Vintage Reviews: 1998 Honda Accord – Blandtastic!

Think about a bowl of hot oatmeal for a moment.  It’s easy, affordable, good for you, gives you what you need and can be satisfying…. but it’s utterly unmemorable.  No pizzazz, no spark, just unadulterated competence to get the necessary job done.  Kind of like the 1998 Honda Accord.  Let’s go back to see how road testers loved—and lamented—Honda’s new 6th generation Accord.

Like clockwork, for 1998 Honda introduced a thoroughly redesigned Accord to start a new 4/5-year design cycle.  Like each preceding (and award-winning) generation of Accord, the 1998 version was refined and enhanced to meet evolving market needs and to ensure that the product was as fresh as could be, with up-to-date technology and enhanced packaging.  It didn’t matter if the car being replaced was still very good—the Japanese were relentless in continuous improvement.  Little wonder that the Accord had earned a spot on 11 of the 15 Car and Driver “10 Best” lists since the first one in 1983.

Honda also was looking to recapture lost ground in the sales race.  The Accord had toppled the Ford Taurus as the best selling car in America, from 1989 through 1991.  Ford regained the crown for 1992, reflecting the popularity of the conservatively restyled 2nd Generation Taurus.  But for 1997, America would get a new best selling car: the Toyota Camry (the radically redesigned 3rd Generation Taurus fell to 3rd place, despite enormous sales incentives).

With the Accord seemingly stuck in 2nd place in the U.S. car sales race, Honda adopted the old Avis Rent-A-Car advertising motto: “We’re #2, we try harder!”  The answer was to make a new Accord that was bigger, softer and more “American” to better compete in the ferociously contested Mid-Sized segment.  The strategy also included offering a more uniquely styled 2-door variant—shades of the old Mid-Sized Personal Luxury segment that had dominated U.S. sales charts for years—to attract Baby Boomers who were becoming Empty Nesters as their kids left home.  This newly differentiated Accord Coupe was the first of the new 1998 Accord line that Car and Driver reviewed in October 1997.

Though the new Accord Coupe had its own shorter wheelbase and unique styling, Honda was careful not to sacrifice too much practicality for style.  The net effect was adding just a bit of flair to a still very functional package.

The truth comes out: for years, one of the great things about Car and Driver was the bluntly honest “counterpoints” section which accompanied test drive articles.  As far as the Accord Coupe was concerned, C&D’s editors were lukewarm.  The car neither excelled as a style statement or sporty performer, nor was it as functional as the Accord Sedan.

That’s not to say that the new Accord didn’t have many virtues.  As usual with its generational redesigns, Honda made the Accord better from stem to stern, with a stiffer body and increased interior roominess.  Powertrains were better than ever, offering stronger, smoother performance with lower emissions—including the first mass-produced engine to meet California’s more stringent ULEV (Ultra Low-Emission Vehicle) requirements.  High efficiency was retained, and all engines ran on regular unleaded.

The profitable, high volume Accord was Honda’s “bread and butter” in the U.S. market, but while the Coupe was mere “butter,” the sedans represented the “bread.”  The 4-doors accounted for the majority of Accord sales, and it’s the model that showcased Honda’s conservative take on the needs of buyers in the American Mid-Sized segment.  So naturally Car and Driver was soon back with a full road test on the V6-powered Accord Sedan.

Once again, Car and Driver noted the abundant improvements that made the new Accord a stronger contender in the core of the American family sedan market.  But there was a huge caveat: the dishwater-dull styling did the car absolutely no favors.  Whatever dynamism the car possessed was suffocated under the ultra-conservative skin.  Not helping matters was the fact that the test car was painted Heather Mist Metallic (a generic “Champagne Beige” that was the “Harvest Gold” of the 1990s), a color that was seemingly ubiquitous on these cars, as well as similar shades on all its competitors.  This “beige-ness” came to define the Mid-Sized sedan market—and would ultimately lead to a slide in segment sales as buyers seeking more style and flavor would begin to gravitate to SUVs/CUVs and luxury brands.

Other than the crazy-looking 3rd Generation Ford Taurus with its oval overdose, all the mid-sized players were highly pragmatic but conventional and unremarkable designs that satisfied the left-brain “logical” buttons but inspired little of the right-brain “creative passion.”  In other words, perfect for the auto testers at Consumer Guide.

Sure enough, the Accord was awarded a “Best Buy” honor by Consumer Guide, and praised for its value, comfort, quality, solidity, performance and even handling.  The problem was, the same could pretty much be said for the Accord’s arch rival, Toyota’s Camry.

Also praised as a “Best Buy,” the Camry very closely matched the Accord against all criteria.  And the sedans even looked more similar than ever.  Thus began the “Camcord” era, when popular Mid-Sized sedans really blended together in a sea of anonymous conformity. Granted, it was better than the “OldsmoBuick” approach that GM applied in the 1980s—where identical platforms and powertrains were given minor cosmetic tweaks and cynically pawned-off as being “different” brands/models.  In this case, Honda and Toyota were fierce competitors who studied the American market closely and independently developed very similar answers to Mid-Size customer desires.  But the net effect was stultifying homogeneity.

When it comes to oatmeal, the brand most often associated with a steaming bowl of porridge is Quaker Oats.  Likewise, when it comes to benign and competent cars, it’s hard to dethrone King Toyota.  And such was the case in 1998, despite Honda’s best efforts.

Though it sold very well, and easily eclipsed the Taurus (especially if retail versus fleet sales are taken into account), the 6th Generation Accord was unable to knock out the Camry as the best-selling car in America but for one year—2001, when Toyota sold down inventory in anticipation of the all-new 2002 models (and the Camry would regain the title in 2002 and has remained #1 in U.S. car sales to this day).

So Honda is still #2 in the Mid-Sized segment, and once again seems to be trying harder with the introduction of the all-new 2018 Accord.  With the 10th Generation Accord, Honda appears to be rediscovering its dynamic roots: the newest Accord is sleeker and more memorable-looking than its recent predecessors, plus it has been praised for offering more enjoyable driver engagement than is typically found in a mid-sized sedan.

Unfortunately, the character injection may be too late.  Mid-Size segment sales have been dropping significantly in recent years (2017 was down 16% from 2016, which in turn was down 11% from 2015) as buyers migrate to other segments, particularly CUVs and SUVs.  After 20 years of bland mid-sized automotive oatmeal, as epitomized by cars like the 6th Generation Accord, it seems that buyers are clearly quite hungry for something with more flavor. Even at Honda, the Accord now trails both the CRV and Civic in sales volume, moving 322,655 units versus 377,895 and 377,286 respectively.

And as for the 6th Generation Accord itself, keep a lookout for them while they’re still around.  Like so many once popular but totally boring cars, this generation Accord—for years seemingly everywhere but completely invisible in all their Taffeta White, Satin Silver and Heather Mist glory—are starting to vanish from American roads.  Other than us CCers, will anyone even notice or care?