Rarely Spotted, but Ready for Flight

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TESTED 2013 Honda Accord EX-L Coupe

WHAT IS IT? A mildly less responsible version of the latest Accord family sedan.

HOW MUCH? $24,140 to start; as tested, $33,140.

WHAT MAKES IT RUN? A 185-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder or a 278-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6.

HOW QUICK IS IT? Enough to take so-called sportier cars by surprise.

IS IT THIRSTY? Mileage ranges from an E.P.A. rating of 26 m.p.g. in town and 35 highway for the base engine with a continuously variable transmission to a worst-case 18/28 for a manual-shift V-6.

ALTERNATIVES: Nissan Altima coupe or, stretching things a bit, a Chevrolet Camaro or Ford Mustang.

FLASHING its bright red plumage, the bird that flitted onto my street one late-autumn morning was from a rare species.

First, this was a generously proportioned two-door coupe, an infrequent sight in a country that prefers family cars that have four doors. Second, this coupe had a manual transmission, adding grace to its thrumming V-6 heart. Finally, this was a Honda -- not drab, gray and common, but in return-to-Capistrano form, a class leader that even the most cynical spotter might call handsome.

Between Japan's tragic tsunami and the company's seeming complacency, Honda has been in a funk, demoted from its first-string status in design or innovation. Models like the CR-V crossover wagon remain top sellers, but too many of Honda's makeovers have come across as placeholders, not the trendsetters we've come to expect.

Whatever was ailing Honda, the new Accord is a remarkable return to form, both as bread-and-butter sedans and the dessert course of coupes. Flinging the sweetened coupe around New York, snicking its delightful shifter, I was reminded of some of the best-driving Hondas (the CRX Si, for instance) and Acuras (the Integra).

Sure, Accords have always driven well. But the coupe reminded me that design and materials matter more than ever; that a graceful exterior and expensive-looking cabin can make a car seem revolutionary even when it's not.

Whoever drew the Accord Coupe deserves a pay raise. Dual character lines tango down the sides. Tasteful brightwork highlights kinked rear window frames, tented by a graceful radius of metal. The rear end, with its swelling lip and trunk lid, is the kind of complex-to-manufacture shape once reserved for luxury cars.

If I remained unconvinced, the motorists who rolled down their windows to praise the car sealed the case: "How's it drive?" a man driving alongside shouted. "It looks great, a lot like an Audi A5."

A Honda that looks like an Audi? I hadn't heard that one before.

The haphazard air that permeated the interior of the previous-generation Accord has also been banished. Replacing it is one of the smartest cabins in the class, with well-shaped seats and gauges that mimic the dials of a chunky chronograph.

With Honda's optional LaneWatch, flicking the right turn signal activates a camera to bring up a view of the right-hand lane. Displayed on the navigation screen, it's the sharpest high-res image I've seen in an automobile, and it seems tailor-made for safeguarding Manhattan bicyclists lurking in the blind spot.

There's still a bit of Honda's hall-monitor feel, with tedious screen menus and layers of redundancy that can seem like overkill. A smaller, optional HondaLink touch screen, below the main eight-inch display, connects smartphones via USB cable to manage Internet media. But when HondaLink isn't in use, its screen is wholly redundant to the main display.

Trimming about two inches from the sedan's length and wheelbase, and an inch in height, the Coupe loses some practicality: rear legroom shrinks by five inches and the trunk is about 15 percent smaller. Yet this is still a spacious midsize car, a grown-up's version of the buzzier, cheaper compacts of old.

This is the quietest, most solid Accord yet, a plush cruiser that becomes pleasingly taut and composed through curves. And once the children are snug in bed, parents can relive their wilder years -- especially if they have chosen the 278-horse V-6. Car and Driver hustled the V-6 Coupe from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 5.6 seconds, quick enough to match 6-cylinder Mustangs or Camaros.

The coupe offers more frugal 4-cylinder versions with either a manual or a continuously variable transmission. Manual-shift V-6 models do without the fuel-saving cylinder-shutoff system found on automatic V-6 Coupes.

Honda expects about one in seven Accord buyers to choose the coupe. Of those, one in three will spring for a V-6. Just 7 percent of those will choose the manual. Punching my calculator, only 1 in 300 Accords will be a V-6 manual Coupe, or barely 1,000 cars a year.

Keep binoculars and a field guide handy. Even with Honda aiming for 350,000 annual Accord sales, the V-6 Coupe is the exotic, fleet bird of the Accord family.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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