DI 4-cyl. and 3.5L V-6 engines but adds a 6-speed manual transmission for the V-6.

The plug-in model, due in early 2013, mates a 137-hp 2.0L DOHC i-VTEC Atkinson-cycle 4-cyl. engine, two electric motors, an electrically coupled CVT and a 6.7-kWh lithium-ion battery.

Total system horsepower is 196 and torque 226 lb.-ft. (306 Nm).

Three drive operations are available. EV mode uses battery energy to drive the motor. In engine mode, the 4-cyl. drives the wheels. In hybrid mode, electricity generated by the engine drives the motor, with the battery as backup.

The Accord plug-in has a 10-15-mile (16-24-km) electric range, compared with 35 miles (56 km) for the Chevy Volt, which also is range-extended, and 11 miles (18 km) for the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid, which is not.

Most ’13 Accords will be built at Honda’s Marysville, OH, plant, minus some sedans and all plug-in hybrids, which will come from the Sayama, Japan, plant.

Mass production of the sedan began Aug. 20 at Marysville, while coupe builds get under way Oct. 8.

Pricing will be announced Sept. 10.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com