Honda's latest executive car has a staggering array of safety gadgets. From the anti-slide system to the world's first automatic brakes, John Simister feels impregnable

Price: £36,250, or £39,000 with option pack. On sale from September
Engine: 3,471cc, V6 cylinders, 24 valves, 295bhp at 6,250rpm, 259lb ft at 5,000rpm
Transmission: five-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 155mph, 0 to 62mph in 7.3 seconds, 23.7mpg official average
CO2: 282g/km

You don't see many Honda Legends. Especially not the first one, even though it was just like a Rover 800 V6 under the skin and was even made in the UK in those far-off days when Honda and Rover were pals. The Legend is the second-most-invisible "executive" car after the Nissan Maxima/QX.

So, with this new and technically remarkable Legend, Honda isn't even going to try to curry corporate-buyer favour. Instead, it gently ridicules the status-affirmation of the BMW 5-series-driving "corporate conformist" and seeks to engage the "respected individualist", who is more likely to own a business than merely execute in one.

Fine. But you have to want a Legend to subscribe to this game, and up to now there has been no reason to do that. This time, though, the Legend assumes the mantle of technical flagship for an engineering-centred company, now that the all-aluminium NS-X supercar has gone. The new Legend is smaller than the old one outside but there's more room inside, thanks mainly to an engine mounted transversely. Its interior is meant to invoke an air of "sensuous functionality", and its low, fall-away dashboard with its slightly iDrive-esque controller would be attractive were it not for the expanse of plastic-looking (but real) wood.

Outside, it's neat and short-nosed and suggestive of a dynamic tautness entirely absent (both visually and actually) from the previous Legend. There is cleverness all over the place, but the greatest aspect is its Super Handling All-Wheel Drive.

Flashback to last October and Honda's test track on Hokkaido. There's a little graphic on the Legend's instrument panel that shows how much of the engine's effort is being diverted to each wheel. A bumpy, off-camber left-hand bend suddenly appears and I accelerate so hard around it that something untoward must happen. That's the idea, anyway.

But no. The graphic fleetingly tells me that all possible torque has been applied to the outside rear wheel - that's 70 per cent of the engine's total output - and so the tail is being pushed back into line with no loss of speed.

This last-October car is a Japanese-market version of the new Legend, so its suspension is soft and pillowy. And it's making for a wholly surreal driving experience. This car with all the floppiness of a superannuated New York taxi is holding the road and attacking the corners like a Subaru Impreza Turbo. The body is floating, but always in the right direction. I've never driven a car with a personality more fundamentally split.

The secret is what happens at or near the rear axle. There's no rear differential as such, but instead each rear halfshaft has an electromagnetic clutch. If one slips slightly, more torque is transferred to the opposite wheel. If both slip, more torque finds its way to the front wheels. The amount of slippage is controlled by computer, but there's a further ingredient to SH-AWD: the speed multiplier, a device that allows a difference between front and rear axle speeds.

This unit lets the rear wheels turn at up to 1.05 times the front wheels' speed. This seems insignificant, but it's enough to ensure the rear wheels are always able to transmit torque when needed, which is most of the time. It also allows for the fact that in fast cornering, the rear wheels scribe a course of larger radius than the front wheels, and so travel further.

What this system does is unique. And one of its merits is that if it detects the beginnings of a tailslide, it doesn't brake a wheel to put the Legend back on course, but instead accelerates the diagonally opposite one. The only other car able to do this is the Ferrari F430 with its rear electronic differential, but that of course doesn't combine it with four-wheel drive.

Back in October, then, I was astounded. But Honda knew it couldn't credibly sell such a softly-riding car in Europe, so firmer settings were promised. Now I'm in England trying a definitive UK-market Legend at Rockingham Raceway and the surrounding roads, and that sense of wonderful incongruity has gone.

On the track, SH-AWD makes for an amazingly agile Legend, albeit one that can powerslide into a total spin if the ESP is switched off. On the road, however, the suspension is now too far the other way: it's inappropriately firm and restless for a car like this, and makes you think the marvellous agility is down to that firm damping rather than the SH-AWD.

Also less than brilliant is the five-speed automatic transmission, which hangs on fractionally too long to the high gear before downshifting and thus feels like a stretched elastic band being released when the shift finally happens. The paddle-shifters on the wheel work well, though, and stay in a full manual mode when in use. As for pace, the 3.5-litre, 295bhp V6 is smooth and powerful.

So, an interesting drive but not as remarkable as that first encounter. And that other technology? As with Citroën's C6, the bonnet's rear edge springs upwards on impact to help protect pedestrians. And you can have an option pack with two clever bits of extra-sensory perception. The adaptive cruise control has a collision-mitigation system that automatically applies the brakes at up to 0.6G - it's the first true auto-braking system - if the radar senses an imminent impact, while simultaneously pre-tensioning the seatbelts. And there's a lane-keeping assistance system that automatically applies gentle inputs if the driver is wandering.

This system is deactivated if you take both hands off the steering wheel - so Honda hasn't given us the car that can steer itself. It could do, though. This is one not for the engineers but the lawyers. Who, as respected individualists, are perfect Legend customers.

The rivals

BMW 530i SE, £33,040

The archetypal 'corporate conformist' car: beautifully made, delightful to drive, and rear-wheel drive for a keener dynamic experience. Its smooth straight-six engine delivers 258bhp.

Citroën C6 Lignage 2.7 HDi £34,645

The greatest non-conformist of all. Hefty depreciation is predicted by tedious corporate price guides, but it's fabulously stylish and comfortable. Ultra-quiet V6 turbodiesel is the better version.

Lexus GS300 SE, £36,305

Rear-wheel drive like the BMW, but without that car's inviting driveability. This Lexus looks clean and sleek, is nicely made and can have a tamer version of the Legend's auto-braking system.

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