2021 Honda Accord EX-L 1.5T First Test: Honda Knows Best
Returning to the trailhead exhausted and faint-brained after a 12-mile hike through the canyons and across the creeks surrounding Mount Baldy, there was no car I’d rather be greeted by than the 2021 Honda Accord. Like an old friend, I knew the Japanese midsizer would welcome me without judgement for my foot stink or quivering quads, and that I wouldn’t have to dedicate an ounce of my depleted energy reserves to frustrations like clunky CVT tuning or inconsistent steering.
I approached the car and popped its trunk to pile in my damp boots and dusty backpack, but upon closing the trunklid, the Accord uttered three polite beeps and popped it back open. Closing it again brought the same result.
Only after I mindlessly tried a few more times expecting something different did my foggy cognition realize I had left the keys in that dusty backpack. The Accord knew something I didn’t and saved me from myself. It’s that kind of thoughtful engineering, of knowing its customer, that contributes to Honda building what is not a perfect vehicle for every application, but undoubtedly the best midsize sedan in the industry.
The same thoughtfulness is apparent in the Accord’s approach to ride quality. As a driver, you’ll hear impacts and imperfections more than you’ll feel them; the ride is closer to that of an S-Class than a Sonata. Part of that magic carpet effect comes down to Honda’s choice of wheels.
Our test vehicle arrived on 17-inch rollers with inches of luscious, shock-absorbing sidewall. Who needs fancy, expensive air suspension when there’s a compliant atmospheric cushion between the edge of the wheel and the road? Some of the Accord’s competitors ride on stylish 18- or 19-inch wheels that improve aesthetics but necessitate short, stiff-walled rubber that harshens ride quality. Honda knows base-engine Accord buyers would rather be comfortable than flashy.
Speaking of comfort, the Accord’s interior is simplistic joy. It’s an understated space, but the limo-like back-seat legroom, airy visibility, and logically laid-out, ergonomically friendly controls impress. The otherwise supportive front seats were a little wide and under-bolstered for this author, but drivers not exploring handling limits (read: most) won’t mind.
Powertrain tuning benefits from the same thoughtful ethos as the cabin and ride—it’s obvious from the first few feet. It’s near impossible to lurch away from a stop in the Accord. Even if you jump from stationary to half throttle, the Accord eases forward with grace. The turbocharged four-cylinder and CVT automatic respond adequately to the flex of one’s right ankle, smoothly delivering the revs necessary to dole out as much or as little acceleration as its driver asks for and settling back down to 1,400 rpm for cruising as soon as they back off.
I’d call the CVT’s tuning dull and underwhelming in the wrong context. Behind the wheel of a sports car, I want a more aggressive response. In an Accord, though, it’s ideal. Base-engine midsize sedan drivers want smooth, not sporty, and Honda nailed it.
Don’t think the smaller-engine Accord is some kind of slouch, though. Its 1.5-liter turbo-four has the smallest displacement in the segment, but it also outperforms every other midsize sedan with a base powertrain.
Cranking out 192 hp and a matching 192 lb-ft of torque, the little forced-induction four-pot motivated our test car to 60 mph in a spritely 7.2 seconds. That number bests 7.4 seconds in a 2.5-liter Nissan Altima, 7.5 seconds in a four-cylinder Toyota Camry, 8.3 seconds in a non-XT Subaru Legacy, 7.8 seconds in the Hyundai Sonata and Kia K5 with the smaller of their two turbo-four engine options and front drive, and 7.9 seconds in the naturally aspirated Mazda 6.
The brake pedal comes on soft and is easy to modulate in street driving, but our staff figure-eight pilot Chris Walton took issue with the lack of initial bite on the test track. He complained about the laggy throttle, too, as well as frustrating understeer and invasive stability control during limit testing. Even with those issues, though, only one of the Accord’s base-powertrain peers laid down a quicker lap (the Hyundai Sonata 1.6T looped our course in 27.0 seconds to the Accord’s 27.1).
Ah, but aren’t 0-60 and the figure eight as irrelevant in this segment as big, flashy wheels or an immediately responsive throttle? Depends who you ask, but the Accord also delivers the quickest 45-65-mph passing time of any of its direct competitors (3.7 seconds). My V-6 Accord-owning roommate told me this car feels just as quick, if not quicker than the six-cylinder Honda in our driveway. That the 1.5-liter also offers some of the best fuel economy in the segment at 30/38 mpg city/highway is only further evidence Honda understands what its buyers are after.
Not that this powertrain is perfect. The engine buzzes a bit through the steering wheel at idle, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who likes the sound. It also lacks paddles for simulated shifts or a real Sport mode (there’s an S slot on the shifter, but we didn’t notice much difference).
There are other flaws in the Accord’s armor, too. It is not lost on us how remarkable it is that adaptive cruise control, lane centering, automatic emergency braking, and the like are standard on a car that starts at $25,965 (our leather-lined EX-L test vehicle rang in at $32,285), but the adaptive cruise functionality is underwhelming.
Following a car in front, the system never brakes as early or as smoothly as I would, and it can feel sluggish when accelerating back to the set cruising speed. Unnatural braking is especially noticeable when a car in the adjacent lane scoots in front of you.
The lane centering, however, is excellent on highways with well-marked lanes and gentle curves. I dig the way the digital instrument cluster glows green when the system is active, just like the steering wheel indicator on Cadillac’s Super Cruise vehicles.
Other nits to pick? My left elbow called for thicker padding on the door-mounted armrest, and I had some Apple CarPlay connectivity problems, too. As a separate issue, at one point the top-left corner of the CarPlay display showed a pixelated black box, but that could have had to do with me clumsily dropping my phone mid river crossing; the problem went away after I unplugged and blew in the charge port.
Remember, though, it’s our job to find the little problems, to pick the nits. The Honda Accord’s outstanding execution of the midsize sedan formula shines brighter than any dull complaint we can muster.
When I thought all cars should have old-school automatics instead of CVTs, the Accord showed me that in some cases, shock-free, continuously variable gear ratios can provide an ideal driving experience. When I thought “small engine bad,” the humble Honda punched above its weight class and delivered excellent fuel economy. When I tried to lock the keys in the trunk, my old friend popped it back open. This is the best example of a consumer-friendly midsize sedan in our industry and the latest reminder that, at least in this space, Honda knows best.
Looks good! More details?
|2021 Honda Accord (EX-L)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$32,285|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||1.5L/192-hp/192-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|TRANSMISSION||Cont variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,206 lb (60/40%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||196.1 x 73.3 x 57.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.2 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||15.5 sec @ 92.0 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||129 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.82 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.1 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||30/38/33 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||112/89 kWh/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.59 lb/mile|
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