LJK Setright on Hondas: CAR+ archive, September 1985

Published: 09 September 1985

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How often have drivers been exonerated from responsibility for accidents because their cars accidentally skidded? Too often, I do not doubt; I once heard of a case where some errant motorist was admonished by the magistrates to the effect that a good driver never had a skid ‘except by accident’. The truth ought to be that a good driver never skids otherwise then deliberately; as the police instructors put it, if you are driving according to The Book you cannot have an accident. 

The same must be true of all skids, whether of one tyre or more. It ought to follow that a good driver never experiences the locking of a single brake; and indeed if one knew that it was likely to happen one would take care that it did not. It is an eventuality which cannot always be reasonable foreseen, however, and this creates a predicament not unlike that foreseen by the ancient sage who advised that is should be sufficient to repent of one’s misdemeanours on the day before death.

There is accordingly a very good case to be made for anti-lock braking systems. One of them recently advised me that, but for its intervention, I might have locked a brake. I was driving a Honda Accord EXR into a rather interesting little roundabout, approached by a right-handed curve and located on the side of a hill so that there were two very pronounced changes of road-camber at the entrance and the opposite exit. Braking smartly from a considerable speed, I felt the pedal suddenly tremble beneath my foot, telling me that the anti-lock system (standard in this Honda) was working on my behalf. The concrete road was hot and bone dry, and I was not braking all that heavily – but the first camber-change would have occasioned the incipient lock-up, as the road fell away to one side leaving the tyres on that side suddenly unloaded and deprived of much of their grip. Without so much as unpremeditated wriggle, the Honda sped through the roundabout and powered serenely out of it, leaving me musing on the pedal’s statement of what might have happened. 

It was all part of the EXR service in this most expensive and most impressive of Accords. The basic four-door Accord has astonishingly full specifications, considering its price, but the EXR has everything imaginable and has it as standard: power steering, electric roof-glass, central locking, the same splendid 1.8litre 12valve engine as the Prelude, and Honda’s own anti-lock braking system. About the only option is between two transmissions that are likewise both Honda’s own, a five-speed synchromesh box that I already know and like, or (as in this instance) a four-speed automatic with a lock-up clutch to take the fluid converter coupling out of the transmissions circuit when it is not needed. 

Honda, who have always made exceptionally good and efficient converter couplings, are very proud of this automatic. The highest gear is in effect an overdrive and can be levered out of the way when one is hustling the car; the lock-up is load-sensitive and acts more smoothly than the Ford or ZF types. I still prefer the old Hondamatic, where automation was limited to liberation of the left foot and the driver’s brain was treated as the computer-in-charge; but there are drivers in some parts of the world who do not expect to sue theirs brains for such menial purposes, and Honda had to fall into line with all the others. It is such a shame when (as we have also seen with Citroen) Honda have to do what others do (albeit rather better) instead of doing their own thing which is so much better still. 

It would also be a shame if I were to echo the many others who have identified this Accord as a high-quality car on the strength of its finish and its furniture. To contradict them would be wrong, but to reiterate that long list of delightful details would be unproductive. It were better that I confirm the car’s status by praising the uncommon precision of everything in and about it. Every control, major and minor, was as positive and (where appropriate) progressive as could be desired, when many in other cars costing twice as much leave a very great deal to be desired. 

The speedometer (on which I saw 108mph in a gusty crosswind that cannot have helped) turned out to be one of the most accurate that I have checked in years. Its needle could be unshakably pinned there by the cruise control, which worked with none of the vague approximations encountered in others: when ordered to resume its function after a cancellation, it responded with as much acceleration as might be consistent with tolerable economy and ease. Nor was it fuddled, as some are, by the need to change gear to achieve its ends: at its behest, the automatic would drop to a more favourable ratio if there were a lot of speed to be recovered against an adverse gradient. 

A car that knows how fast it is going and behaves accordingly is a car to appreciate. Like the Prelude, this one even has speed-sensitive power steering, the servo effect being graded according to road speed and not, as so many others so stupidly arrange matters, according to engine speed. The steering, too, is precise; about the only thing that would make it better – about the only thing needed to make the whole car better – would be wider wheels and better tyres than the faintly inadequate 165 SR13 Michelin XZXs that it wore. 

The same sole serious shortcoming was evident in the Civic GT that I tried a little earlier. The modern third-generation Civic is a brilliant coup-de-maitre, with hatchback and CRX vying energetically for my special favour. Now that there is a GT version of the hatchback, employing the same ultra-responsive engine and other mechanicals as the CRX, the appeal of this lustrous little beauty is even more energetic than it was before. 

Its beauty is cumulative, the result of a list of lovely engineering details long enough to keep me spouting praise for ages, interrupted only by some doubt about the seat, which induced too much spinal lordosis to be good for me though it might fit you. Like the Fiat Uno (the only other small hatchback to be really praiseworthy) the Honda defies judgement by numbers: its performance figures may not look as good on paper as those of certain European firms’ GT-eyewash, but the Civic is so well shaped, so well behaved, and so usefully geared, that it covers the ground at least as well. For instance the fact that much of a certain 64mile journey was on a motorway does not detract from the sheer ease with which the Civic completed it in 42 minutes, without a trace of the familiar French or German GT-eyestrain. 

Annoyingly, the Honda does not corner as fast as those rivals, though it feels and ought to be their superior. Once again, five-inch rims bearing the really terrible Japanese 175/70 HR13 Dunlops were to blame, making it impossible to do justice to the car’s potential: I had not encountered so much slip and squeal since I left Texas out of earshot. The UK deserves better tyres on its Hondas, just as I trust it deserves far more Hondas (and other Japanese cars too) than the quota system allows. I am glad that we are nowadays at least European, so that the worst days of blinkered xenophobia are past, but I do wish we could all progress much faster towards being fully international and unbounded. 

By LJK Setright

Thinker, aesthete, engineering evangelist, our most celebrated contributor over three decades