Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: 2003 Honda Accord Coupe V6/6MT

Not bad, not great, simply good all-around: it's the Goldilocks of the affordable coupe segment

No, you won't fall in love with it, but when paired with the V6 engine and six-speed manual transmission, the seventh generation Honda Accord Coupe is a good car in every discipline.  The two-door defines the idea of not being great at anything in particular but being genuinely good at everything, just as an entrant in this segment should be.  With a 244-horsepower 3.0-liter V6, a smooth, easy to drive stick-shift, and a ride comfortable enough for any surface, this car is one of the most surprisingly pleasant vehicles I've driven.  It isn't going to replace a proper rear-drive coupe as your dream car, but it's very easily a car you could enjoy owning.

From a design standpoint, the Coupe is sleek, if not understated.  Nothing screams aggression here; this is a smooth, well-proportioned design, perhaps the best looking body style of the Accord Coupes.  The wheel-wells flow into the fenders which in turn transition almost too effortlessly into the heart of the body.  If anything the car is almost too subtle, but that's part of what makes it an Accord.  17" wheels compliment the body well, with just enough style but not too much to stand out, further contributing to the under-the-radar mojo.  Luckily, the exterior's good looks translate well into the place you spend most of your time, and perhaps equally as importantly, to what motivates the vehicle.

Inside, it's more of exactly what you have come to expect from Honda: simple controls, well-thought out placement of fundamental knobs and buttons, good material quality for the segment, and a fit-and-finish that reminds you of why the company was doing so well in the early 2000's.  At the core of the interior is the car's 6-speed manual transmission; it reminds you of the V6's sporting intentions, whether the rest of the car wants to cooperate or not.  From first all the way through sixth it's the kind of transmission you can easily drive day-in and day-out, never skipping a beat and never wishing it was lighter or easier to operate.  The shift knob itself, with the traditional 1-6 pattern engraved atop the metal cylinder, feels great in your hand and is always easy to maneuver into the next gate.  Unfortunately for those heel-and-toe aficionados, the pedals are spaced a little too far apart for it to truly be a sporting setup; you better have big feet or it's going to be a struggle.  Regardless of this sole seemingly irrelevant ergonomic flaw, the seats, controls, steering wheel, and the stickshift itself are all well placed, well crafted, and enjoyable on the verge of overly-simplistic to operate.  All in all it's a good interior that is a comfortable and enjoyable place to spend time, but it never makes you want to misbehave or, on the contrary, shoot for the best gas mileage you can achieve.  Like everything else about this car, it's right in the middle...but that's not a bad thing.

The Accord's shock factor comes from the engine under-hood: it has the kind of surprising power that works perfectly in a car like this.  The torque comes on smoothly and in a linear manner without any drama, and it does so in an unexpectedly fast manner.  The whole package is so composed and so quiet that before you know it the speedometer is reading double-digits higher than you should actually be moving.  Really, the car is silent, and if it weren't for the break between gears to shift (oh, and the speedometer) you would have no idea of your speed.  Smooth, light shift action makes things even easier, and though rowing through the Accord's gears isn't life-changingly exciting, it's still nice to be have control of the power that you wouldn't otherwise have without the 3rd pedal nestled in its proper slot.  Alright, maybe I'm making the car sound faster and more enjoyable to drive than it truly is, but this setup is really is properly quick for a car of this nature, and the claimed low 6-second sprint to sixty is entirely believable.

Usually, fuel economy is compromised by power, yet somehow the Honda engineers allowed them to meet right in the middle.  EPA estimates put the V6/6MT combo at 18 MPG city and 27 MPG highway, but remember, these are "estimates" from ten years ago, before the system for evaluating gas mileage was revised more times than can be counted.  Translation: in real-world driving, your mileage will vary.  Yes, you can see lower than estimated city numbers if you're stuck in the lower three gears, but the flip side is that you can also see gas mileage figures that best the EPA highway estimate by two-to-three miles per gallon.  At a 65-70 MPH cruise in 6th gear, 30 miles on a gallon is easily attainable, and if it's flat and you have a tailwind you can even creep into the 32 MPG range, a number usually unseen by V6, six-speed cars without fuel-saving technology from modern vehicles.  Average figures usually show mid-20's, and owners report that this is only marginally lower than those seen by owners of the 4-cylinder models.  My recommendation: if you have the money, opt for the 6-6 (V6 & 6-speed) combo, it's a smooth, reliable (dare I even say borderline fun?) powertrain that is worth every penny over the volume-seller I4.

On the road the Accord feels compliant and composed, never making you question for a second Honda's reliability or quality.  Even approaching and cresting ten years old, the car still feels entirely safe and substantial on the road.  Though the last decade has brought about numerous safety breakthroughs, the 7th-gen Accord still instills an air of confidence in the driver, part of which is due to a suspension setup that rides well over any and all surfaces.  While other cars are unsettled by potholes and changes in road surfaces, the Accord just keeps on pushing.  It's the kind of car you can drive across the country and never have a problem with comfort or with controlling the vehicle.  As the automatic transmission takes the place as the country's favorite way to shift gears, the manual equipped Accord truly is easy enough to drive that you could for hours on end.  If you're looking for a great road-trip vehicle but don't want anything super sporty, want to achieve decent gas mileage while still having adequate power, and have a tight budget, look no further: this is your car.

So, back to the suspension: it's soft without being Cadillac, pillow-plush, it's smooth without totally isolating you from the road, and it's just firm enough to remind you that you're in a car that has a Honda, and not an Acura, logo on the grille.  The tires have enough sidewall to help cushion the ride - no low-profile nonsense here - and enough stiffness to help in the handling department.  No, this isn't a sports coupe, but it's not your average family sedan either.  The Coupe's proportions and engine/transmission are enough to urge you to drive the car a little harder in the corners than you would its four-door counterpart, but with the V6 weighing more than the volume-seller I4 and thus a chassis more suited to a lighter front end, the car does have the tendency to push a little in the turns, reminding you of its front-drive nature and that this isn't a rear-drive sports car.  That being said, it does a great job of bridging the gap between a front-drive econo coupe, a front-drive sports-oriented coupe, and a front-drive entry-level luxo-coupe.  It's the bread-and-butter of the coupe world, combining fun and frugality without giving up all of its practicality (yes, the back seats are usable for adults).

Let's get to the bottom line here: Honda's seventh generation Accord Coupe is a properly decent car.  It's not bad and it's not great: it's just right.  By doing everything well, failing at nothing, and having no extraordinary qualities, the car manages to be exceptional at being good.  It's a car that's easy to afford, easy to drive, and easy to live with.  It will never light your pants on fire with excitement but it'll never break your bank either.  You can drive it every day without a struggle, and in an entry-level coupe with surprising power and agility, that's exactly how it needs to be.  Good at everything?  Just right?  Let's call it Goldilocks.

- Ross, 7/25/13


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