“Gob smacked.” : Sure, that is a word more commonly heard in the streets of London than read in the pages of a magazine produced in the United States. But it is there in relation to a comment from Charlie Baker, Large Project Leader for the 2003 Honda Accord, a man who is recently back from two years in Japan, working on what is arguably the most European-influenced (i.e., overall design, interior cues) Accord for America ever designed and engineered. Gob smacked is how I felt after I heard him make the point in question.

Before we get to Baker, there’s Dan Bonawitz, vice president of Planning & Logistics for American Honda, whose observation makes what Baker says all the more astonishing. And Bonawitz says of the seventh-generation Accord: “We didn’t want to decontent the vehicle.” He says that they’re offering “more value at the same price range” as the ’02 model year Accord. For example, ABS is now standard on all Accords. And then he shows how there are more features in the sedans and coupes that range in price from some $15,000 to $26,000. And, not surprisingly, the ’03 models are actually bigger than the ’02.

And not only is the sheetmetal new, but there are different engines, to boot. There are a 160-hp, 2.4-liter, all-aluminum four-cylinder engine and 240-hp, 3.0-liter V6—which is substantially based on the predecessor but more advanced in a variety of ways—especially in that the horsepower rating is up by 40, and the torque is boosted from 195 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm to 212 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm.

Back to Baker.

Driven by Design. The reason he was in Japan was to lead the development of the vehicles. And the remarkable thing is not Baker’s mention that when they started the program they took 20% of the cost out of the vehicle, knowing full well that as they developed the car there would be money put back into it for things ranging from regulations to features to fixes. No, what is surprising is his comment, “Our philosophy is that cost is driven by design. We”—and he is referring to design engineers—”are responsible for design.” And what’s more, Baker states, “When you design in the Honda system, you are responsible for cost.”

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“Responsibility” is a non-trivial word in the Honda lexicon. According to Baker, the person who designs the part must provide a cost for that part. In order for there to be an assessment of the cost, it is necessary for the design engineer to indicate just how that part is going to be made: not only the material that it will be made out of, but even the machinery that will be used to transform that material. All the way to the design engineer knowing whether Honda or one of its suppliers has a particular piece of equipment with the required capacity to make the part. To simply design a part and say, in effect, “Here’s the part that I was supposed to design” is unconscionable in the Honda development system. There is an expectation that there will be a fully functional part developed, and “to develop” means to do a whole lot more than merely turn on a CAD system and generate a drawing.

  ’03 ’02
Wheelbase: 07.9 in. 106.9 in.
Overall length: 189.5 in. 189.4 in.
Overall width: 71.5 in. 70.3 in.
Overall height: 57.1 in. 56.9 in.
Interior volume: 116.7 ft3 115.8 ft3
If you want to know why the Accord is a perennial top-seller (it is worth noting that unlike some of its competitors, Honda doesn’t sell to fleets, so those people who buy the 400,000 or so Accords every year are actually, well, regular people), that design responsibility goes a long way toward explaining it. The company is able to create products packed full of content that don’t cost the proverbial arm and a leg.

Beyond the Verities. There is another interesting aspect about the discussion of the seventh-generation Accord (the others, in case you’re curious, are ’76, ’82, ’86, ’90, ’94, and ’98) in that whereas in 1991 the vehicle accounted for 61% of the company’s sales, in 2001 that figure was down to 40%—while the company’s number of units went from just over 600,000 to more than a million during that time. And as there are additional vehicles brought into the mix, such as the Pilot and the forthcoming Element, while the Accord will still be a major “pillar” in the structure of the company’s business, it will be less important, comparatively speaking. Which probably goes a long way toward explaining why the 2003 is probably the biggest design change in the vehicle since it went from the ’86 (flip-up headlamps) to the ’90 models, why the front end looks like something from Peugeot and the rear looks like it came from Alfa Romeo—and know that those references are being made in a positive manner.

