Honda intends its new model to sit between the Mondeo and the Audi A4. John Simister tests them out

HONDA ACCORD 2.2 VTEC

A new nose and some mechanical massaging have breathed new life into Honda's understated, under-achieving Accord. But there's something missing ...

Students of biology call it convergent evolution. It's when different organisms, or parts of organisms, start off quite unlike each other, but end up similar. The eyes of an octopus are one example, for they resemble our own. The Honda Accord, were it an organism, would be another.

This is because the Accord, made in Swindon and launched in 1993, has lost its low, slotted nose and matt-black adornment and gained a conventional, chrome-edged radiator grille and smatterings of bright-metal embellishment. The idea is to make the Mondeo-and-a-bit-sized saloon look more upmarket. And the result is that it now resembles a Rover 600.

Maybe this isn't so surprising, for the Accord shares many genes with the Rover. In fact, under the skin they are nearly the same car, the Rover being a Roverised version of a model conceived when the two companies were cohabiting. For this mid-life revamp the Honda gets many more European- sourced components than it had, bringing it further into line with the Rover, and you can now buy a Rover-powered diesel version. The top Accord, however, gets a new 2.2-litre VTEC engine in place of the former 2.3-litre non-VTEC unit. And that's something you won't find in a Rover 600.

This VTEC version costs pounds 20,995, a handy pounds 3,000 less than you would pay for the Rover equivalent (the 623 GSi with the Accord's old engine). And the VTEC part - its acronym derives from its system of variable valve technology - is claimed to make the engine more economical without a performance sacrifice by altering the way each cylinder's pair of inlet valves opens at different times.

Does it work? It does, but the engine feels flat, as though in need of a service, when the valves are in their frugal mode. Stoke it up a bit, and the Honda proves lively and entertaining, as it should with 150bhp on tap. But the engine always sounds hammery, which detracts from the smooth running its pair of balancer shafts is supposed to ensure. There's a lot of piston rattle when the engine is cold, too.

The Accord VTEC comes with leather trim, some pretend wood on the dashboard, many electrical toys, and two airbags. Air conditioning, alloy wheels and anti-lock brakes are all standard, too. Subtle changes to the suspension are said to improve the previously pottery ride, and there's a new, UK- sourced power-steering system that gives a better feel of the road. But for all the agile handling and strong roadholding you're still more aware of activity underfoot than you would be in the Accord's most refined rivals. It makes the Honda feel surprisingly dated.

It's comfortable enough, though, and roomier than both a Mondeo and an Audi A4, between which the Accord is intended to sit in terms of status as a symbol. It feels solid and well made, too; all it lacks is the visual trigger to inspire a lust for ownership. Previously, the Accord looked unmistakably Honda-esque from the front, but that new nose, intended to conform to Honda's latest corporate look, is a dull piece of design. This is a shame, given that Honda used to be one of the more innovative Japanese manufacturers.

AUDI A4 1.8T SPORT

Audi's rival to the Accord oozes sculptured style and high technology. This is the sort of car Honda should be making ...

Not so long ago, BMW's 3-series had an image other manufacturers would kill for. Honda was one of those others, a company that has long thought of itself as the "Japanese BMW". Then Audi replaced its worthy but slightly stodgy 80 with the sleekly sculpted, immensely desirable A4, and in the process created a new icon for the aspirational.

It was the second stage of Audi's reinvention of itself as maker of dynamic, desirable cars (the all-aluminium, Jaguar-sized A8 was the first), and the A4's solid, wedge-profiled stance and its expensively furnished cabin have proved a hard combination to beat. The Audi backs up the visual promise with strong dynamic ability. It holds the road firmly and steers fluidly. And if you go for the 1.8 Turbo version, - at pounds 20,390 it costs slightly less than the Accord VTEC in normal trim, and at pounds 21,983 slightly more as a fat-wheeled, lower-riding, better-equipped Sport - you'll get considerably peppier performance too.

That may seem surprising, given that both the Audi and the Honda produce 150bhp, but the turbo-charged, five-valves-per-cylinder Audi has much more pulling power at lower engine speeds and virtually none of the delayed response to the accelerator that plagues some turbo cars. And the engine is quieter and more economical than the Accord's.

Less impressive is the rear legroom (frankly poor for a car this size) but it makes up for this with a huge boot. More important, though, is a solid feeling you get that it will last forever, as well as its arresting, unmistakably Audi looks. It has what car designers term "tension", a visual dynamism, power, a sense of identity that the Honda lacks.

Specification: price pounds 20,995. Engine: 2156cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 150bhp at 5,600rpm. Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 130mph, 0-60 in 9.2 seconds (manual). Fuel consumption 27-32mpg.

Specification: price pounds 21,983. Engine: 1781cc, four cylinders, 20 valves and turbocharger. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 140mph, 0-60 in 8.3 seconds. Fuel consumption 31-36mpg.

THE VERDICT

Rejuvenated as the Honda Accord may be, it remains unable to instil a sense of occasion in its occupants. It is practical and capable, but destined to remain in the shadow of its more expensive, more sparsely- equipped Rover 600 cousin simply because the Rover looks so much more interesting. The Honda has a better warranty than the Rover - two years instead of one - but that won't be enough to sway the decision.

Audi's excellent A4 1.8T is a far better bet than either of them, a car with upmarket credentials and bullet-proof build quality. It's also a lot of fun to drive.

Taken together, these attributes more than make up for a lack of standard equipment compared with the Honda. Servicing costs and depreciation rates should be similar, so there's no real reason not to enjoy the Audi. It's the only car that has taken BMW's 3-series on at its own game, and come out smiling.

THE BEST OF THE REST

BMW 320i pounds 20,195: gold standard, starting to tarnish now.

Citroen Xantia Activa pounds 18,825: rule-bending roadholding, vague steering.

Mercedes-Benz C200 Classic or Esprit pounds 21,150: solid quality.

Peugeot 406 2.0 Executive pounds 18,945: quiet, cosseting, capable, not so quick.

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