With a longer wheelbase and swooping trunk line, Honda says the 2018 version is its raciest Accord yet. (Source: Honda)

Honda’s New Accord Is a $30,000 Master Class in Game Theory

(Bloomberg) -- The 2018 Honda Accord slept on a Brooklyn snowbank, looking as out of place as a Corgi at the Iditarod. Bigger, fancier beasts surrounded it.

From the warmth of my apartment, I started the car with the push of a button. A few minutes later, I went out and parked my toddler in the spacious back seat and tucked his massive stroller into the trunk. I plopped down into the pre-heated leather cabin, and the chipper little machine churned its wheels out onto the dry pavement. It eagerly zipped through the aisle of SUVs.

It’s not a propitious time to be making a car like the Honda Accord. In the past five years, 1 million of the U.S. drivers who bought sedans each year disappeared. Well, not exactly. They instead went shopping for SUVs and pick-ups.

Honda, however, is undeterred. The automaker made a fairly big deal as it rolled out the 10th iteration of its norm-core car in July. It’s easy to dismiss the new Accord as nothing more than a relic of the company’s glorious, gas-fired past. But there’s more going on here.

For one thing, there is still no good reason not to buy a Honda Accord. It’s remains fun, safe, spacious and efficient. In an industry that runs on a rich mix of marketing and performance statistics, the Accord is one of the few products that still enjoys thoughtless, unexamined consumption. People who don’t want to spend the time figuring out the perfect car to buy tend to buy an Accord by default. (That’s a far larger demographic than any auto executive would care to admit.)

Despite the frequently reported death of the old-fashioned sedan, the Accord still does a lively business. Last year, 326,000 of them zipped off U.S. lots, making it the 10th best-selling vehicle in the country. “Sedans are extremely important to Honda,” said Ray Mikiciuk, assistant vice president of Honda sales. “The decline of that segment, I think, is greatly exaggerated.” Mikiciuk is being diplomatic here. The rest of the segment is declining at an alarming pace, but not the Accord.

There are still bigger vehicles, taller ones, faster ones and more efficient ones. For a Honda sedan today, winning a superlative is about as likely as hitting 200 miles per hour. But here’s one: The 2018 Accord is arguably the best Honda ever, which is saying something.

“It’s more performance-oriented, luxurious and technologically savvy than anything we’ve ever produced,” Mikiciuk said.

The first thing one notices about the newest version is the design. It simply looks better. Honda shortened the car slightly while lengthening the wheel-base, which makes the whole package look both more elegant and sporty. Even better, the tweak made for a more spacious back seat and trunk.

Starting at $23,570, even the base trim gets LED headlights, Honda’s “Sensing” safety system, a package of active-cruise control, forward-collision warning and lane-keep assist. The small four-cylinder I drove had no turbo lag to speak of and lots of torque at low-speed. The car can also be had with a larger four-cylinder. Both engines can be mated to Honda’s sublime manual transmission. 

Inside, drivers will find heated and ventilated leather seats, a heads-up display, an eight-inch touchscreen and a handy bin in the center console that wirelessly charges smartphones.

My gripes were few. The steering is a little light, the touchscreen angles away from the driver slightly and requires more of a reach than I’d like and the brakes go from zero to grabby quite abruptly.

Honda’s quiet strategy for success, however, is most evident at the car’s A- and C-pillars. The strut separating the front windshield from the side of the car is alarmingly—even Teutonically—thin. This is an expensive feat for carmakers and one of the bellwethers that separates a good vehicle from a great one. The roof line and rear windshield similarly swoop down to the trunk in a fastback trajectory that apes a Porsche Panamera. It’s an incongruously sexy line for a vanilla sedan. 

In short, not only will this machine go head-to-head with the Toyota Camry, but it does a passable impression of an entry-level Audi. For $36,000—the price of a bare-bones luxury sedan—the Accord comes fully-loaded with an adaptive damper system, rain-sensing wipers and heated rear seats.

When asked if Honda intends to compete with the more opulent German brands, Mikiciuk was circumspect: “It’s designed to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”

There’s another reason Honda is still going after sedan buyers so aggressively: It knows its rivals aren’t long for the race. In short, the Accord is a 3,300 pound, $30,000 master class in game theory.

The little machine has already been busy rounding up abandoned market share from a number of competitors resigned to the scrap heap in recent years, from the Mercury Milan and Volkswagen CC to the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200.  Rival sedans still in production, such as Buick’s Regal, Ford’s Fusion and Kia’s Optima, are lagging badly.

Honda’s strategy team understands this dynamic better than most, because they pulled off a similar trick in the minivan market. Their Odyssey remains just one of five choices for a family hauler. The mid-sized sedan race isn’t that anemic yet, but if it gets there, look for Honda at the front of the pack.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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