Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



By Megan Benoit

The Subaru Legacy GT, Infiniti G35 and Acura TSX are paid-in-full members of the practical power automotive niche. They cater to financially responsible enthusiasts who want their reliability served with a supersized side of hoon and a la carte cog-swapping. Although Honda’s new Accord V-6 packs a 268-horsepower punch, the four-door’s a pedal short in the row-your-own department. Fortunately, the Accord EX-L coupe boasts a six-speed manual transmission. So is the EX-L a category killer or just another vanilla thrilla?

The EX-L coupe is a rolling homage to BMWs 3 through 8, adorned with a small sprinkling of performance cues: chrome door handles (ew), coffee can chromed pipes (huh?) and 18” rims (bow-chicka-bow-wow). And get a load of that teeny little spoiler– no compensating for anything here. In terms of sporting proportions, the EX-L is the automotive definition of cognitive dissonance: a two-door vehicle that stretches farther than a standard four-door. Clearly, this baby has a lot of ass to haul.

On the upside, the EX-L’s bootylicious bounteousness makes the rear seats roomy enough for at least two adults. Unfortunately the back seat is a journey, not a destination; ensconcing oneself in the EX-L’s rearmost chairs is a convoluted and agonizing process. Returning to the positive spin, the Accord's huge trunk compensates for the back seats’ limited access– especially for coupe drivers familiar with the fine art of securing grocery bags with shoulder belts.

The view from behind the EX-L’s wheel is strangely… feminine. Like the Dodge logo and the Subaru Tribeca, the EX-L’s interior offers-up a pistonhead paean to the female reproductive system. From the way the dashboard curves sweep inward like fallopian tubes into the uterus slash radio/climate control unit, to the oversized, top-heavy H on the steering wheel, Freud would have had a heyday.

Yes, well, the outward edges of the dash connected with my knees more than once while I was entering and exiting the vehicle, leading to some decidedly un-Ladylike cursing. (Take it from me, fallopian tubes are not known for their ergonomics.) As for the radio head unit (so to speak), Honda's answer to complaints of overly-complex controls is the engineering equivalent of talking louder. They've made the buttons bigger and the writing larger. It may be easier for fat-fingered folks to grope through the ICE menus, but it's no more intuitive than before– or BMW's iDrive.

Ergonomics be damned. Practical funsters focus on less prosaic matters, like sheer horsepower. Turn the key, fire-up the filly and slip into the bliss that is a well-tuned Honda V6. This mill’s got torque all over and horsepower galore, all mated to yet another blissfully smooth and easy-shifting Honda gearbox. Girth aside, Road and Track’s resident tire shredders mustered a very respectable 5.9 seconds on the zero to 60 sprint– a hair behind most of the competition. The EX-L won’t light your hair on fire, but at this price you’ll shut up and drive.

The ridiculous pipes provide a terrific aural balance between a savory exhaust note and cruising silence. Punch the gas and you’ll be cackling before you know it. The exhaust's sexy bwaaahhhhh is almost enough to drown out the unholy road noise those 18” tires unleash beneath you. (I had to double-check to make sure some bureaucrat didn’t accidentally ship a car with snow tires to the dirty South.) Charitable drivers should consider the EX-L’s din a not-so-subtle advertisement for Acura.

In a straight line, the EX-L coupe is silken joy. Try to throw this porker around a corner and you’ll get an abrupt reminder of why God invented rear wheel-drive. It’s like talking your inebriated, obese buddy into being the rear part of a two-person horse costume. No matter how hard you try, the EX-L's rear end is sluggish and unwieldy. Eventually you give up and just drag the stupid ass along behind you.

Honda’s point-and-shoot steering and crisp turn-in are also absent, sacrificed on the altar of a comfortably numb ride. Anyone wanting a manual EX-L is probably more interested in sampling some Si-style driving dynamics than keeping the cups in their holders; failing to tune the EX-L’s suspension to match the coupe’s demeanor one of da meanest things Honda’s done to enthusiasts in quite some time.

The EX-L coupe is a conflicted vehicle. It’s got a powerful engine with a snick-happy transmission mated to an average suspension. It’s got all the appearance of a luxury vehicle, with none of the quiet and little of the luxuriousness. It’s fun to drive, but not REALLY fun.

Yes, the EX-L's a strange offering, given Honda aspirations for the Accord as the nĂ¼ full-size family sedan. With a sport-tuned suspension, SH-AWD and a few more toys, the EX-L would blow its competitors into the weeds. As it is, the EX-L is… um… I’m sorry. What were we talking about?


By Michael Karesh

I remember sitting in a park with my father a quarter-century ago, pointing at a nearby car. “What do you think that is?” “A BMW?” Nope, but his guess was not without reason. The second-generation Accord lifted more than a few design cues from the storied German marque. The 1982 sedan was also notable for its astounding attention to detail, compactness and efficiency. For those “in the know,” the Accord revealed Detroit’s sedans as over-sized, over-powered and indelicate. Now that Honda’s eighth-generation Accord faces a supposedly chastened Detroit, does the new model maintain the mechanical high ground?

