COAL: 2017 Honda Accord and 2020 Honda CR-V — Complete Confidence in Commuting Competence

What Honda flavor do you prefer? Low or high?

My COAL threads split into two, along the way. One thread was hobby cars and race cars (and daily drivers that turned into hobby cars and race cars), and the other thread followed the cars I actually drove on a daily basis, and which served no other purpose during my tenure with them.

This last COAL of my series wraps up the daily driving side on a high note, with a pair of Hondas, sequentially driven, that have provided nothing but dependable and predictable driving. They have done exactly what they have been asked to do, no more and no less. I think when one looks back at cars over time, what stands out is that the compromises in function, reliability, and economy have become so much smaller over the years. To flip it in the other, backwards-looking direction, car owners used to be expected to accept all sorts of major compromises, and the lack of compromises was more the exception to the rule.

The same basic transportation, but two different ways of going about it. Except for height, all the dimensions are basically the same.

Until it became time to photograph the engine rooms of these two Hondas, I had not once actually opened the hood and looked in there, for either car. I knew the Accord was a fuel-injected four-cylinder transversely mounted powerplant, and that the engine in the CR-V shrunk in size and added a turbo. But I never actually looked at or touched either engine (our daily drivers are regularly serviced by a professional mechanic, or irregularly serviced, in the case of the Hondas—only routine maintenance going on there).

The Accord engine room. Lots of space to work in there. “Earth Dreams VTEC”, whatever that means. Much plastic under here.

The engines provide just enough power for good get-up-and-go, but no more. Handling and braking are extremely competent, as long as one doesn’t ask for excessive things out of the cars. Everything feels calibrated precisely for the purpose of driving it somewhere in comfort and safety, but no more than that. No wasted space, excess power, or other capacities when they will (or should) not be asked for.

A bit less room to work, but not bad. “Earth Dreams Turbo”, this time. So there is a turbo under here, but it is not easy to find. It must be under the array of metal heat shields, near the exhaust manifold. This engine surges and hits power peaks and valleys a bit more than the non-turbo, when you get on the throttle. The downside of higher efficiency and better fuel mileage.

In the old days, cars were assembled out of on-hand parts, fitted to bodies and frames that were often designed to do whatever job was asked of them, but not necessarily engineered to work extremely well together. Drivers of cars from the ‘60s and ‘70s can recall all sorts of wasted and unused space in the big old cars. Power that could not efficiently be delivered to the driving wheels without careful application of the driver inputs. Alternatively, lack of power for the situation, where leaning fully into the throttle and waiting around for the car to get up to proper speed was the order of the day. Shredding the front tires in terminal understeer at speed, if one did not slow way down for the corners. Cars that would bottom out and go all squirrelly, as the solid axles, mounted to leaf springs in the rear, would bounce and vibrate over less-than-smooth road conditions. The cars could be fixed with hand tools and duct tape, but they needed to be fixed quite often, on the fly, as parts failed, assemblies disassembled themselves, and weird structural and bodywork failures would occasionally reveal themselves. Five or ten year old cars were considered ancient rattletraps, because they actually were rattletraps. It was how cars aged, in dog years compared to the current crop.

The Accord dashboard. Evocative of the old-school gauges, though it is mostly electronic now. 160 on the speedometer. Wait, what?

The daily driver thread crossed the threshold for me, when the Mazda RX-3s yielded to the RX-7s. For me, that was the crossover between a car being suitable but jumbled up and a bit uneven in reliability and execution, and a car in which I just drove it and did routine maintenance, and never gave too much thought to any annoying quirks or the likelihood of being stuck by the side of the road. Every daily driver since then, the trucks, the Intrepid, the Honda Odyssey, the PT Cruiser, the Ford Five Hundreds, and, finally, the two Hondas here, all have done their jobs well and with relatively little fuss and drama. Over time and through the string of cars, they have zeroed in on efficiency, on having all systems and functions working well together, and on offering lots of reliability. The continuum of all these attributes can be followed, to some sort of current high point with these latest Hondas.

