Much has been written about how Japanese cars, especially Hondas and Toyotas, reached the zenith of their quality and refinement during the period from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. Honda, for instance, was on an every four-year model cycle with its Accord and Civic, leapfrogging the competition and leaving hapless companies like GM lagging behind just as they thought they were catching up (Saturn- cough, cough!). Not only were the Japanese rolling out all-new models at a dizzying pace, the cars themselves were all-stars; lovingly built, highly refined, and, in some cases, eminently desirable. This is the era that gave us the Acura Legend, the Lexus LS 400, and the 4th and 5th generation Honda Accords. And by crikey, it just so happens that a 5th-generation Accord is the subject of this COAL installment.
How did Ms. D and I go from a rinky-dink crackerbox like the Saturn to one of the most vaunted Accords of all of Accord-dom? The clue is in the color: Heather Mist Metallic. What? You mean, you liked that color so much, you just had to get one? I mean, whatever rocks your funky world, Matt, but I gotta question your aesthetic preferences… No, that’s not what I mean.
You see, Ms. D’s parents bought a brand new 1996 Accord to replace their 1988 Chevy Corsica. For a comparison metaphor, that’s like going from a stone tablet and chisel to an iPad overnight, or from The Shaggs to Beyoncé. At the time, they were in their early 60s, so they chose a color that was obviously conceived for their play-it-safe, don’t-pay-attention-to-me demographic: the aforementioned Heather Mist Metallic. You can see the color clearly in the photo at top, but if you tried to describe it to someone who had never seen it, what would you say? It clearly wasn’t gold, but it wasn’t exactly silver, either. Kind of in-between? With a hint of beige? Not exactly eye candy.
Despite the ho-hum paint-job it was a fabulous car, but my father-in-law (we’ll call him “Mr. O”), soon craved more power. The Accord was equipped with Honda’s 2.2-liter SOHC four, good for about 130 horses. Not bad for the standards of the day, but not particularly powerful, either. By 2000, he had his eye on a 6th-generation Accord, specifically the one with the 200 hp 3.0L V6.
One hot summer day in Medford (which is pretty much every summer day in Medford) in 2000, Mr. and Mrs. O were down from Vancouver, Washington for a visit. Our daughter was now almost three, and they, being grandparents, couldn’t get enough of her. I was working at my computer in the kitchen while the Os chatted away with my wife. I started to overhear bits of their conversation. They were ready to buy the Accord V-6 and wanted to offer us their current Honda at a ridiculously low price. I rolled my chair into the kitchen entryway where I could look into the living room. “Oh?” I said rather nonchalantly, trying to mask the excitement brewing within. “We’d love to have the Accord. It’s certainly roomier than the Saturn (and better built, and nicer to drive, and not an embarrassment…).”
So Ms. D and I drove the Saturn (I think we strapped Miss E—our daughter—in Grandpa and Grandma’s car) up to Portland where Mr. and Mrs. O bought a new 2000 Accord V6. It sported another non-color, “signet silver metallic,” which was sort of a grayish-lavender, not unlike used chewing gum. There we gave them the Saturn to trade-in and we took possession of the ’96 Accord. Let’s just say the drive back to Medford was one of the nicest car rides we ever took as a married couple.
Compared to the Saturn, and that’s not a very fair comparison—more akin to comparing Cheetos to foie gras—the Accord oozed refinement. Honda interiors of that era were some of the best ever. Acres of soft-touch materials (especially on the dash top and door panels), switch gear and other fiddly bits that moved/clicked with a confident authority, and firm yet comfortable seats that felt like they could go the distance, which in an Accord potentially meant hundreds of thousands of miles. Driving the car felt like riding on a cloud compared to the old Saturn. No doubt it gave that impression because we had made such a drastic leap in automotive quality. In reality, the Accord was very much a compact car: there was some road noise and of course you felt some bumps and rough roads. The difference was that the Saturn complained, sometimes bitterly, about road imperfections whereas the Accord was zen-like, taking them in stride.
I knew the Accord would be an excellent car because dad traded in his ’88 Mazda for a ’92 Accord LX. There was nothing was wrong with the Mazda, he just wanted a 5-speed manual. I think that was the closest he came to buying a “mid-life crisis” car. His Honda was a sweet ride though, and I got to drive it over the Greensprings once, which was fun with a capital F. Being equipped with a 4-speed auto, our ’96 didn’t feel quite as sporty. And although it still had the double-wishbones, I swear to this day that it didn’t handle quite as nicely as dad’s Accord. Nothing bad, but it just felt like there was a tad more body roll in corners compared to the ’92. Maybe some Hondaphile here can enlighten me.
Minor complaints, though. The Accord was by far the best car we had ever owned. And now it was the family car*, soon with a crayon melted on the back seat to prove it. It served us eminently well in that capacity and it was Miss E’s taxi from ages 3 to 12. We had no problems except for the time one of the door-handle moldings cracked, but that was after 180K and thousands of tugs on the handle. Otherwise, it was just routine maintenance and the occasional new tires and batteries. One of my only complaints, if you must call it that, was that we had to be religious about changing the timing belt every 80,000 miles. Accords of that era had “interference” engines, and our mechanic drilled it into our heads to get that belt changed before it broke or else the valves would be toast. Because they had to pull the engine to change the belt (thanks, Honda), it was a $600 job. But at least we could plan for that.
Oh, wait…I do have one more gripe and it has nothing to do with the mechanics of the car. It’s that color. It’s not an offensive color; really it’s not much of a color at all. And I could have lived with it if weren’t for the fact that you couldn’t swing a dead possum in any direction without hitting another Accord painted Heather Mist Metallic. Whenever we would park in a large parking lot, there were bound to be 2-3 other identically colored ‘94-‘97 Accords, so we had to make a careful mental note of our specific spot. I almost felt like attaching some sort of tall flag to the car just to make the job easier. But that would have looked ridiculous, of course. So would swinging a dead possum, for that matter.
As with the Tercel and even the Saturn, I took this car on roads where others might have wanted a more rugged vehicle. The Accord performed more than adequately for these trips. In the summer of 2006, Dad and I made a pilgrimage to the “Sacred Fly Fishing Grounds”: Lee Thomas Meadow on the north fork of the Sprague River between Klamath Falls and Lakeview. To get there, you have to drive about 20 miles on unpaved forest service roads- both red-cinder and gravel. The location lies above 6,200 feet in elevation and is buried deep within the Fremont-Winema National Forest. After dad fished (I took photos), we took more Forest Service roads to seek out stands of impressively large Ponderosa pines.
The Honda was perfectly suited for trips into the “outback” like that. I remember about 12 years earlier, just after grandpa died, my dad and I went fishing with Carl, one of grandpa’s old fishing buddies. Carl had a 1990 Accord coupe and when we picked him up, it was sitting in his driveway. I noticed on the nose of Carl’s car constellations of dimples and pock-marks- likely from the thousands of micro-projectiles you’ll stir up by driving on the very same red cinder and gravel roads dad and I drove on during our 2006 trip. Carl saw my Dad’s Accord. “You know Rod,” Carl said in his folksy rural Oregon twang (yes, there is such a thing), “them little cars are hard to beat.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. We drove ours from 63,000 to 239,000 miles and could have probably put a lot more miles on it if not for that interference engine Achilles heel. More about that in my next installment.
*You may have noticed that in all the COALS I’ve posted so far, Ms. D and I seem to only have one car. That was very much the case until 2014, actually. How did we manage? We did just fine, thank you. Cars are expensive to own and maintain, so we didn’t get a second car until it was absolutely necessary. You’ll read about that in an upcoming COAL.