Honda's Midlife Makeover: Sure, the Accord Is Still a Best Seller, but Its Buyers Aren't Getting Any Younger. So Honda Is Rolling out a Sleek New Look to Lure Fans of VW's Passat

Article excerpt

Byline: Keith Naughton

When Charlie Baker set out two years ago to redesign the Honda Accord, America's favorite family car, he spent many boring hours listening in on consumer focus groups. As the Honda chief engineer peered through a one-way mirror in a California research lab, he heard owners of his chief competitor, the Toyota Camry, drone on about their car as if it were a dependable household appliance. Drivers of his beloved Accord dutifully explained that they bought out of habit. But when the VW Passat owners appeared on the other side of the mirror, sporting piercings and goatees, they gushed about the Passat's sleek, industrial design and how cool they felt tooling around in the car. Stunned, Baker turned to a colleague and said: "Fifteen years ago, these were our buyers."

Honda, like many of its baby-boomer customers, is suffering a midlife crisis. And in September it will try to recapture its lost youth by unveiling a dramatic makeover of its flagship model, the Accord. Instead of trying to outmaneuver the Camry for the checkered flag in the annual sales race, Honda's new Accord emulates the upstart Passat, whose buyers are a decade younger than the 50-year-olds now driving the Accord. The strategy is ushering in a new era for the hotly contested $40 billion family-car market. The age of the sensible sedan--epitomized by the bulletproof quality but bland styling of the Camry and Accord--appears to be running out. Increasingly, car buyers want attitude. "If you put out an automotive appliance," explains auto-trend watcher Wes Brown, "no one under 35 will buy it."

To reach just those buyers, the new Accord features a scowling, cat-eyed look. While its sticker price is expected to stay in the $16,000-to-$26,000 range, little else remains the same. The Accord's drab, utilitarian interior gets a Teutonic transformation, with LED backlit gauges, a satin-nickel finish and an optional voice-activated navigation system. The new key has a button that lowers the windows remotely (the Passat has a similar feature). Honda is also souping up the car, boosting horsepower and engineering a sport-ier ride. "I'm going to start viewing the Accord as more of a sports sedan," says Car and Driver editor Csaba Csere, who gives the new Honda a rave in his latest issue.

But like every scheme to regain lost youth, Honda's makeover could backfire badly. Re-engineering the formula that made the Accord America's top-selling car last year might alienate legions of loyalists. "Everybody aspires to have a Ferrari," scoffs Steve Sturm, marketing chief for Toyota, which retooled the Camry last year to make it more luxurious, but kept the styling conservative. "But people buy family sedans for very traditional values." And they are notoriously unforgiving. Just ask Ford, which took a chance by transforming its '96 Taurus into what critics called "the fish-head car." Taurus sales plummeted. Honda insists it will avoid that fate by engineering the Accord with the gold-plated quality that's made it a hit with boomers for 20 years. …