Curbside Classic: 1990 Honda Accord – Naturalized Citizen

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I wanted to post this car on the fourth of July; I really, really did. It was the best selling privately purchased passenger car in the US for the first two years of its production, and outdid many other born in the USA efforts. But it represented a very different way of making a car, being one of Honda’s last engineering-led efforts (famously running over budget).  So as this car is an almost-American, I’ll tell its story on almost-the-fourth.

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As a device conceived almost exclusively with North American customers in mind, unlike the hot-selling car which came before it, it’s almost mean to not consider it fully American, but it was still obvious this wasn’t the result Detroit’s business-as-usual.  During their first test of the new Accord, Car and Driver referred to it as “the last act in a debacle,” that debacle being The Big Three’s.  To provide a bit of context, this car hit the scene at the same time as the new GM10 sedans, and the JA-sedans from Chrysler (which never mounted an effective commercial challenge, anyway) were still far off.  Ford’s Taurus, despite being a larger affair, proved the only effective competitor to the much more compact third-generation Accord and thus, Honda upsized its biggest seller to match.

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That meant a change in design goals.  While the Accord was always conservative at heart, the late ’80s saw the car rocket to the top of the charts on account of its fresh design and subtle sporting ethos.  But making a safer, more refined car, better suited to automatic transmission duty and neglect in ownership was the goal in designing the fourth-generation Accord (code named the CB-series).  And where previous generations shared some fundamental DNA in terms of engines and transmissions, the 1990 Accord was truly an all-new car from top to bottom.

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A conservative restyle which ditched its predecessor’s aircraft style door frames and retractable headlights marked the new car as a decidedly family-friendly effort.  At the same time, a nearly five-inch stretch in wheelbase, a seven-inch increase in length and an officially large four-cylinder (2.2 liters) effectively moved the car solidly into midsize territory in terms of exterior dimensions and market placement.

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Interior space, mainly larger in front, was nevertheless skimpy given the expectations of American rear-seat passengers, and the car was still designated by the EPA as a compact, making its commercial success all the more impressive (and possibly related to the reputation of the outgoing Accord).  The contemporary VW Passat and upcoming Volvo 850 were brilliantly packaged, by comparison.

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Most of the extra space went to tilting the engine backward, and banishing any trace of front wheel well intrusion (which blighted both the roomy Volvo and VW); the rear suspension was still as bulky as ever.

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At a time when the Accord was facing larger, softer, often V6-powered competitors, Honda focused on quality and solidity, not sheer capacity or feature content.  Indeed, sparse equipment levels and overall blandness became sore points that cost the car sales by the end of its life cycle.  It was a reversal of the sales pattern of the 1986-1989 car, which sold the greatest number of units at the end of its life cycle.

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In fact, sales for 1993 were down thirty-percent from 1992 levels and Honda began marketing value packages and lease specials that year.  The whole company was actually in a degree of trouble and that meant the car which came after in 1994 was very much a repackaged version of the white car we see here.  In fact, basic parts of the architecture were even carried over to the 1998-2002 model, if one ignores that car’s optional V6 and then-new rear suspension.  That the Accord continued to remain thoroughly contemporary in terms of its road manners and safety speaks to the solidity of the 1990 design, which was one of the last Hondas conceived when engineers were allowed to run the show.

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The thoroughness of their efforts is evident in terms of longevity, which is beyond what the third generation cars could muster.  I would even argue that these (we’ll also include the 94-97) are some of the most bullet-proof cars of the past twenty-five years.  I simply had to take pictures of this particular car, since it’s uncommonly rust-free, and as an LX, with 1990-only black mirrors, represents the car in its first year of production in its most common trim.

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It’s also very dull to look at in its filthy condition with white paint (another white Curbside Classic for Perry).  Paul has run an article about these serving as Eugene taxis and they’re well-suited to the task, despite being seldom used in fleets.  As long as you change the timing belt, these cars can generally be neglected, though you’ll pay out the nose for a front brake job because of a hub-over-rotor design, and the occasional main relay or distributor might put you out of commission for a bit.

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So if attention to detail, quality and a rewarding driving and ownership experience explains the car’s success, let’s see how these measures expressed themselves in the new car.  A good place to start, as always, is under the hood.  Honda avoided stuffing a V6 in the Accord’s engine bay, though it was supposedly what everyone wanted.  Competitor’s V6s made in the range of 135-160 horsepower, though the ones which offered solid torque ran out of breath higher up the rev range.  Honda’s response to this was to tune its new 2.2 for a solid upper midrange, at the expense of top-end rush; compensation for its smaller displacement was achieved through low gearing.

