Leading the way with its impressive array of hi-tech driver aids, the new Honda Accord should find willing takers among New Zealand's early adopters. David Thomson takes the wheel, in a rather unusual way.
About six years ago I had an unforgettable experience driving an experimental Honda Accord on a test track in the northwest of Japan: barrelling up to a long banked corner at 140kmh, I set aside instincts accumulated over two decades of driving and removed both hands from the steering wheel.
Miraculously, as it seemed at the time, the car took control and steered itself around the bend.
Fast forward to mid-2013, and I recently made the front page of the Otago Daily Times by repeating the hands-free feat at a more modest 100kmh, this time over a stretch of Dunedin's Southern Motorway. Not just hands-free either, but with adaptive radar cruise control set and my foot off the accelerator pedal, leaving the car to, quite literally, drive itself most of the way from Dunedin to Mosgiel.
What used to be the stuff of 20th-century science fiction, and early 21st-century automotive research and design departments, is now an affordable reality in the real world of motoring.
''Helping Hand'' is Honda-speak for these and other new technologies, such as a rear-facing camera that switches in when you indicate left to give a view along the left-hand flank of the car, and brakes that apply themselves if you take no action in what appears to be an emergency situation.
All are available in NT-specification versions of the latest Honda Accord. They can be yours for $55,000 with a 129kW/225Nm 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine under the bonnet, or $60,000 in more potent 206kW/339Nm 3.5-litre V6 guise. Both variants came Drivesouth's way on test.
Not to be confused with the smaller Accord Euro, which is a 2.4-litre-only model, the latest Accord offers more that's new than fancy hi-tech aids: compared to its predecessor, there's not a panel that carries over; it's actually smaller (though still 145mm longer than the Euro) and picks up a new MacPherson strut front suspension (replacing the double wishbone setup of old).
Interior space may suffer a little with the reduction in length but, if so, this is in no way apparent: up front, the cabin is roomy and spacious; there is ample rear legroom, and a load-through ski flap into the 457-litre boot.
In NT specification, leather trim, sunroof, heated front seats (power adjustable for the driver), dual-zone climate and keyless entry/start all feature. Modern expectations in respect of wireless connectivity for phone and audio devices are met, and the sound system even includes noise-cancelling software to cut road and wind noise levels. A large colour display high on the centre console displays the satellite navigation and, when required, a very clever reversing camera offers three different views, including one straight down on the towbar to assist with positioning to hitch a trailer.
Along with the features outlined above, the Accord includes full vehicle stability programming and front, side and curtain airbags. There is a small fly in the safety ointment, though, in the form of a four-star rather than the expected five-star Ancap crash test rating.
Announced shortly after Drivesouth tested the car, this result saw the new Accord perform well in respect of side impact and pedestrian impact protection, but slip up in protecting the driver's legs in an offset frontal collision. A key issue here appears to be movement of the car's foot-operated park brake in a frontal impact, and it will be interesting to see if Honda moves to address this by switching to either a conventional handbrake or electronic park brake system.
The choice between 2.4-litre and 3.5-litre Accord versions isn't just about engines, but also about transmissions, as the 2.4 variant deploys a five-speed auto and the 3.5-litre motor is mated to a six-speed unit. Both provide paddleshift controls for manual changes, and have sport as well as standard and eco modes.
Not surprisingly, given its power and torque advantage, the 3.5-litre holds a clear performance edge. It sounds superb too, and revs out with a turbine-like smoothness that is complemented by the flawless shifts of the transmission.
The 2.4-litre Accord motor has its moments too but, in the end, can't compete for character with the 3.5-litre and is let down a little by its five-speed transmission, which doesn't fire through the changes with the same slick assurance of the six-speed.
Honda has always billed the Accord Euro as its true driver's car, and little has changed in that regard with a new Accord. Compared to the Euro, this regular Accord is set up to deliver a more comfortable and cossetted motoring experience, with a clear emphasis on fine ride quality and refinement.
Don't take this to mean that the car handles poorly; it is a confident, well-balanced machine on a twisty road and, in V6 guise at least, quick as well. But with very light steering and suspension that is set up to isolate the driver from the outside world rather than engage in it, the new Accord is aimed dynamically - as its predecessor was - at folk who consider themselves motorists first and drivers second.
On the other hand, the amount of new technology that is packed into the NT version of this new machine should impress anyone with an interest in cars and how they are evolving to meet the challenges of the future.
That it can, to some extent, drive itself is without doubt the most startling aspect of the machine. The new feature I suspect most folk will actually find more useful, though, is the rear-facing camera in the left-side mirror.
The live view it sends to the centre display screen every time you indicate to turn left makes checking for other cars, cyclists and the like so easy that it is hard to imagine Honda's lead in this area won't be followed by others within a fairly short period of time.
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