Jackie or Marilyn? Rolling Stones or Beatles? Mustang or Camaro? These epic comparisons often border on epic rivalries that in turn, lead to die hard fans. While the Ford Mustang/Chevy Camaro rivalry may be among the most enticing in the automotive world, there’s not denying that another epic showdown has existed in America’s most popular car segment for three decades: the Honda Accord vs. Toyota Camry.
Dating back to the early-1980s, these two front-wheel drive family sedans have been duking it out in America’s most competitive segment, often for the title of best selling car in America. From their humble compact beginnings, both cars have evolved into substantially larger and higher content cars. Yet through it all, these two mainstays have stuck to the same game plan, and their loyal consumers have largely stuck to them.
Since the 1990s, both the Accord and Camry have operated in five-year generation cycles, with a new Accord arriving one model year behind the latest Camry. This has allowed them to compete with one another pretty fairly, and makes it especially easy to compare generations with one another. A whole series of articles could be written comparing each generation of Accord versus Camry, but for today the subject focuses on the 1997-2001 Camry and the 1998-2002 Accord.
On paper, both cars appear very similar. Both were front-wheel drive, mid-sized four-door sedans (the Accord was also available in a rather sexy coupe, but this comparison is strictly sedan-only). Each offered the choice of a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic, and inline-4 and V6 engines. They both had the same 14.1 cubic feet of cargo capacity, and in V6 form, identical curb weights. The Camry rode on a 105.2 inch wheelbase, and was 188.5 inches long, 70.1 inches wide, and 55.4 inches tall. The Accord rode on a slightly longer 106.9 inch wheelbase, and was 188.8 inches long, 70.3 inches wide, and 57.3 inches tall.
In real life though, differences were more substantial, and I’ll get into that. I should also add that I am very familiar with both of these cars, as two of my aunts each purchased a brand-new 1997 Camry and 1998 Accord. It’s best to start chronologically, so I shall start with the Camry.
The 1997 Toyota Camry had big shoes to fill. The preceding 1992-1996 Toyota Camry was a huge sales success, annually taking the number two spot behind the Accord as the best-selling import (despite American assembly). Commonly regarded as the best Camry of all time, it managed to post yearly sales increases, hitting the 350,000 mark in 1996. A huge leap forward from its narrow-body, economy-rooted predecessor, the 1992-1996 Camry offered vastly superior levels of space, comfort, features, and value, all wrapped in very Lexus-like sheet metal. It was a reliable, well-equipped car for the money, with some Toyota accountants even pegging it as too much of a value for the price point. This factor, combined with the mid-’90s hyper-inflation of the Japanese yen, dictated substantial cost-saving measures in the development and production of the next Camry.
So, just what did these cost-saving measures entail? Luckily, the majority of cost-saving translated to a design that used fewer components for easier and cheaper production, as opposed to the typical decrease in material quality. The model lineup was also slashed, with no coupes, sporty SE models, or wagons (for the North American market, that is). Overall, the 1997 Camry was a minor evolution of its predecessor, which in many aspects wasn’t a bad thing. There were several improvements, such as longer wheelbase for greater comfort and incremental output increases for both the carryover engines, but overall, the 1997 Camry didn’t offer much in the way of anything new to get excited about. Then there was the styling.
Where the 1992 Camry was a rather highly-styled, upscale design for its class, the 1997 looked almost retrograde. Elegant curves were replaced by straighter, more angular styling. The slight hint of athletic shoulders at the ’92’s C-pillar were gone too. The new Camry looked far less premium, far more appliance-like, and frankly, like it could have come before the 1992-1996 model.
This was especially true in the rear, which looked frumpy and uninspired, with a pinched-in look. The very slim taillights didn’t help, looking like they came from 1990.
Likewise, interiors looked equally bland and sterile. Fit-and-finish and material quality were still among best in class, although once again the interior design was largely retrograde. Much like the exterior, simple straight lines dictated interior design.
The driving experience could be described best as predictable. Smooth and quiet, adequate power in the V6, and overall an easy car to drive – no surprises. Not much in the way of dynamic handling, but that was not the intended goal of this car.
While it may sound like I am hating on the 1997-2001 Camry, in truth it was not a bad car. Objectively speaking, it was a totally adequate car for what it set out to do. The main issue with the ’97 Camry was that it offered little to no improvement over its predecessor, something that all redesigns should strive for. Its design was also a major step backwards, especially considering that it was chosen among more engaging design proposals like this one. Other designs considered can be seen at Autos of Interest.