The new Honda Accord is 20 inches longer, eight inches wider, four inches taller and 1,000 pounds heavier than the motor my father misidentified. In other words, it’s larger and heavier than the ‘80’s Detroit iron reviled by Honda’s early fans. And yet the Accord has come full circle. After years of increasingly bland styling, the ubiquitous sedan once again begs to be mistaken for a BMW.

Looking at the new Accord from the rear three-quarter perspective, clocking the C-pillar kink and the wrap-around taillights (that continue to the roofline’s down-sweep), it’s a dead ringer for the current BMW 5-Series. From other perspectives, the Honda’s design is less derivative– and less eye-catching. This despite a swage line slicing downwards from the rear and a bit of Bimmeresque flame surfacing. A distinctly un-Honda abundance of front overhang does nothing for the proportions.

Still, overall, mission accomplished. The new Honda Accord looks much more expensive than both its predecessor and its classmates.

Inside, the Accord’s instrument panel sweeps across the cabin like a 5-Series’ dash. Unfortunately, this aesthetic “homage” extends to the Accord’s ergonomics. The new controls are just as complex as any Bimmer’s, with more buttons than a professional seamstress AND a large iDrive-inspired eight-way knob. So much for “We make it simple.”

The Accord’s front seats are well shaped for both comfort and [a modicum of] lateral support, especially when clad with grippy cloth. Thanks to the supersized external dimensions, the enlarged cabin is roomy enough for four Big and Tall preferred customers. The Accord’s rear seat folds in a single section to expand a class-trailing trunk; unusually intrusive rear strut towers defeat the purpose of a 60/40 split.

The 1982 Accord was motivated by a mere 75 horsepower. For years Honda refused to offer a V6 as a matter of principle. Gen 8 Accord buyers can still opt for a four-cylinder engine, with either 177 horses ( LX) or 190hp (EX). That’s plenty of poke for a family runabout, right? Wrong. Pitted against the upsized Accord’s 3,433-pound curb weight (EX-L with autobox), the four pot must rev its little 16-Valve DOHC i-VTEC® heart out to get the job done. The resulting 21/31 EPA ratings aren’t class-leading.

Enter the new 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6. Hello cubes, goodbye revs. Needless to say, the extra displacement works wonders in the oomph department, with minimal torque steer. The six may not deliver neck-snapping thrills or sing a lusty song, but it’s a refined piece that engenders mindless merging and perspiration-free passing.

These powerplants deserve better partners. When hooked up to either engine, the still-five-speed automatics didn’t behave well. They occasionally held a gear too long, or refused to downshift, or bumped when going from gear to gear. Maybe the transmissions needed more miles to adapt to my driving style. Maybe not. Fancy manually shifting the recalcitrant slushbox instead? Buy an Acura.

Though the Accord’s steering feels nicely weighted and precise, the suspension is tuned for touring, not sport. Going around curves, the double wishbones deliver most of the solid, tightly damped and thoroughly composed feel of a BMW– without the Bavarian’s sporting edge. Many competitors offer the option of firmer suspension tuning, but Honda doesn’t believe in options. The Accord’s suspension settings are a deft compromise between comfort and control. They are, nevertheless, a compromise. Enthusiasts will not be well satisfied; everyone else will be.

The Accord’s soft-core suspension settings does have its advantages: banishing the bump-thump busyness that sometimes afflicted the previous Accord on patchy pavement. There’s still more road noise than you’ll find in some Accord alteratives, but it’s much less pronounced than in many past Hondas.

The new Honda Accord is an impressive piece of automotive artistry. It’s well-built, roomy, properly-priced and (with the V6) powerful. It raises Honda’s trademark refinement to a new level, with much of the look and some of the feel of a base BMW 5-Series.

But part of the Accord’s appeal used to lie in Honda’s idiosyncratic insistence on engineering cars that followed the “man maximum, machine minimum” philosophy. The new Accord is large and in charge, but in seeking to provide a 5er for the masses Honda has forsaken much of the formula that earned the model its place in American automotive history.


By Alex Dykes

According to market researchers, American car buyers are more likely to ask “will I look cool in this thing?” than “is this the most efficient way to get from point A to point B?” Despite Honda’s rep for building the automotive equivalent of sensible shoes, CEO Kochi Kondo understands that America’s love affair with the automobile gets kinky from time to time. Well if he didn’t before, he does now, after Honda’s bizzaro Element somehow found favor with American grey panther platform refugees. You can almost hear him at the karaoke bar singing “You gotta fight, for your right, to paaaaaarrty!”

The party-in-a-box that Honda named “Element” is seven inches shorter than the CR-V SUV upon which it’s based. As for its sheetmetal, while looking like a cross between a Hummer and an ostraciidae is not in and of itself horrendous, the Elements’ exterior is covered with acres of faux Rubbermaid. The plastic treatment makes the car look like it’s fresh out of a pick-and-pull. No wonder Honda’s started building more elemental (i.e. monochromatic) Elements (for $500 extra).