The CR-V version, three years newer. No more physical gauges, but still a few sweeps, or “thermometers”, if you prefer. Digitization of the road speed is a mental adjustment, but I have done it. The automatic lane departure and braking functions are entering the picture now, and their operations flash and intrude on the heads-up display. Another mental adjustment in relating to the car. Constancy of function and physicality of the elements of communication and interaction are so “yesterday”.

That said, the personality seems to have drained out of the cars over time. While the Hondas still have some flashes of “Honda-ness” in their features, their styling, and the way the cars are put together and operate, it really is pale compared to the way cars stood out in the past. I think, to a great extent, it is due to the landscape of the current vehicle offerings being uniformly competent, efficient, and well-functioning in the interactions of the systems and in the overall “feel” of the car. I was actually underwhelmed in my recent first ride in a Tesla. Not because of any fault of the car, or even any real mediocrity. But instead because it was not that much of a step up from the Hondas. The Hondas are quiet, comfortable, and capable cars too. The Tesla takes all of it to a higher level, but the Hondas certainly exhibit an overall achievement that is extremely competent, and that is also way ahead of the cars of twenty or thirty years ago. There simply is no comparison, objectively speaking.

Subjectively, something has been lost even as other things have been gained. There used to be room to “improve” a car, both visually and functionally. I am not talking here about adding rake and Cragar “mag” wheels, and the things the kids would do to ruin nice cars by making them “cool” or “racy”. I am talking about careful choices of wheels and tires, or perhaps some paint or trim detailing. Raising or lowering one end or both ends of the car slightly. Finding combinations of parts and settings that filled up the wheel wells and improved grip and braking. Taking the styling elements of the car and bringing them out into a more satisfying iteration, perhaps getting closer to what the stylists had in mind before the realities of wheel and tire choice, ride height and bumper regulations, or manufacturing requirements and capabilities introduced all sorts of compromises. Engines could be made to run better and more smoothly. Steering could be quickened and tightened. Springs and shocks could be chosen and matched to make significant handling and ride improvements. It was all there for a “car guy” to exploit and to make the ride truly his own.

These days? Fergittaboudit. The manufacturers have optimized everything for you. Unless you want to enstupidate your car into a “Fast and Furious” machine, there is nothing to do to the car to change it, that would take any visual or mechanical element into much of a different direction from how it sits, right from the factory. The nice thing is that it is all done for you, and you are getting optimized and well-tailored cars. The bad thing is that there isn’t much room for constructive creativity. Is that a good thing, or is that a bad thing? Keep in mind that there are plenty of older cars that can be modified and improved, so the art of vehicular improvement through thoughtful modification is not over. It’s just that the major workovers are going to be on the older cars. The newer ones often offer small room for improvement in lighting, traction, power, or braking, but the changes are generally very incremental. One is not going to fundamentally transform that new car, at least not into anything that most people would consider any sort of improvement.

A little future project stashed in a corner of the Car Barn. One can hardly compare the crude and uneven qualities of a car like this with anything produced in the present day. Much has been gained, but has something been lost as well?

Back to the Hondas. In my opinion, they have done a great job. But line them up against Subarus, Hyundais, Toyotas, or Fords, and there isn’t very much difference, either in the specs or in the visuals, and in the capabilities and characteristics of how they operate. Differences, yes. Meaningful differences to most drivers and passengers, no, not generally.

This is one important reason to single out, talk about, and perpetuate both the existence and the understanding of what these older cars were, and what they meant to us. That is a basic function of this website, which serves as a sort of catalogue and a narrative of what came before and how we, as owners, drivers, and passengers, related to them. For car people, this is important work, and it means something. So while I don’t really have much to say about these Hondas, it does give me an opportunity to get on my little soapbox and talk about how great things are with the cars today, but also what has gone by the wayside along the way, with vestiges of the old ways that we see parked along the curbs and lodged in our memories.

Old school. Simple, crude, and eccentric. A base for substantial modification, experimentation, and improvement. Not the black-box, sealed up, but extremely capable cars of today.

