Thursday 25 August 2011

Driven #36:- Honda Accord 2.2 GT diesel

Honda are a fantastic brand with a long and distinguished history to be proud of. Fiercely independent, from that first humble Cub motorbike they have developed a huge presence in the automotive and marine sectors, and are growing rapidly in Aerospace.

Their heart, though, has always seemed to be on four wheels. They have many international motorsport championship titles behind them, and occasionally this track genius shines through in products that us lucky punters can buy with actual money. The sublime NSX is revered more now than it ever was in its day, but everything they've ever nailed their Type-R emblem to has possessed a special kind of magic. So what of the Accord? 

With all that knowledge and innovation in the bank, creating a class-leading bread-and-butter, family/fleet car should be like netting sushi from a Taru for Honda. It's become accepted that the Japanese-built Accord (sold in the US as the Acura TSX) lives in the same market backwater as the Mondeo, Insignia and Passat, yet somehow the Japanese car has never quite made as big an impact on UK roads as you might have thought. Alas, the popular press has always found the Accord to be nice enough, but unremarkable; thanks, but no thanks. How the hell has this been allowed to happen? Honda, what are you playing at?

I had the pleasure of spending an evening, and then a disgustingly early morning with this silver-grey example of the breed. An '09 car, in near range-topping 2.2I-DTEC Sport trim, replete with SatNav, heated half-leather seats and all the usual gewgaws. I approached the car with enthusiasm and with an underlying urge to back the underdog and try to expand on all its positive attributes.

I remember thinking that the previous, 2002-born seventh generation machine had been quite a looker on its launch, and still looks quite neat and dynamic when you see one today. Opting for such a clean, linear shape had been quite a leap from previous, undistinguished Accords, and you can still see bits of that car's cleavage showing under today's machines halter-neck. Sadly, that purity and cleanliness of line seems to have been pushed towards the back of the mix, and to my eyes this car looks a bit of a hotch-potch by comparison; you could almost believe that Mr Bangle had visited Honda for an influential day, and had shared drugs during his stay. There's loads of surface interest going on, and plenty to keep the eye occupied, but none of it makes any kind of design statement. It's a bit like using talc instead of flour in your pancakes; different, but not necessarily good. Aside from this, the 17” wheels look oddly remote in those massive arches and this doesn't help the proportions at all, nor do the extra add-on bits of trim that the GT comes burdened with.

Nevertheless, it looks up to date and, mysteriously, quite classy. It definitely boasts more car-park cred than a Toyota Avensis or Mazda 6, and is arguably more interesting to behold that the masses of Mondeos on every street.

Inside, the Accord is a far more interesting place to be than much of the mass-market competition. It's an impressively technical, driver-centric environment with enough buttons to send C3PO catatonic. Actually, the button-count is slightly over-the top, but the positioning of the Nav display is sensible, its distance from the driver meaning that you're not constantly re-focussing your eyes from infinity to point-blank every time you use it. The controls aren't as intuitive as I-Drive, for example, but at least it isn't a touch-screen fingerprint magnet. I note that the the thin multi-function display above the HVAC controls seems rooted in the 90's when the same fluorescent digits that appear on my '89 Panasonic VCR return to greet me. Perhaps it's retro cool?

The architecture is pleasingly swoopy and makes a great first impression, and the detailing is above what you expect from a pacific-region car; but the gloss wears thin when your hands start to wander and find aspects of the infrastructure that wouldn't trouble MB Games to beat. It's a Japanese thing, this, a resolute disinclination to over-build anything. The interior is built with heroic accuracy and will probably outlast the human race, but the actual materials used are seldom more than adequate. The seats are well cushioned, perhaps slightly over-squishy; the driving position though, is good, and the gearknob, small, heavy and metallic, is excellent.

Setting off, I left engaging my seatbelt until I was ready. There were a couple of warning bongs, and then, unexpectedly, an electronic voice reminded me to fasten it. She sounded dead saucy, a slightly plummy, home counties accent, I would name her Lucy, and looked forward to flirting with her during my onward journey. On this short initial homewards trip, I hadn't yet spent time looking for flaws in the package. I was still under the spell of my first impression; that it was an interesting, classy alternative to the norm. I praised the excellent gearshift, fine turn of speed and that it seemingly had far less tendency to stall at low revs than many turbodiesels I had driven. With every mile travelled, though, the sheen lessened slightly and the deficiencies started to show.

The responsive and fairly lusty 2.2 litre diesel engine sounds like one of the old school, with a distinct flutter from the top end that changes in tone when you put your foot down. It breaks through the sound-deadening and does nothing to contribute to any sense of luxury. Also, considering how little presence they have in the wheelarches, the wheels bring an awful lot of road noise to the party, together with a ride that can jar unexpectedly over hitherto unnoticed roadway blemishes.

Before too long I was on more challenging roads, better suited to building a profile of what a car can and can't do. Overall, it's entirely safe and competent, able to corner securely at speed and certainly won't get you into trouble. But that doesn't mean anything. For a more subjective assessment, we must turn to my frighteningly perceptive girlfriend, who was sitting in the front passenger seat while we drove at 30 along an undulating country lane

“Why does it feel like jelly?” She asked me, bemusedly.

