Honda's Accord Euro is a near-perfect example of how modern cars have become so good.
Forget, for the moment, the sharp pricing, the lavish standard specification and this week's garnering of the New Zealand Motoring Writers' Guild Car of the Year award.
The Accord Euro emerges as a highly impressive model with flair.
Medium-size rivals have every reason to fear a model that makes such a good fist of coming top of the class. But the Accord Euro is not, perfect, of course. Few things are.
On the road you soon become aware of the visibility limitations, the slightly wooden feeling of the car and a slow speed ride that is a shade harsh for some tastes.
Though Honda roped in Shukra, apparently leaders in seat ergonomics, to help design the seats, they're shapeless, lack support and aren't especially comfortable if you're planning on spending a lot of time in them.
At least that was my reaction to the seats. Though they may be fine for people who don't know any better, it has to be said that Honda has a long history of producing seats which lack comfort.
Nor is there a huge amount of rear seat legroom. If optimum space if your priority, then Honda has the larger, less highly equipped Americanised Accord V6 sitting in the showroom and, in auto transmission mode, there is only $2000 difference between the two Accord variants.
But back to the smaller, sharper-looking Euro four-cylinder. Despite some apparent flaws in the package, checking out the superb build quality, handsome looks, excellent fuel economy and sharp handling makes the car's credentials look like a lot of sense.
In addition, kick either the manual transmission or auto Euro into action and be impressed by the strong performance of an impeccable, all-aluminium 2.4-litre variable valve timing four-cylinder engine.
As well as VTEC, the motor incorporates variable timing control (VTC) that continuously adjusts camshaft phasing across the power band. Ignition timing and throttle position are also monitored and advancing or retarding the intake cam throughout a 50-degree range optimises engine output and reduces emissions.
With 140kW of power on tap (that's a stonking 187bhp), the opposition doesn't stand a chance.
On paper the Accord presents a convincing case. Its nearest rival, the Toyota Camry, has a similarly-sized engine but only 112kW.
The Mazda 6, Ford Mondeo, Holden Vectra and Nissan Primera all range between 99kW and 110kW.
Clearly, in the power stakes, the twin overhead camshaft Honda engine is streets ahead of the opposition while being matched to tallish gearing for fine economy.
In the case of the six-speed manual, New Zealand's open road speed limit of 100km/h equates to a modest 2500 revs (or 3000rpm in fifth gear). The five-speed automatic is even higher geared. The engine is doing little more than 2100rpm at 100km/h.
Expect a slightly notchy manual gearbox action, although it is precise and the indirect gearing is well chosen.
Then try the automatic with the intelligent SportShift that works in conjunction with a drive-by-wire system.
It's smooth and progressive, although it is somewhat sensitive when left in regular D5. Around town the high gearing is such that locking the transmission into D3 promotes more restful progress.
But, hey, this is starting to become complicated. Isn't the reason for an auto to allow the driver to simply select Drive and forget the transmission?
Sporting drivers will, of course, admire the ability to slip into the SportShift mode and take control of the gearchanges - and there's no question this set-up is both quick and easy to use.
Grade logic compares your driving style to the grade of the road to select the optimum gear. It eases the car back on downward runs, avoiding the rushing-on effect of many autos.
Given the amount of city use most motorists encounter, the modest $1000 premium for the auto is probably too hard to resist.
Both manual and auto Accord Euros are seriously quick and responsive cars.
You may begin to question why anyone would want to spend almost $27,000 more on a new BMW 318i which has a lot less power and specification.
With the money saved, a new Honda Jazz could accompany the Accord in the garage - and there would be several thousand dollars left over to run both cars for quite some time.
But buying and owning cars isn't always about dollars and cents, and the Accord will never really be a rival for the BMW simply because people won't see the two cars in parallel.
The level of mechanical refinement takes a heap of beating in this Honda.
Even when the car is working hard, there's little noise intrusion so the pace is both restful and reassuring.
Standard fare are 16-inch alloy wheels shod with German-made Michelin XSE 205/55 series tyres that provide voluminous grip.
In addition to ABS, electronic brake distribution and brake assist, the Accord has traction control and vehicle stability assist (VSA).
Should the car step out of line, selectable VSA regulates engine output and selectively applies the brakes.
Reassuringly, the double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension was fine-tuned on the German Nurburgring and at Honda's high-speed circuits in Japan. Ride quality is enhanced as speeds rise and both handling and roadholding are as sharp as the car's appearance suggests.
I have no complaints, either, about the hydraulic rack and pinion power steering that is speed-sensitive.
The Accord Euro bristles with fine features - like the individual driver/front passenger controls for the climate-control air-conditioning, the rain sensor wipers, extra indicators recessed into the exterior mirrors, steering wheel buttons for sound system and cruise control and xenon gas-filled headlights.
Pricing? Have we left the best until last? How easy it is to become excited about the $35,000 sticker price for the manual Accord and little more for the auto, which apparently makes this new Honda the bargain of the decade.
On paper, its rivals are all between $3000 and $5000 more costly but the opposition's are listed prices before discounts.
The Accord is a no-haggle Honda, so the differences are less than they appear. Even so, the Accord is super competitive and shattering value for money, no matter how you look at things.
Is this the car that gives more credence to the claim that Honda is the BMW of Japan? Unequivocally, yes.
- story by Donn Anderson