Unsuspecting Element passengers will attempt to push rubber squares rearward of the rear doors to gain entry. Not so fast, Mr. Bond. Those are not door opening devices. They’re hinges! Yes 007, Honda’s Urban only Activity Vehicle flummoxes aspiring occupants with rear “access panels” (a.k.a. suicide doors). This eccentricity makes egress in tight parking spots more monumental than Elemental. As Sheriff J.W. Pepper might say: back that Rubbermaid ass up boy, or they ain’t getting’ in.

Once you’ve been properly briefed and belted, your senses will tell you why Honda can sell just about anything, from lawn mowers to jet airplanes to a shoebox-on-wheels: build quality. The Element’s supportive seats are worthy of a far more expensive vehicle. In fact, every point of human interaction– air vents, switches and HVAC controls– have a solid feel that exudes quality. It’s a trick invented by Volkswagen, perfected by Honda.

There is a notable exception to the Element’s cavalcade of ergonomic excellence: yet another cheesy single/double-din radio. An optional subwoofer is probably the least satisfying answer to the challenge of listening to acoustic referencing only slightly better than Ye Olde Close N Play. In fact, Honda’s budget ICE machines must be keeping after-market radio shops in business.

Features designed for generations at the end of the alphabet include a textured urethane floor (which the manual warns you not to hose), rear seats that fold into a “bed” (for people 4’3” tall) and a flip down mini-tailgate (for mini-tailgate parties). Blingmeisters will appreciate the Element’s “copper” accents (in SC trim), “root beer” metallic paint and 18 inch wheels. You can also order an Element with Honda’s Real Time™ (as opposed to?) four wheel-drive system.

Honda fits the Element with their ubiquitous 2.4-litre i-VTEC four-cylinder engine, good for 166hp (up 10hp for ‘07) and 161 ft-lbs of twist. Pitted against 3500 lbs., rest to 60 mph takes around nine thoroughly unspectacular seconds. Unfortunately, full throttle stompage yields typical four-banger thrash.

The Element’s dash-mount stick shift may put out pistonhead noses, but it proves more entertaining than looks, location or rubbery feel would indicate. The five-speed slushbox is more fuel efficient than the manual (22/27 vs. 21/25 mpg) and only marginally less entertaining. The steering and ride are smooth, heavy and vague, and that’s OK. Anyone who wants to throw a 70.4” tall box into turns needs their head/license examined.

Honda claims that “just one glance tells you the Element was built for those who live their own unique way.” Apparently all these unique buyers need to haul large quantities of Styrofoam. With rear seats removed, the Element combines the cargo space of a Ford Transit with the weight handling capacity of a French poodle (675 lbs. max load). The Element will tow 1500 lbs., provided you’re willing to make the already slow vehicle into a four-wheeled glacier.

Young ‘uns descending upon Honda dealers with $20k-ish in hand (or Daddy’s AMEX) will pass right by the Element’s cousin the CR-V. The savvy shoppers amongst them will note that the new CR-V is only slightly more expensive. The extra money buys greater refinement and a fifth seat; better fuel economy, handling, resale value, visibility; and the ability to surmount more than a pebble on the road.

Still, you can’t blame Honda for capitalizing on the fact that common sense is not so common. And it must be said that the Element is an extremely safe vehicle, complete with five-star crash ratings, vehicle stability assist, all the latest braking nannies and airbags plenty. So when the younger set asks older Element drivers what they think about their whip, there is only one possible answer: safe!


By Sajeev Mehta

Herbie Hancock is a jazz pianist with a lesser known passion for all things electronic. After trading his sublime Steinway for some cutting-edge synthesizers, Hancock’s musical career Rockit-ed into interstellar space. It’s unclear why Honda reversed Hancock's career path for their eighth generation Civic. Here we have a machine that harkens back to the time when funk-fusion hit the airwaves and flying wedge concepts littered the world's design studios. What’s up with that?

The retro echoes are obvious, but let’s be clear about their execution: the new Civic’s tall profile, cab forward silhouette and skaterboi ramp cum windshield is less old school Lamborghini, more "Minivan Jr." Despite Audi-esque tail lights, the four-door’s strange proportions clearly say “I wanna be a hatchback!” About the best that can be said about the design: it's unmistakable from ten feet or ten furlongs away.

Too bad the windows aren't opaque. Honda’s interior decorators invite you to savor their first ever KITT car cabin. This ode to seventies sci-fi chic sports a two story gauge cluster. A digital speedometer sits up top; a Cyclopsian analog tachometer lingers below. The lighting effects aren’t quite Peter Max, but it’s not for lack of trying. All that’s needed is a flashing LED display and testy, effeminate voice to protect you against the “world of criminals who operate above the law.”