Now let’s get to its arch enemy, the Honda Accord. Arriving one year later, the 1998 Honda Accord was a very different story. Its own 1994-1997 predecessor was a fine car, although not so much of a standout as the ’92 Camry, making it less of a tough act to follow.
The new and larger Accord now rode on the same platform as the premium Acura TL/Honda Inspire, arguably one of the best-handling front-wheel drive sports sedans of its time. While the family-oriented Accord was hardly a sports sedan, handling certainly benefited from the TL, and was commonly regarded as best in class.
A bit of TL could also be seen in the Accord’s styling, which was somewhat more expressive than its Camry rival. Despite nearly identical exterior dimensions, the Accord’s lower hood, steeply raked windshield, and upswept belt line gave it a decidedly sportier appearance. Flared fenders, side skirts (on ES and SE models), and a character line running the length of the vehicle also enhanced the Accord’s more aggressive looks.
Additionally, owing to the 4-door Accord’s somewhat sportier styling was its related coupe variant. Although the two shared minimal body panels, there was strong visual relation to the Accord Coupe, whose design was finalized a year earlier than the sedan.
Overall, at least in your author’s opinion, the 1998 Accord was the more attractive vehicle of the two by far. While the mid-size car segment dictated a certain degree of conservatism for mass appeal, Honda didn’t take this a sign to design a car as visually numbing as novocain.
Inside, the Accord would appear to have the advantage too. While the Camry’s dash board and instrument panel appeared square and uninspired, the Accord’s looked significantly more stylish and modern, while remaining highly ergonomic and driver-focused. Material quality and color schemes seemed to hint at a touch more of upscale nature, especially when compared to the previous generation Accord.
So, the 1997 Toyota Camry and the 1998 Honda Accord, was one a better car than the other? That’s a question which, unfortunately, really can’t be answered. It’s like asking is red or white wine better; it’s a matter of preference (I personally prefer red, although I still get a taste for white every now and then).
It’s suffice to say that this generation Camry was the more reliable of the two, due to the Honda’s transmission issues. Like several other Honda products from this time, this generation Accord was prone to transmission failures in the 4-speed automatic, when mated to the V6, due to a defect in the torque converter. This issue prompted class-action lawsuits against Honda, and Honda extend warranties for some model years, replacing transmissions for other years on individual basis.
I’m sure in more recent years, many owners of these now elderly Accords simply chose not to replace transmissions, sending them to the great junkyard in the sky earlier than the Camry. That said, the Camry was not without its own reliability issues, specifically regarding engine, suspension, and brake issues. Despite the transmission issues, I still see just about as many of this generation Accord on the roads as Camry. I should also add that my aunt’s 1998 Accord EX V6 made it twelve years and over 200,000 miles before having any transmission issues.
Again, naming the “better car” of the two is a matter of deep-rooted opinion. Accord buyers tend to buy another Accord, and Camry buyers tend to buy another Camry. I’ll bet there are very few people who have switched between the Accord and Camry.
Now as you’ve probably detected by now, I’m more team Accord. Why is that? Well, as I’ve mentioned the Accord was, and continues to be a more dynamic entry in the mid-size segment. Offering better handling, what I feel to be more attractive styling, and better interiors, the less staid Accord is more my kind of car. In fact, I basically drive the slightly smaller European Accord, which I have nothing but praise for.
Additionally, as I mentioned, two of my aunts owned a 1997 Camry LE and a 1998 Accord EX. While there was nothing I particularly disliked about the Camry, there was just more I liked about the Accord. Both cars exhibited excellent fit-and-finish, and provided comfortable, composed rides, but the Accord always seemed a bit more fun. It’s rev-happy engine always produced more appealing sounds, and even as a passenger, it just seemed more confident at higher speeds.
But despite the 1997 Camry’s seemingly lack of major improvement and step backward in terms of styling, 1997 was the year the tides turned in the Camry’s favor. Beginning in 1997, the Toyota Camry would be the best selling car in its class, and the best selling car in America, a title it has held every year since, except for 2001. So, is Toyota’s softer, more conservative approach the key to success in this class?
It’s safe to say that both cars succeeded their intended missions, in being spacious, affordable, and durable family sedans, at the top of their class. Yet in creating these sedans, Toyota and Honda followed considerably different paths in their executions. Which car do you think pulled it off better?