DETROIT — Honda wants to silence its critics when it rolls out the new Accord this week.
The automaker, chastened for cheapening the Civic compact earlier this year, says that won't happen with the midsize Accord.
It better not. The sedan is up against the toughest competition it's ever seen.
It faces a new Nissan Altima that leads midsize sedans in highway fuel economy at 38 miles per gallon, and a revamped Toyota Camry that has cemented its place as the best-selling car in America. The stylish Hyundai Sonata, the redesigned and lower-priced Volkswagen Passat, and a new, more efficient Chevrolet Malibu also are on sale. And then there's the European-looking Ford Fusion due out in the fall.
"It's certainly a battle royal in the midsize sedan segment," says Sage Marie, a Honda public relations executive who is coordinating the Accord's marketing launch. "And we have a lot of confidence."
Just five years ago, leading the midsize segment wasn't that difficult. It was pretty much a two-car contest between Accord and Camry, with the Altima a distant third. Camry and Accord still lead, but in the past few years, other car companies have upped their games. American, South Korean and German rivals are chipping away at their sales.
"Honda and Toyota can no longer take it for granted that this is going to be a two-horse race," says Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence for the TrueCar.com auto pricing service. "It's a remarkable change, how competitive the segment has become."
The new Accord has a fresh athletic look and nicer interior. Honda says it's aiming to beat Camry in sales to individual buyers. That excludes sales to rental car companies and other fleet buyers.
The company has released only a few details about the 2013 five-seat Accord, which it will start making Monday at its factory in Marysville, Ohio. It says the Accord's fuel economy with be competitive with the Altima. And the price will be similar to the current Accord, which starts at $21,480.
The car's look is still conservative, and in pictures, it resembles the 2012 version. But side creases give the new version a little more style. And the front and rear look more aggressive and athletic.
The car is a little smaller on the outside and bigger on the inside, says Marie. It is shorter — making it easier to handle and park — and more aerodynamic, giving it better gas mileage.
The Accord's door lines were lowered and the glass area enlarged so the driver and passengers can see better, Marie says. The changes buck the industry trend of making doors taller and windows smaller.
The car also will get all-new engines and transmissions, including a four-cylinder engine with direct fuel injection, a technology that uses less gas by mixing it with air in the cylinder. The new Accord also has a continuously variable transmission that doesn't shift gears. That allows the engine to work at the optimal level regardless of speed.
Honda also went against trends by giving buyers the option of a V-6 engine. Hyundai, Ford and Chevrolet offer only four-cylinders in their new midsize cars. Marie says Honda kept the V-6 because it is smooth and powerful. A new V-6 will get gas mileage that's similar to rivals' four-cylinder motors, he says.
Honda hasn't released any pictures of the interior, which Marie promises will have rich materials and a high level of craftsmanship.
After decades of being the most popular segment among U.S. buyers, midsize cars saw their market share start to drop in 2009 as automakers improved compacts and smaller SUVs. So far this year, though, the midsize sedan is back. Its market share is 18.6 percent, up almost two percentage points from 2011.
Analysts say it's because baby boomers still are downsizing from larger vehicles, and they are attracted to the roominess and fuel economy of the improved sedans. The Altima, for instance, gets highway mileage that is just under the best compact cars. Versions of the Fusion and Malibu get 37 mpg on the highway, a mile per gallon shy of the Altima.
With the new Accord, Honda clearly is trying to avoid the kind of criticism it got for the Civic. Consumer Reports panned the new Civic earlier in the year and repeated the criticism in the September issue, putting the Honda on a list of five popular cars to avoid. Although it is still reliable and efficient, the Civic has a choppy ride, noisy cabin and a mediocre interior, the magazine says.
While the criticism hasn't hurt Civic sales, it has cost Honda. The car led all compacts last month with sales topping 25,000. But Honda is now spending $1,550 per Civic on incentives, $250 above the industry's small-car average, according to TrueCar. Civic discounts were $1,400 higher than Hyundai's Elantra, $450 more than the Chevy Cruze, and $350 higher than the Ford Focus.
Honda, realizing the competition had gotten better, is reworking the 2012 Civic to fix some of the problems.
"We need to see if Honda has learned from Civic and what they've applied to the Accord," says Aaron Bragman, an auto industry analyst for the IHS consulting firm.
Glenn Mears, who owns Nissan and Honda dealerships around Dover, Ohio, south of Canton, has seen the new Accord. He is betting it will live up to expectations, and is thrilled to have two strong cars to sell against rival dealers.
"It should help me dominate my market," he says, "or at least get more of the market than I have right now."