Fortunately, the Civic’s high quality fit and finish create a suitable cavern for A to B’ers determined to enjoy their daily dose of gridlock or weekly jaunt to the local supermarket. The Civic’s cloth doesn't look or feel cheap, even having the foresight to spend quality time on the inviting door panels. True to Honda’s heritage, both major and minor controls are faultlessly, sensuously ergonomic. And there’s plenty of head, leg, shoulder and trunk space for five Civic-minded adults.

The Civic LX' rear cargo-hole also makes the win list, with decklid operation and load height that's Verne Troyer compliant. But the hood's Dustbuster profile and long arm A-pillar make forward visibility a game of chance on the turnpike or within Wholefoods’ parking lot. Once you get over the front end's lack of visual reinforcement and the video game interfaces, taking a commanding grip on the Civic LX’ slick two-spoke wheel is child's play.

But not in the Atari 2600 kind of way. Honda's funky-fresh wedgemobile handles in a manner more befitting a Gran Turismo endurance race. Most everything from the ghosts of Civics past is present and accounted for: linear steering, powerful brakes, confident handling and reasonably well controlled body motions. The Civic’s 16" wheels encourage fast cornering and deep braking, even if the chassis’ limitations are strictly R&B (reached and breached).

While it’s nice to think that frugal little cars are driven by financially challenged enthusiasts, an automatic transmission is mandatory in this neck of the woods. The Civic's slushbox shifts effortlessly between five well-matched gears.

That's a good thing. With a 1.8-liter four cylinder mill huffing out 140hp at 6300rpm, the amble from rest to 60mph require more than a couple of cogs and almost nine seconds of the Civic driver’s time. Let’s face it: the Civic LX’ acceleration isn’t exactly the stuff of NOPI folklore. But the mill gets the job done with a vario-cammed powerband that revs freely, with minimal thrash and complaint. More importantly (at least for the target market), the $17k sedan clocks in at 30/40 EPA mpg.

Granted, the LX-trimmed Civic won't set souls afire with greasy bits worthy of The Temple of VTEC. But the little Honda is a direct hit on the average American’s big car sensibilities. The diminutive sedan serves-up the kind of calm, confident ride and sound isolation normally associated with premium priced luxobarges. And that's what makes this package special: strict attention to dynamic details while catering to the comfort-oriented demands of penny-pinching customers seeking reliable basic transportation.

Yes, but– somehow the Civic’s small car persona got lost in translation. While you gotta love all those airbags and the superlative passive safety, there’s no getting around the fact that the 2750lb Civic is a bigger beast than ever before. Which begs the question: was adding extra heft the right path for a car known for catering to both the entry-level dynamically dense buyer and the performance crazed Import Tuner crowd?

In this age of bigger is better, the current gen Civic bowed to market trends and sold the pistonheads out. Yes, the Civic is still a comforting method of family transport with unique styling and respectable performance. Sure, it’s still a modern day Model A: a blank canvas for street savvy tuners to make a, um, “strong” visual, auditory and performance statement. But the Civic is no longer a sport compact. Forget about the questionable nostalgic styling; this may be the biggest letdown of them all.


By Sajeev Mehta

A forty-something friend once told me that I can’t have my cake and eat it too. I took it literally, as we were facing a well-stocked dessert table at the time. Though my 29-year-old metabolism burns off whatever sugar coated dish I cram into my mouth, I’ve had enough engineering education to understand the concept that two things cannot coexist in the same time - space continuum—at least until you get down to the sub atomic level. But then I found another loophole: a Honda Accord LX.

Mind you, the Accord’s design is about as exciting as waiting for dark matter to wander by. But for buyers who value stealth over spizzarkle, the Accord has the right angle stuff. The mid-sizer’s creases and curves adds to the model’s unassuming sleekosity; the latest taillight redesign and the rocker panel’s negative area reduce visual heft like a GQ magazine cover artist photochopping Kate Winslet’s stems.

The Accord’s front has a pronounced wedge shape, accentuated by elegant headlamps and a smartly integrated hood cutline. Aside from the discordant chrome moustache on the grille, the Accord is one of the best examples of understated automotive styling this side of an Aston Martin DB9. Of course, unlike David Brown's legacy, driving a Honda Accord is about as likely to get you noticed as wearing a red and white striped shirt at a “Where’s Waldo?” convention.

The Accord’s interior is equally non-descript, if well-lit, perfectly proportioned and faultlessly featured. Hence the reason Accord virgins invariably exclaim, “Gee it’s big in here!” (rather than using the word “nice”). While The Big 2.5’s defenders are quick to get out their measuring tapes and compare feature counts, to understand the Accord’s allure, they need to feel the love. The sedan’s precisely dampened switches, knobs and levers are more than a pleasant surprise. At this price point, they’re a miracle.