As for me and my family, I expect the next car will be an EV of some sort. Our daily drivers “go with the flow”. There aren’t too many more new cars for us, in our future. The CR-V is showing the way in elements of “self-driving”, with lane departure warning functions, along with active braking and adaptive cruise control features. Before too long, they will be woven into elements of a real-world automatic-driving car. You can see it on the far horizon already.

As to the toys, I have added a couple of cheap and worn rubber-bumpered MG Midgets to the fleet, for experimentation purposes, and to see what I can do with bringing something basic and crude into a thing that functions more closely to current expectations. The cars are ridiculously small and unsafe, and sharing open roads with smartphone-distracted SUV drivers just seems completely inappropriate. But I do have close access to some rarely traveled winding back roads. So the twin SUs with the Triumph-based engine will be combined with brake and suspension work, and I will see where things go. Then perhaps weave it together with my yellow chrome bumper car, and do some old-school hot rodding. I’m going to leave the version of tuning by downloading readouts and flashing the computer chips to others. I am going to stay with carburetion, parts list mixing and matching, and throwing some old-time racing tricks at an old car. A car that is the absolute minimum in size and weight, which creates a sort of efficiency all its own. A size that can fit in a corner of the Car Barn. A car that is still rather cheap, unwanted, and ignored (the best kind, in my book). A car that might be able to be made into something others haven’t done before.

A present and future side-project. Can the vehicle dynamics be brought up to anything close to the present day, while preserving the old-school qualities and visceral feedback?

A header, Euro-spec twin SU HS-4 carburetors, and getting rid of anything unnecessary. How simple and light can I get this thing?

As to these COAL articles, thanks for sticking with me. I did this to share with you, but I really did it for myself. I always try to put anything I am doing, or paying attention to, into some sort of narrative. After all, storytelling is basic to the human experience. So is conversation, even if it is on-line. I am going to print out all of my COAL articles, along with all of your thoughtful and supportive comments, and bind it all up into a book, for me to keep. I don’t have some of the cars any more, but I do have the narrative, right here.

Oh, by the way, do I have any regrets or an unrealized bucket list? No, not really, except for a couple of things. My first RX-3, the red one, the one I made into my first autocross and race car, was the car in which I learned that I could take a car and make something different and better out of it, and completely personalize it. It was my “gateway car” to learning how to modify and transform a car, and it was fully realized into an autocross and club racing creation that was something I was very proud of. On purpose, I tore it down and cut it up, rather than selling it. It was my car, I built it with my own two hands into what I wanted it to be, and it wasn’t right that someone else would get a turn with it. Better to disassemble it. I think I got the idea from the book “Hot Rod”, by Henry Gregor Felsen. He wrote a whole series of young adult hot rod books. I read them all in junior high, and have not done so since, so I don’t know if they are any good. But they were a big deal to a thirteen-year-old. In that particular book, the main character’s own handbuilt hot rod led him and his friends into trouble. So he deliberately disassembled and destroyed his car. He was doing it as some sort of act of penance, and I was not, but the disassembly was part of the story for each of us, each for our own reasons. In hindsight, I wish I still had that car. That’s the only regret, and it is the only mental empty spot in my garage, but what is done is done. The second thing is that I aspire to drive a few laps in a dirt sprint car on a circle track. Everything else I want to do, drive, or own has already been realized. I’m a very lucky guy. My ratio of “want” to “done” is very high on the “done” side.

A book from my junior high days, with the period book cover and artwork. You could mount and frame that cover painting as a solid example of car kitsch art.

My own red “hot rod”. The one I built with my own hands, the one I wish I still had, and had not disassembled and cut into scrap.

Thank you, Paul, for the opportunity, and thank you, readers, for following along and for all of your great comments. My wife, Vicki, mentioned to me that the moderation on this site must be very good, to keep the comment section so constructive. I responded that Paul moderates carefully, but that the commenters here do their own great job, because its a car site, and we keep it about the cars and our experiences, encounters, and knowledge of them. Personally, I think this site is a (very specialized) oasis of sanity in a crazy internet and a crazy world. That quality has immense value, no matter any other valuable aspects of the site. But, then, we all seem to be grownups here, and that helps. See you around!