When Charlie Baker set out two years ago to redesign the Honda Accord, America's favorite family car, he spent many boring hours listening in on consumer focus groups. As the Honda chief engineer peered through a one-way mirror in a California research lab, he heard owners of his chief competitor, the Toyota Camry, drone on about their car as if it were a dependable household appliance. Drivers of his beloved Accord dutifully explained that they bought out of habit. But when the VW Passat owners appeared on the other side of the mirror, sporting piercings and goatees, they gushed about the Passat's sleek, industrial design and how cool they felt tooling around in the car. Stunned, Baker turned to a colleague and said: "Fifteen years ago, these were our buyers."
Honda, like many of its baby-boomer customers, is suffering a midlife crisis. And in September it will try to recapture its lost youth by unveiling a dramatic makeover of its flagship model, the Accord. Instead of trying to outmaneuver the Camry for the checkered flag in the annual sales race, Honda's new Accord emulates the upstart Passat, whose buyers are a decade younger than the 50-year-olds now driving the Accord. The strategy is ushering in a new era for the hotly contested $40 billion family-car market. The age of the sensible sedan--epitomized by the bulletproof quality but bland styling of the Camry and Accord--appears to be running out. Increasingly, car buyers want attitude. "If you put out an automotive appliance," explains auto-trend watcher Wes Brown, "no one under 35 will buy it."
To reach just those buyers, the new Accord features a scowling, cat-eyed look. While its sticker price is expected to stay in the $16,000-to-$26,000 range, little else remains the same. The Accord's drab, utilitarian interior gets a Teutonic transformation, with LED backlit gauges, a satin-nickel finish and an optional voice-activated navigation system. The new key has a button that lowers the windows remotely (the Passat has a similar feature). Honda is also souping up the car, boosting horsepower and engineering a sport-ier ride. "I'm going to start viewing the Accord as more of a sports sedan," says Car and Driver editor Csaba Csere, who gives the new Honda a rave in his latest issue.
But like every scheme to regain lost youth, Honda's makeover could backfire badly. Re-engineering the formula that made the Accord America's top-selling car last year might alienate legions of loyalists. "Everybody aspires to have a Ferrari," scoffs Steve Sturm, marketing chief for Toyota, which retooled the Camry last year to make it more luxurious, but kept the styling conservative. "But people buy family sedans for very traditional values." And they are notoriously unforgiving. Just ask Ford, which took a chance by transforming its '96 Taurus into what critics called "the fish-head car." Taurus sales plummeted. Honda insists it will avoid that fate by engineering the Accord with the gold-plated quality that's made it a hit with boomers for 20 years. But Honda contends that fighting it out over quality with Camry just isn't enough anymore. "Focusing on the Camry is a deathtrap," says Baker. If the Accord doesn't begin luring the buyers now smitten with the Passat, Honda execs fear that their marquee model will age its way to extinction like Oldsmobile. "If we just follow boomers, in 20 years we'll be developing cars for 60-year-olds," says Honda product planner Tim Benner.
VW couldn't be happier that the Accord is modeling itself on the Passat, which ranks No. 30 on the sales charts. "It is kind of flattering to have a big market leader like Honda take note of us," says Stefan Krebsfanger, VW's head of product strategy in the United States. The idea of Honda's chasing VW would have been a joke a decade ago. Back then, VW was so desperate to entice buyers that it strapped free bikes to the roofs of its cars. All that changed in 1998, when Beetlemania brought buyers back to VW showrooms, where they discovered the Passat, with its Bauhaus design. Passat sales soared sixfold in the past five years, and even Consumer Reports magazine fell breathlessly in love, crowning it the top family sedan. That's a blow to Honda, whose ration-al, left-brain owners consider Consumer Reports the buying bible. "We took Consumer Reports very, very seriously," says Baker. Despite the Accord's European makeover, Krebsfanger is skeptical it can match the Passat's cool quotient given Honda's lineup of practical family haulers. "The Accord could be the first step toward reviving emotion at Honda," he says. "But just one car will not accomplish that."
Straddling the lanes of emotion and sales has always been difficult for carmakers. The Accord has led the pack in both measures, but never at the same time. Back in the '80s you were a trendsetter if you drove the sporty Accord, with its pop-up headlights and zippy engine. But Honda went mainstream after the Accord toppled the Taurus in 1989 to become the top-selling car. In the '90s Honda added SUVs and minivans to its lineup, and sales grew more than 50 percent. The Accord became more substantial and stodgy, and remained the No. 1 or No. 2 seller for the past 10 years. "It is still by far our most important model," says Honda marketing chief Tom Elliott. But along the way to becoming one of the world's most profitable carmakers, Honda lost a step. Instead of setting the pace, it is now trying to catch up to the fashion-statement cars. "I didn't feel the Honda was as stylish or hip," says nurse Marjorie Bickerton, who just chose a $29,000 black Passat over an Accord. "The Passat was cooler."
It's too soon to say whether the new Accord will make Honda hip again. But their dealers can already bank on one buyer when it goes on sale Sept. 9. "When the first Accord is available," says VW's Krebsfanger, "our engineers will be there in the showroom to buy it." Honda can only hope a long line will keep those German engineers waiting.