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This meant a lot of high-rpm upshifts in normal driving; indeed, the new electronically controlled (finally) automatic refused to shift up to second below about 2,700 rpm even under the lightest applications of throttle.  When that shift would finally occur, it’d be accompanied by a jerk.  It was an idiosyncrasy which would be exorcised in later models, but it avoided wasting power and preserved the clutches inside the transmission (the 98-02 model’s automatic was smoother but not as hardy).

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In contrast was the balance-shafted 2.2’s uncanny smoothness; no large-displacement four was as free of harshness in the ’90s and even today, despite the loudness when compared to new cars, it’s hard to call this a harsh engine.  One could argue that GM’s 2.8/3.1 and Ford’s Vulcan V6s were rougher runners.  Buyers who opted for the manual transmission, now cable operated and transmitting power through a hydraulically actuated clutch, naturally got the most out of the driving experience, but Honda’s adherence to the four-cylinder was largely free of sacrifice either way.  The grudging addition of the original Legend’s 2.7 liter V6 for the 1995-1997 model years (in what was fundamentally a very similar car, remember) made only a small difference in the car’s performance.

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The new platform was also a major change, though the layout was much the same.  The feeling of a somewhat delicate, fragile car with light control inputs perpetually running at the top of its suspension travel was gone.  The surefootedness of the new car was limited mainly due to small tires and a very deliberate balance to understeer.  It’s rare to meet an owner of any 1990-1993 Accord who didn’t genuinely enjoy driving their car, which was a key point of distinction versus rivals, but the chassis itself was capable of far more than what Honda’s product planning ultimately specified.

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In terms of interior ambiance, the new car also managed to stand head and shoulders about the competition.  Upholstered surfaces were of high-quality and in abundance and the new dashboard was a soft, richly grained, one-piece moulding.   The cowl remained very low while the seats lost their butt-on-the-floor position and gained quite a bit of firmness, making the car far more hospitable to larger drivers.

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Like the 1992 Camry, but possibly even more so, the materials used wouldn’t be out of place in a much more expensive car, though this would be the last Accord for which this was true.

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There were other signs of overspending on engineering in overseas models, with twin-cam motors and such options as four-wheel steering offered despite a size, badge and layout which meant the car could never be popular.  Here in the US, that would’ve trampled on the toes of cars like the Prelude (which the Accord coupe killed anyway) and Vigor, and that speaks to Honda’s predicament both at the time and today.

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Unlike Toyota, which could upgrade the hell out of the Camry, giving it room to grow, while offering very Japan-centric cars at home and a bevy of luxury models in the US, Honda didn’t have the budget to simultaneously enlarge the Accord and keep the rest of its line-up healthy.  It’s particularly sad when you consider that their reputation was such that cars like the original Legend were met with such universal acceptance while people waited and paid sticker for whatever Honda dealers were cranking out in the ’80s.  Of all the Japanese makes, Honda was in the best position to aspire toward a premium image.

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Would it have made sense for Honda to keep the Accord smaller while pursuing its evolution as a sports sedan?  That’s certainly an odd question to ask when analyzing what seems like a home run.  But the 1990 Accord was a flop in Japan, and remained so until the 1998 models strayed from the “world car” formula, and the popularity of its decidedly compact predecessor begs the question as to whether taking on the Taurus and GM10 with a larger car was absolutely necessary.

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While the ultimate failure of such cars as the pre-2002 Altima, or the somewhat posh and very sporty 2005-2009 Legacy calls into question any future the Accord may have had as a leaner, meaner car, Honda’s family sedan was a phenomenon of its own, not merely another contender in the midsize market.  The inability of big softies like the ’96 Taurus to unseat the 1994-1997 car shows that it often set the trend in spite of its size.  And even the cheaper, big-selling 1997 Camry had to rely on fleet sales to out-do the Accord.

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Add in the potential for better overseas sales of a smaller, sportier Accord, lessened development costs and more breathing room for upscale models in the US and you have interesting “what-if?”  As a Honda fan, it’s a tempting idea which could spark hours of lively debate, but at the end of the day, the most sure-fire path to profit was what mattered.  Having a much more US-centric business plan than either Nissan or Toyota meant that demands of the Accord’s core North American buyers would win out, even with engineers running management.  Even still, the CB-series Accord maintained its fair share of eccentricities and remained a Honda, first and foremost.  That makes its adoption of American mainstream virtues a classic immigrant success story.

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Related reading:

Taxis Of Eugene Outtake: Honda Accord – An Old One At That

1996 Honda Accord Wagon: You Might Think It Was the Last of the Breed

1986-1989 Honda Accord: Ignoring The Future In Favor Of The Present