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Few cars have left a mark on the auto industry as indelible as that of the Honda Accord.
Credited with helping open up the American market for Japanese autos, the "reliable" Accord was once the bestselling car in the U.S. before it began losing ground first to Japanese rivals and more recently to resurgent domestic automakers and South Korean upstarts.
This week, shoppers had their first chance to check out a redesigned Accord as Honda launches a comeback push that is crucial to the automaker's recovery from recent missteps in the U.S.
After getting panned for last year's redesign of the smaller Civic and letting South Korean rival Hyundai grab a slice of Honda's reputation for fuel economy, the car company needs the new Accord to be a home run.
"For 20-plus years, Honda has had a customer base that says, 'I always buy an Accord, and that is all I will ever buy.' But that is no longer true," said Karl Brauer, editor of TotalCarScore.com, a car-rating website. "People, especially younger people, consider every car now."
The 2013 Accord competes against a recently redesigned Toyota Camry, as well as other new-generation cars, including the Nissan Altima, Volkswagen Passat and Chevrolet Malibu. Ford will launch a new Fusion this fall, and waiting in the wings is a new Mazda6. The older but still popular Hyundai Sonata is another important player in the mid-size sedan market, which now accounts for 18 percent of auto sales, the largest segment in the industry, according to R.L. Polk & Co.
Where once both the Accord and Camry beat rivals in such characteristics as fuel economy, reliability and perceptions of quality, those advantages have faded as other automakers improved their offerings, Brauer said.
"The battleground will be more packed with choices than ever before," said David Conant, chief executive of Conant Auto Retail Group, a large Southern California auto dealership company that will be selling the new Accord at its Honda dealerships as well as the new Fusion and current Sonata at its other stores.
Honda's previous stumbles have made it vulnerable to once-loyal consumers taking a look at other brands. Honda has seen its share of the U.S. market slide from 11 percent in 2009 to 9 percent last year, according to Autodata Corp.
After last year's Civic redesign was criticized by Consumer Reports and others for giving the new model a lower interior quality, choppier ride and higher noise level, Conant said he saw " a tremendous amount of cross-shopping" between the Civic and Hyundai's competitive Elantra at the Cerritos Auto Mall, where he operates dealerships for both brands.
"Until then we didn't see a lot of Honda intenders at the Hyundai store," Conant said.
Analysts said Honda has been careful not to repeat the mistake of the Civic.
Brauer, who has tested the new Accord, said Honda has fixed flaws that plagued the previous-model Accord, including cabin noise, uncomfortable seating, a mushy drive, busy dashboard and complex controls. The new version is now among his top choices for a mid-size sedan.
"Honda learned its lesson," said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com, who also has driven the new model. "The interior was very high quality and well appointed. The engines performed extremely well. And most impressive, Honda is packing a lot of content into the price."
The LX, the base model with an automatic transmission and 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine, starts at $22,480. But Honda expects that most buyers will opt for higher trim levels, such as the middle-grade EX, which has added amenities such as 17-inch alloy wheels, a LaneWatch feature that displays a video image of the passenger-side blind spot when changing lanes, a driver's power seat and electronic entry. It has same engine and starts at $25,405 for the automatic.
The new Accord is almost 4 inches shorter than the previous model but offers more cargo space and a spacious cabin.
Honda's planners said in some ways they tried to make the new model a throwback to previous generations that had a sporty feel and were thought of as a "driver's car."
The four-cylinder engine packs 185 horsepower and has an Environmental Protection Agency combined city and highway driving rating of 30 miles per gallon. That compares to 31 mpg for Nissan's new Altima and 28 mpg for the current Camry. An optional six-cylinder engine will provide more power but less fuel economy.
Auto-dealership owner Conant figures that he is in a good position as manufacturers each bring out a competitive version of the traditional family sedan.
Although consumers have been relying more on manufacturer and third-party information Internet sites to research and whittle down their car-buying choices, "I wouldn't be surprised if we were to see more people coming to the showrooms and test-driving the various cars," he said. "This may create a real shopping experience."
Analysts expect Honda and its rivals to advertise their new models heavily, creating shopping interest and awareness and growing this segment of the auto business.
Conant sees a unique way to take advantage of that competition at the Ford, Honda and Hyundai stores he owns at the Cerritos mall.
"We might put a Fusion, Hyundai and Accord next to each other at one of the stores and let people look at them directly, drive them and cross-shop," he said.
Regardless of what the buyer settles on, he'll get the sale.