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Handsome Honda

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I wanted to like the all-new Honda Accord Coupe much more than I actually did. After all, I consider the Honda Accord the all-time perfect family car, with peerless practicality.

Consumer Reports described the Accord as "one of our highest-rated family sedans," and since approximately the 1997 model it has offered unrivaled reliability. Sure, the Accord has never been too exciting — it’s more refrigerator than wild ride — but wild rides get old fast. The proof is in the Honda’s popularity with American buyers, and its stellar resale value.

So here comes the 2003 EX coupe, and my first impression was, wow, an Accord with style, a step up from an appliance! The two-door model is especially curvy, with a particularly appealing roofline. It’s as if a Honda was crossbred with an Audi.

My second impression was that this Accord needs better front seats. It’s hard to get comfortable in them, and equally difficult to tilt them forward to admit rear-seat passengers. It’s definitely not a one-handed operation, and my two daughters were put through much angst trying to get it right. The interior is otherwise standard Honda, which means a logical layout and hardwearing plastic. The dashboard wins points for its exceptional clarity.

Our test EX Coupe featured Honda’s 160-horsepower, 16-valve four-cylinder engine, which accelerates with alacrity from a standing stop but certainly never gives the aforementioned Audi any serious competition as a performance car. It’s not as much fun to drive as the Nissan Altima or Mazda6, either. The EX is available with a 24-horsepower, 3-liter V-6 and six-speed manual, but with the four banger and the five-speed automatic it tends to plod along (albeit very quietly, even with the sunroof open). Daily gridlock may have something to do with it, also. What car is sporty at 10 miles per hour?

Honda has always excelled at fuel economy, and the aerodynamic four-cylinder Accord does not disappoint with 24 mpg in town and 33 on the highway. That’s very credible, and it’s accompanied by low emissions, too. The smaller engine also means a lower price tag: $22,960, fully equipped (including side airbags and ABS brakes). The Accord has some of the best crash protection in the business — better than most SUVs — and earns five-star status from the federal safety agency.

Most of my problems with the coupe do not extend to the four-door sedan, whose body shares only headlights. The coupe’s sleek roofline, for instance, causes it to have a narrow trunk opening and a big glass overhang. It also compromises rear-seat headroom. Maybe I just don’t get the point of coupes, though I admit they often look cool. I was reminiscing with Chevrolet’s communications manager about the 1960s concept of the "personal" car, and he pointed out that they were mostly coupes. Men bought them to drive in alone, I guess, with no easy access for the dog (or the wife, either). I like to have room for passengers.

The Accord has come a long way from 1976, when it was a Spartan econobox. One review commented, "Its main luxury feature was its ability to cruise past the lineup at the gas station." Accords have been built in Ohio since 1982, and have steadily improved. Today’s version is a very sophisticated and capable automobile, even if it isn’t likely to challenge BMW in the driving gloves competition.

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