Activating the Accord’s turn signal stalk is like biting into a Lindt chocolate truffle. The glove box and lower dash storage binnacle doors open with all the graceful, elegant motion of a sunflower blooming in a time lapse movie. The Accord’s portal treatments combine rich cloth inserts, classy vinyl and integrated storage nooks, creating a segment high watermark. There’s space aplenty for kids and cargo, with the ideal amount of visibility for pampered back seat passengers.

Certainly the Accord’s plastic flash casting must be as nasty as anything in an Impala. Happy hunting; I didn’t find any. Yet perfection is (as always) elusive: the rear seat needs a higher butt cushion for long distance comfort. And then the Accord’s sensual snickery whispers “Pay no attention to the cost cutting behind that curtain.” And so you don’t.

The 2.4-liter engine is equally soothing– at least by four-banger standards. Depress the drive-by-wire throttle and the Accord revs both progressively and freely towards max power (166hp @ 5800rpm). The automatic box lacks the latest thing in transmissions (a sixth or seventh gear), but it swaps cogs with sufficient timing and speed (working with continuous variable valve timing) to keep lazy and sporting drivers in whatever torque the mill can muster (160 ft. lbs. @ 4000rpm).

The Accord LX is no neck snapper; it saunters from zero to 60mph in 8.1 seconds, and finishes the quarter mile in 16.6 seconds. At least you don’t pay for such, um, exuberance, at the pump; the ever-optimistic (at least ‘til later this year) feds report that the LX gets 24mpg about town, 34mpg on the open road. But with 3200 pounds in tow, the Accord’s four-cylinder is still the weakest link on the love train.

If and when you build up a head of steam, the LX’ driving dynamics are entirely entertaining. The pride of Marysville preserves any momentum you can carry into a corner and even lets you add more speed after the apex. The steering is nicely weighted, reasonably quick and linear. The stoppers operate better than the cheapie drum brakes (rear) and plastic wheel covers (15”) imply. And when Dr. Jekyll sublimates Mr. Hyde, the Accord gives a wonderfully compliant and isolating ride.

Strangely, you can’t order your four-pot Accord with stability/traction control, brake assist or electronic brake force distribution. The omission reflects a gaping hole in the Accord lineup: a mid-priced, lower output (circa 200hp) six-cylinder variant that splits the difference between value-priced sensibility and pricey pace. The Accord LX has excellent interior trimmings, big car real estate, pistonhead-approved handling and a comfortable ride, but it needs an effortless engine to match.

At $20k, the Honda Accord LX suffers against similarly priced, smoother-running V6 competitors from America (Ford Fusion) and South Korea (Hyundai Sonata). A mid-grade engine would keep the middle-class Accord ahead of the pack, while staying true to its understated style. The Ohio-built Japanese sedan would be, quite literally, the best of both worlds.


By Lyn Vogel

Honda salesman? More like “order taker.” The new Civic Si sedan is guaranteed to sell itself, no “product specialist” needed. After all, the stock version is already a hit. Honda can legitimately claim they’re moving them by the boatload– even if they’re assembled on Ohio acreage. And Si coupes have always done well– even when they haven’t been well done. So, offering a four door variant with a sprinkle of go-faster and look-sharper for a few more bucks is a no-brainer. Say, is that a commission check in your pocket or are you just happy you’re not selling Isuzus?

It’s easy to see why Ma and Pa America have taken to the four-door Honda Civic: it’s easy on the eyes. Well, except for the slightly revised front end, which looks like nothing so much as a Saturn Ion whittled out of a chunk of Vermont cheddar and left to bake in Death Valley. The Si Sedan is further differentiated by the inclusion of the same 17” wheels appearing on the Si Coupe (how economical!), a rear wing (how imaginative!) and some stickers on the rear doors (how economical and imaginative!). Still, better under than over-stated– especially when even the loss-leader generic-cigarette version comes with a sunroof. Oh wait, that’s the windshield.

Comfortalize yourself in the forward chairs– dressed for duty in basic black cloth with red stitching on bolstered cushions– and don’t be surprised if you smile. They’re ass-tastic! You also get Si-specific red instrument lighting and a delicate aluminum shift switch; not much visual jingle for your jangle. You’re still gazing over a foosball table-sized expanse of dashboard with the dreaded dual-zone instrument panel. With the central tach resembling the first-generation Prelude’s, and a secondary HUD-ish binnacle, this seemingly frivolous design feature actually works– if you can get past the idea of a car that thinks its part of NORAD.

Place an amorous horse in the vicinity of a frisky donkey and a short time later you’ll end up with a mule. Think of the Civic Si four-door as the similarly sired offspring of its stock and modified stablemates. Only the Si sedan’s not sterile at birth. For one thing, you get the Si’s 197-thoroughbred powerplant. The 2.0-liter DOHC four redlines at eight-grand, peak power arrives at 7800 rpm, and max torque (139ft.-lbs.) shows up at 6200 rpm. In other words, Honda’s i-VTEC technology is hard at work, trying like crazy to provide oomph down low and whee up high.