Baker explains that while there were some verities related to the Accord—as in durability, quality and reliability (DQR)—and as they determined that 80% of Accord customer are repeat buyers who didn’t shop, the development team did look at what they were doing in the context of three other vehicles: the Toyota Camry, which is certainly the primary competitor; the Nissan Altima, which has undergone quite a transformation; the Volkswagen Passat, which is bringing in the valued young buyer. In Baker’s words, what they set out to do was “improve upon what the Accord already does, but gain some more passion.” In addition to the DQR (as well as the inherent safety and environmental characteristics), they wanted to add other characteristics: styling, performance, and sophistication. Those metrics are certainly more subjective than durability, quality and reliability.

But if attention to the details results in an overall improvement in vehicle acceptability, then the 2003 Accord will undoubtedly meet the measure. For example, although people don’t talk as much about “fit and finish” as they once did—presumably because companies like Honda and Toyota made that a fundamental requirement—it remains something that is still an area of improvement so far as Honda engineers are concerned. For the new vehicle, the gap between the front door and the fender is just 3.5 mm, from 5.0 mm on the current Accord. The front to rear door gap is now 4.0 mm, from 5.5 mm. And the gap between the rear door to the rear fender is 3.5 mm, from 4.0 mm. Even on the interior there is keen attention to detail, such as the use of a formed urethane insulator on the floor surface that allows the carpet surface to be perfectly flat. While I am doubtful that many people would notice a 0.5 mm improvement in a gap or pay much, if any, attention to the relative flatness of their floor carpeting, things like this help make a difference.

Additional Details. The whole notion of designers understanding the challenges of making something had a real test in the area where the A-pillar comes down to meet the front fender: it translates from a concave to a convex curve. Charlie Baker admits, “It took an incredible amount of work to get that right, to engineer the stamping dies that produce that part perfectly.” He adds, “I don’t know of any other company that would attempt it.”

They also changed the game in terms of the way the doors are assembled: there is a patent pending on it. Honda combined a multi-gage laser tailored blank that is fitted with a roll formed outer sash. The door structure is 25% more rigid than the door on the 2002 Accord, yet some 5% lighter. The window glass, incidentally, is nearly flush in relation to the sheet metal; it is actually formed so that it helps contribute to the aerodynamic profile of the vehicle.

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The list of engineering improvements is impressive. The body is lighter and stronger thanks to the use of high-strength steel: 48% of the structure uses the material. The front subframe uses hydroformed components for lightweight strength; the subframe is attached to the body with rubber floating mounts to minimize noise and vibration. To make the vehicle quieter without adding a whole lot of mass, materials were tailored to various applications, such as an acoustic roof lining between the headliner and roof sheet metal that consists of layered materials including fiberglass, adhesive, and urethane. The 2003 Accord has a two-network multiplex system: (1) the Body Control LAN (B-CAN) controls functions including power windows, relay modules, etc.; (2) the System Control LAN (F-CAN—with the F signifying fast, as it communicates at 500 Kbps vs. 33.33 Kbps for the B-CAN) controls the engine and transmission ECU.

The four-cylinder engine, which will account for an estimated 70% of all the Accords built, features not only Honda’s VTEC (variable valve timing and lift electronic control), but there is an “i” appended. The i-VTEC system adds continuous phase adjustment of the intake camshaft, which contributes to more horsepower and torque at lower rpm levels, improved fuel economy and lower emissions. Speaking of lower emissions: the new four-cylinder engine is rotated 180º compared with the placement of the engine in the 2002 model. This puts the catalytic converter closer to the exhaust manifold to facilitate quicker light-off.

Charlie Baker says that one thing that concerned them a bit when they were developing the 2003 Accord is the notion many people have that the Accord is a “rational” choice. And with the level of engineering that’s gone into it, it is certainly a reasonable choice. But thanks to the reputation for rationality, they have been able to develop a sedan and a coupe that begin to stretch the boundaries of midsize car respectability. It’s almost shocking.

By Gary S. Vasilash, Editor-In-Chief