Honda Accord Type S

It takes more than a pretty face and a few choice extras to make the grade in the fleet and family sector these days. Honda knows it, and has pulled out all the stops to crash the Ford Mondeo's party with the all-new Accord, courtesy of a sharp look and some serious attention to detail. It's already scooped the Japan Car of the Year award, but will it be such a big success in the UK?

If you're looking for a family car, you've never had a better selection. Honda's new Accord is a high-class option, with the emphasis firmly on driver enjoyment. Well balanced handling and sensitive controls make it great fun, while an ergonomic interior design should keep motorists happy on long hauls. The rear-end styling divides opinion, but the Accord can hold its head up high among the best in the class.

It takes more than a pretty face and a few choice extras to make the grade in the fleet and family sector these days. Honda knows it, and has pulled out all the stops to crash the Ford Mondeo's party with the all-new Accord, courtesy of a sharp look and some serious attention to detail. It's already scooped the Japan Car of the Year award, but will it be such a big success in the UK? To find out, we got our hands on the first right-hand-drive version to hit British roads and introduced it to class rivals for the first time.

Initial impressions of the Accord are good. In sporty Type S trim, it has an aggressively raked nose and sharp lines leading to a rather bulbous rear end. It's finished off by smart five-spoke alloy wheels, giving a sense of style that shames blander rivals. Classy wing mirror-mounted indicator repeaters complete the striking look. Move inside and the new family challenger is impressive enough to make Honda's aim to attract buyers from the small executive class seem achievable. The seats are comfortable and supportive, while the dashboard design is unusually attractive. Controls are not overcomplicated, and the quality of fit and finish seems excellent, even on this pre-production example.

We're deep in the heart of company car territory with the Accord, and emissions can make or break a new model. Thanks to Honda's advanced technology, not one of the engines in the range has excessive CO2 levels compared with mainstream rivals. However, the most powerful 2.4-litre Type S variant looks no more than average for the class, with an emissions figure of 214g/km. If you were thinking of swapping from a similarly priced BMW 316i you'd be hit, too, as the slower German model posts a more company car tax-friendly 167g/km.

However, Honda has always been at the forefront of good handling, and this model upholds the standards, feeling driver-oriented from the first turn of the key. If you step from a less focused rival into the new saloon, the Honda's sensitive controls can seem a bit fussy, but a gentle touch is rewarded by a far better driving experience. Feeding power through the front wheels, the newcomer has superb handling balance thanks to the use of double-wishbone suspension front and rear. In addition, the floor- mounted accelerator pedal controlling an electronic drive-by-wire throttle is a joy to use when pressing on.

Not so the steering, though, which could do with more feedback and feels over-assisted. Changing through the six-speed gearbox can be spoilt by the snatchy clutch, too. In the Accord's favour, all models are fitted with ABS, electronic brake distribution and brake assist as standard, while drivers of the Type S also get Vehicle Stability Assist.

The latter version features a range-topping all-aluminium 188bhp 2.4-litre i-VTEC powerplant, which blasts the four-door saloon from 0-60mph in 7.9 seconds and on to a blistering maximum speed of 141mph. The engine begs to be revved, and feels just as quick as the figures suggest. But, more importantly in this sector, it is happy to cruise at motorway speeds. The firm set-up of this sporty model means it can't match Vauxhall's Vectra for overall refinement, but it makes up for it on entertaining B-roads.

At 31.4mpg, fuel consumption is average, but for those after more miles per pound, a 153bhp 2.0-litre unit returning 38.2mpg is also available on lesser trims, and these are joined by a frugal 2.2 diesel next year.

Equipment is generous, with all variants featuring dual air-conditioning. A hi-tech DVD-based sat-nav system is on the options list. The usual front and side airbags are complemented by inflatable side window curtain bags, although no Euro NCAP safety ratings are available yet. As for practicality, the wheelbase remains unchanged from that of the previous model, but overall dimensions have increased. With a 459-litre capacity, the boot is reasonable, but not the biggest in class. It's a similar story for rear passengers, where there's plenty of headroom, yet only adequate leg space.

Unusually in this sector - but common in the executive class - there is no hatchback; only a four-door which arrives in the showrooms in February, followed by a roomy estate late in 2003. Prices for the Accord start at £16,495 for a base-model 2.0-litre SE saloon, while the sporting six-speed 2.4-litre Type S comes in at £19,095. There's no automatic option on offer with this one, although the three lesser trims have the choice of five-speed manuals or a five-speed self-shifter with sequential manual changes.

So does the new Honda have what it takes to compete with the best, or is it set to be an also-ran? We put the car head-to-head with the two top sellers in the class - the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Vectra - as well as the surprisingly talented Mazda 6, to find out. The Mondeo is a favourite with those who want great handling dynamics, and it remains in demand despite becoming a familiar sight on our roads.

The Ford's range starts at £14,645 for a 1.8-litre base-spec five-door, but the 2.5 V6 Zetec S is close to the Accord on price, coming in at £19,145. Its V6 unit gives a smooth delivery and whips the saloon from 0-60mph in 8.7 seconds, but it only manages 29mpg in the combined cycle. There won't be any savings on the tax bill, either, because the V6 has a hefty CO2 figure of 242g/km. Inside, the Mondeo wrote the book on practical family interiors, with plenty of space front and rear, but rivals are catching up fast.

Always biting at the blue oval's heels is Vauxhall's Vectra. You don't scoop the Auto Express Family Car of the Year award for nothing, and the Vectra mixes superb cruising ability with good dynamics. The result is surprisingly enjoyable to drive, but in this company the suspension feels too soft.

As with the Mondeo, prices start from £14,645 for a basic 1.8, but a 2.2-litre four-door SXi is £17,045, while the luxurious Elite variant is still only £19,350. It may not match the capacity of the Honda or the Ford, but the excellent 2.2 engine takes the four-door from 0-60mph in 9.7 seconds, while fuel consumption of 33mpg will please owners. And it's no surprise the Vectra is a fleet favourite when you look at the emissions. The 2.2 produces 206g/km - the lowest here.

When Mazda released its 6 earlier this year, we were pleasantly surprised by its competitive pricing, roomy interior and great handling. Honda hopes to match its Japanese rival in all these areas, and the Accord definitely has a more upmarket feel. But the 6 starts at only £13,495 for the 1.8; £17,995 gets you a 2.3-litre Sport capable of 0-60mph in 8.9 seconds. The compromise is in CO2 figures, where 218g/km could be costly for company drivers. The 6 isn't an obvious choice, but it proves hard to beat in many areas, and has enough space to tempt buyers out of Ford and Vauxhall dealerships.

So where will the Accord fit into this market? Clearly, it has aspirations to challenge cars from a class above, but it will have to conquer the family sector first. If you spend your life on the motorway, the Vectra is probably a better option because of its great cruising ability and smooth ride. For a little more fun, you should look to the fine- handling 6 or the new Honda, which both offer the dynamic skills to make twisty roads a joy. Ford's Mondeo sits somewhere in between, offering the widest range of skills. When faced with this stiff competition, then, the Accord is well up to the task in the family sector, and certainly gives fans of rival models something to think about.

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