Except it doesn’t. The Si’s mill sounds fine, thanks to a growly though thankfully restrained exhaust. But for a car that weighs only 60 lbs more than its two-door sibling, the Si sedan should run a lot harder than it does. Or at least feel as if it’s running harder than it is. Despite a not-entirely-slow zero to sixty time of 8.4 seconds, the four-door seems distinctly anemic.

Credit the hard workers across the hall in the Dept. of Chassis Magic. The Si loves the twisties like a fat kid loves cake. Honda’s boffins installed a larger front stabilizer bar, tweaked the dampers and dropped in a limited slip dif. It’s all to great effect; the Si sedan retains day-to-day composure which, considering the fact that it’s a performance variant, is a genuine bonus. At the same time, the car combines tenacious grip with superb chassis control, allowing fully-committed drivers a rare opportunity to explore the nexus of high G’s and understeer scrub off.

The electrically-assisted steering is a delight, if a touch over-boosted, offering tremendous tactility and reassurance. Speaking of which, 11.8-inch ventilated front and 10.2-inch solid rear discs manage braking duties like Scotty Bowman handled the Montreal Canadiens. And if the Honda S2000’s gear change is the best ‘box on the planet (it is), the Si sedan’s is number two. It’s the low-fat Skippy peanut butter of gearboxes: light, smooth, and tasty.

The main difference between the Si sedan and Si coupe? Nothing much– save the extra portals and a couple of grand (the Si sells for about $20k). In fact, the Si sedan’s practicality is practically inescapable. Keeping the rev needle in the penthouse will cost you at the pump, but not much (23 / 32 mpg). There’s a big ass boot and enough room for four genuine adults. Honda reliability, reasonable resale, and remind me again who can compete at this price point ($21k)? VW GLI? No thanks. Still…

Honda is known for its engines. They’ve given the Si Sedan everything an enthusiast could want but a totally stonking powerplant. At the end of the day, you’re left like a greedy little girl penning a letter to Santa for a corral full of ponies. Will that stop Honda from selling the frugal, fine-handling, sensibly priced Si sedan all day long? Nope. Never mind then.


Honda CR-V Fifth Gear

By William C Montgomery

I’m a suburban husband, father of two who owns a large dog. I commute 19.5 miles to work five days a week and spend my weekends shuttling between home and Home Depot. I take the family on a road trip twice a year. And even with gas back to two bucks and change per gallon, I’m tired of pouring my hard-earned money into my SUV’s jumbo-sized gas tank. Honda made the all-new 2007 Honda CR-V for me. Whether I want it or not is another question.

At first glance, Honda’s cute ute has donned a German suit. Honda’s ditched the boxy shapes and hard angles that defined the CR-V in favor of Bimmeresque curved sheetmetal and an Audi-like rear sloping triangular back window. Dark under-cladding adds pseudo-macho appeal to the Germanic pastiche, while the spare-tireless rear door (which now swings upwards hatchback style) takes it away. Although the Chrysler Aspen has a lock on the worst snout of the year, the CR-V’s squashed dual grills and square plastic warts offer stiff competition. Aside from the nose, the CR-V’s design is a deeply, suitably, fashionably bland.

Fortunately, Honda has resisted the urge to super-size the CR-V. Thanks to the subversion of the aforementioned spare tire, the new model is actually some three inches shorter than its predecessor and, even better, only 70 pounds heavier (despite improved crash protection). The CR-V also sits three-quarters of an inch lower to the ground, eliminating any remaining illusions that Honda’s baby SUV is anything more than a tall hatchback that’s either good or very good in the snow– depending on your tires and whether or not you stump-up the extra grand or so for full-time four-wheel drive.

Enter the CR-V and experience the joys of ergonomic correctness. All the trucklette’s switchgear and controls are intuitive enough for the cognitively challenged, with dials that are more legible than the top line of a DMV eye chart. Washable plastics cover all major surfaces and buttons– except the leather wrapped gear selector, steering wheel and cruise compatible seats. The center stack is a vast improvement over the previous effort (file under faint praise), with the rich-sounding MP3-ready radio finally assuming its rightful place below the air vents.

Despite being butched-up with a touch of chrome, there’s no escaping the minivan/bread van stigma engendered by the gear selector’s dashboard placement. At least passengers can snigger in comfort. While putting three abreast in the back is almost as kinky (and kink inducing) as it sounds, four full-size adults enjoy plenty of head, leg and elbow room. The CR-V’s cargo capacity is more than merely adequate, with a new, removable shelf forming a “trunk.” But the tumble forward rear seats can’t quite get out of the way for serious schlepping. If Honda had found a way to stow them under the floor a la Odyssey, they would have had a killer ap.