Brilliant; she'd nailed it. Something about the accords set-up is very weird indeed. At first it feels like it handles, the turn-in seems sharp and the car can be planted into a corner with some confidence. From there on in, though, it all goes a bit strange and hard to explain. If you'll bear with me, the car sort of feels like it hinges in the middle; the front wheels grip and you turn in, then there's a slight delay before the rear end catches up and follows suit. It's a peculiarly disconcerting experience.

It reminds me of a stunt-kite that she and I fly sometimes, which has brilliantly accurate feel but seems to make all its moves in 45-degree steps. It's strangely lurchy, as if the steering gears were octagonal. Beyond this weirdness though, and more importantly, is the underlying fact that it grips and has to be pushed quite hard to understeer in extremis. It could fool a lot of fairly undemanding motorists into thinking that it was quite sporty.

“I don't like it”, my girlfriend said, based on the fifteen minutes she had spent in the car. “And it smells of farms”.

It did, a bit.

It was six in the morning the next time I found myself on board, with an arduous morning on Britains frustrating motorway network ahead of me. I set my destination on the SatNav, finding my way around the controls with relative ease. My ETA was 09:13, which gave me plenty of time to deliver the car and catch the London train at five to ten.

I wished there was more sound deadening, turning the radio up was all I could do to combat the constant rumble but neither of these prevented a small-scale migraine from setting in. I also began to wish the car had a tiny bit more grunt in sixth. But it was the SatNav that really caused the car and I to fall out, which, to be fair, is barely anything to do with the Honda.

I was keen to preserve my 09:13 arrival time but the SatNav had other ideas. “Recalculating route”, she explained. I figured that the traffic alert system had alerted it to the existence of some traffic, and the machine was trying to figure out some evasive action. Now, this system exists on a great many different cars, and it NEVER BLOODY WORKS.

The traffic information system is fed data from roadside sensors on major roads, and when congestion builds up to a certain level a warning is passed around the network to suggest that people avoid the area. The massive, colossal clusterfuck of a flaw is that not all roads have traffic sensors, and crucially, many of these are local commuter routes where everyone wants to be at the same place at the same time.

So, with the system telling me to get the hell off the M25, I opted to ignore it. I'd suffered this before when, on my way to Heathrow Airport, it skilfully directed me onto the perma-clogged A406 North Circular Road, the commuter hell that so many bitter, murderous folk find themselves trapped on five days a week. It was OK, I was heading to Newbury, I kind of knew the way as far as Reading, I'd demote the SatNav to guiding me in for the last couple of miles. Just ignore the stupid traffic warnings and stay on the M25 as far as the M4. It would be fine.

And it was, right up until I forgot to ignore it. BOLLOCKS! Frenzied swearing ensued, the ETA had now swollen to 10:05. No good whatsoever. The system had chosen to take me on a loop at least fifteen miles out of my way. I was heading for the M3, a road I love for all its childhood holiday associations, but which is hopeless in terms of going where I actually want to. I was cross.

Then, when it took me off the motorway and into deepest, darkest rural Berkshire I began to seethe. I was guided through the densely traffic'd towns of Bagshot, Bracknell and Wokingham. Endless roundabouts and traffic lights further slowed my progress. My planned arrival time was a distant memory. And then, to add insult to injury, after spending forty minutes of slow-crawl purgatory, I was directed onto the M4, the very road I was planning to take in the first place. My blood was fizzing.

The poor car was suffering for my bad mood, everything was annoying me now. The gearbox had become stupid, it was slick and smooth last night, now it was awkward and obstinate. The stupid gear-change lights on the dashboard were stupid, too. There are two lights, for change up and change down. The problem is they don't seem to have any particular insight, they simply advise you to change up to a higher gear as soon as you can. I can work than out for myself without an obnoxious electronic nanny bossing me about.

And Lucy, my sultry virtual temptress, had become a harridan and I couldn't wait to separate from her.

I arrived at a little after ten o'clock, this was actually far sooner than the SatNAG's worst case scenario, but still too late for my train back to Essex, and civilisation. I handed the keys over with not one jot of regret, and I can't help but feel that this was a pity. I pride myself in giving every car I drive a fair crack of the whip, usually the underlying talent of a car shines through past any little peccadilloes it might serve up. But with the Accord, I can't help but think it's the other way round. Basically an inherently ordinary car, livened up with some sharp detailing and technological gloss.

This hurts my brain a little, especially when I return to my opening paragraphs which reference what Honda is clearly capable of delivering. It seems paradoxical that Ford, a company which has pumped out awesome quantities of absolute dreck over the years, can offer a car like the Mondeo, which manages to thrash the Accord in every single area. Are Honda deliberately holding back?

The truth is, the Accord is actually a very good car, it's just that the Mondeo is so much better. The Ford has always historically been the sharper steer, and these days it even looks good. It's just frustrating that Honda can't build a family car to beat the Mondeo when, surely, a company with this much skill and experience should be gunning for the BMW 3-series. If they wanted to, I'm sure they could very easily completely re-invent the saloon car market. But I bet they won't, and they'll continue to be largely ignored by the fleet market.

I await the reawakening with some interest. Right now, I'm going upstairs to drive an NSX on Grand Turismo. Honda used to build some amazing cars, you know....