The CR-V’s main advantage over a “proper” SUV is fuel efficiency. The front-wheel drive base version gets 23 EPA miles per gallon in the city, 30 on the open, unimpeded road. That’s because the 3389 pound machine is motivated by a normally aspirated 2.4-liter i-VTEC four cylinder engine– a derivative of the Acura RDX’ turbocharged 2.3-liter engine. While the CR-V’s erstwhile powerplant is free from the turbo lag bedeviling its big brother, the CR-V’s engine is also free from turbo boost. Is it slow? In a race between the CR-V and North America, my money’s on continental drift. Zero to sixty takes ten seconds.

The CR-V’s fully independent front strut/rear multilink suspension and quicker turning steering rack are tuned for stop-and-go traffic, strip mall parking lots, speed bumps, grade school drop-off lanes and moderate highway cruising. In other words, the CR-V puts the soft into soft roader. Sure it’s quiet, refined and comfortable; with safe, progressive body lean and seriously capable brakes. But you’d never mistake the CR-V for anything other than a fuel efficient people carrier.

How exciting is that? Not very. But both Honda and I know that no one in their right mind ever bought a CR-V for its dynamic brilliance. Honda created the cute ute or “crossover” genre because its customers want to sit tall, look butch (in an inoffensive kinda way) and not waste any money at any stage of the ownership arc. Mission accomplished.

The CR-V offers its loyal fan base more of everything they want for not much more money (the CR-V is still hanging out in its twenties). While pistonheads like me might hanker for something with a little more oomph like, say, a V6 RAV4, the truth is Honda's cute ute buyers have their eyes firmly focused on the bottom line. And the bottom line here is that the CR-V is still the best buy bar none.


By Jay Shoemaker

In the waning years of the twenty first century, when the world's petroleum reserves finally near exhaustion, hydrogen fuel cells will most likely propel our personal transportation. These cars of the future will be practical, safe, fuel efficient, clean-running and dull. The gas - electric Honda Civic Hybrid (HCH) could well be the prototype for this new breed of automobile; where all the car's harmful social and environmental byproducts have been minimized, and all the fun of driving has been designed out of existence.

Strangely enough, the HCH's exterior isn't dreary. From some angles, you could even call it rakish. While this site has criticized the Civic's severely tilted windscreen, I consider the HCH's near-horizontal glasshouse a welcome bit of drama on an otherwise conventional shape. The details are equally well-judged. In a world of cars with enormous projector beam headlamps, the HCH's eyes are dignified and restrained. And the sedan's rear– complete with its all-important hybrid badge– is as handsome as the Audi sedans it slavishly copies.

The HCH's interior is cutting edge contemporary– provided you set the Way Back machine to 1973. The cabin's [petroleum-based] plastics are well-formed and satisfying to the touch, but their omnipresence soon becomes oppressive. Seat adjustments are few (what happened to the lumbar support?) and our tester's fabric covers reminded me of the great mass velour extinctions of the late Disco Era. The HCH's raked windscreen places so much dash in front of you that only the protruding speedo prevents drivers from developing horizontal vertigo. Although the distance to the window creates an illusion of unlimited space, the HCH's cabin is no larger than a standard small car's.

The HCH's music system plays all manner digital files with faithful reproduction– which is just as well. The sound helps mask the stripped-down car's endless road roar. The navigation system listens attentively, understands your commands intuitively and reacts appropriately. If you need to find the closest Korean restaurant to Topeka, Kansas, it dutifully directs you to drive 1560 miles to Los Angeles for dinner. The one toy we expected to see– some kind of hi-tech Prius-like readout showing battery power regeneration– takes the form of a relatively pedestrian digital display on the left of the gigantic tacho.

Twist the HCH's key and there is little reward, just a quiet hum. Tipping the progress pedal unleashes an initial surge of acceleration– that immediately tails off to a slow canter. Woe to the operator whose accelerative expectations are calibrated to vehicles born during the days of cheap and plentiful fossil fuel. While driving an HCH in traffic, a sextant may prove useful. A call down to the engine room brings varying pitched moaning sounds depending upon how much one's ears can tolerate. Regardless, the rate of acceleration remains fairly constant and completely relaxed.

While the brakes get credit for recharging the HCH's battery pack, pressing the stoppers feels like you've lowered a wooden beam onto the tarmac. Panic stops are. The HCH's slender tires amplify this worrying non-effect in the rain. The Honda hybrid's handling will appeal mostly to those experienced in the two-man bobsled; there's plenty of roll and slippage through the turns. Driving the HCH at highway speeds is also a challenge; any kind of incline drives the CVT transmission crazy. There is simply no way to maintain a constant pace without resorting to cruise control. Even then, the tach ascends to 6000 rpm or more when mounting significant grades.

Of course, no one buys an HCH because they like to drive. They want excellent gas mileage (and the right to solo in California's high occupancy vehicle lanes). In 1400 miles of mixed urban and highway driving, I filled the tank three times. The first time, there were only few miles on the odometer. I didn't expect much in the way of economy and still calculated 43 miles per gallon. With the second tank, I tried harder to conserve fuel. I was rewarded with 47 miles per gallon. By the third tank, I'd lost all interest in economy and just wanted to get the test drive over and done with– and still wound up getting 47 miles per gallon.

The HCH may be the perfect car for fuel misers, but it only offers pistonheads one major advantage: it's so unrewarding to drive fast that you eventually give-up and drive under the speed limit. Of course, when you do that, it's win - win - win. You're helping to save the earth. You're making the safety Nazis happy. And you're protecting your driver's license. Of course, a slowly-driven Honda hybrid also blocks people who love to drive, and drive fast. But don't worry. One way or another, they're doomed. Yes, I've driven the future. It's safe, clean, frugal and tedious.


2009 Honda Fit

By Jonny Lieberman

Fit. That's a good one. At the exact moment that America's obese SUV's are giving the country petrochemical chest pains, Honda invites us to get healthy. Why chug-a-lug gas and stagger around like a big-bellied lummox when you can sip petrol and sashay around town with all the moral superiority of a marathoner? OK, but getting fit involves sacrifices: unpleasant bending, less grunt, no street cred, etc. Or does it? Let's face it: the less we give up, the higher the likelihood we'll do it. Does the Honda Fit let us frugalize without fear?

Honda's Fit Sport is the best looking of the new wave Japanese fuelmeisters (Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris). The Sport package adds real 15' wheels, a spoiler (that thing got downforce?), a contorted front dam and twisted sills. The Fit's bowling ball-sized headlights are it's most prominent and friendly feature– a welcome turn away from the shrunken-head family face Honda's been slapping on its recent products. Glass is the dominant motif. It's everywhere: huge mirrors, a highly-raked windshield lifted from a Dodge Ram and a truly massive greenhouse. (Stoners take note: we seeee you.) Yes, yes, the Fit's a bit of a blob, but so is the Bentley Continental GT. I'll take both in black, thank you very much.

The windscreen's panoramic pleasures (aided by retro-as-new triangular glass ahead of the A-pillars) are tempered by blind spots big enough to hide refrigerators. The Fit (and not so fit) driver sits up high, catering to the American consumer's wrong-headed conviction that elevated eye lines make you bigger and safer. The cabin adds to the illusion, with tri-brat compatible fold-flat-as-Kansas rear seats. Origami them, and you could host an all-canine poker party. The Fit's plastics and cloths wouldn't seem out of place in a VW and there's none of the Civic's Star Trek crap. And there's plenty of kit: six-disc changer, iPod jack, plipper, AC, cruise control and adjustable steering column (take that Tahoe).

Fire-up the Fit's 1.5-liter in-line four, snickity-flick the shifter into first and… it goes! It goes fast! You'll never mistake a Fit for a Vanquish, but the 109-horse powerplant hustles the Fit to 60 in just under 9 seconds. That's not bad when you realize that the more powerful Civic (140 ponies) does the deed in 8.6. More importantly, the Fit feels faster than the numbers indicate. It sounds quick too; the bassy VTEC buzz reverberates through the cabin whenever the mini mill crests 3500 rpm. Let's reiterate; the Fit's 16-valver motorvates 2471 lbs. with 105 ft.-lbs. of torque. Little dog, big bite. Make that nip; the Fit's fast-acting drive-by-wire throttle is a price point bonus.

For such a light whip, the Fit feels remarkably well planted. The ride quality is a cut above your typical penalty box, maybe two. You feel the bumps, but never resent them. With its well-sorted suspension (MacPherson struts up front, torsion beam bringing up the rear), uni-body construction and a puny wheelbase, the Fit's handling is crisp, direct and unexpectedly fun. The Fit don't drift, but it's got enough poke, control and feedback to generate some of the Mini Cooper's smile-generating tossability. Rumor (Car & Driver) has it that the Fit can hustle through cones faster than a Z06. Yes, you just read that. And the brakes are out of this class.

The Fit's clutch is a bummer, especially when compared to last week's shockingly perfect Accord pedal. (A five-speed auto is available with the obligatory mileage, weight and price penalties.) Like its bigger brother, the Fit's left pedal weighs as much as four feathers. And like the ancient Volvo 242, it offers nine-feet of travel for a quarter inch of activation. Worse, the dead pedal has shuffled off this mortal coil, and there isn't any room to store your left foot. While stirring the shifter is as fuss-free as blinking, Honda missed a trick in the cog provision department. A sixth gear would make a lot of sense in a car aimed at people who don't have money and those that hate spending it.

Americans aren't always bright bulbs when faced with car decisions. Despite escalating gas prices, oil wars and all those Prius-driving starlet role models, nearly 100k of us took home a giant GM SUV this past quarter. Even the Sierra-Club's hated Hummer is (for now) in the black. However, the tide is turning. With the word "four bucks a gallon" passing network anchors' powdered lips, plenty of people are thinking about working out of their gas-guzzler. The new Honda Fit is a relatively painless vehicle for drivers looking to shape up and ship out, or people who just want a decent cheap car. All you have to give up is your pretentious classicism. Well, that and your full-size spare tire.