Honda and Accord go together like the proverbial peanut butter and jelly, with this full-size car being the most popular and most important car for the automaker. What began as a compact two-door hatchback that became a hit in when it arrived in the late 1970s thanks to its fuel economy and reliability has grown into one of the nation's best-selling vehicles.

While the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry -- both of which happen to be made in America -- have long been arch-rivals, these days it's not just each other they battle in this bread-and-butter segment of family cars. Strong competition storms from all sides in the form of the latest Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima, new versions of the popular Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion, and newer and more confident versions of the Chevy Malibu and Volkswagen Passat.
The Accord has maintained its own in this cut-throat segment, but the car has lagged competitors in some respects with its aging 5-speed transmission and rather plain telematics and navigation systems.

For 2013, Honda is playing catch-up - and beyond - with the all-new, ninth-generation Accord. The car will be offered as a 5-passenger sedan and coupe, and will be available with a variety of powertrains that include revamped 4- and 6-cylinder gasoline engines and, coming next year, a plug-in hybrid and a traditional hybrid. New transmissions are part of the offering, too, including a continuously variable transmission (CVT), a 6-speed automatic, and a 6-speed manual. Unlike many other new models, the 2013 Honda Accord's exterior has gotten smaller and lighter, not larger and heavier. Yet while its exterior length is more than 3 inches shorter, interior room has increased.

Honda gave us the chance to drive several models of the 2013 Accord during a recent trip to Santa Barbara. Overall, the 2013 Honda Accord feels evolutionary, not revolutionary - which is just what we expected, and what we believe most buyers will want. The new car feels more refined thanks to higher-quality materials like soft-touch surfaces in the cabin, and the past issue of road noise has been tamed thanks to added insulation and a Macpherson front strut replacing the long-used double-wishbone setup.

Here are our five other takeaways from our introduction to the 2013 Honda Accord, starting with the most impressive:

CVT with 36 mpg  Continuously variable transmissions offer improved fuel economy, but that can come at the cost of drive quality. Thankfully, the Accord's first use of a CVT does well in mimicking a traditional multi-gear transmission, vs. something with just one gear and laborious acceleration.

A V6 and 34 mpg  Honda says the Accord sedan with its optional V6 engine and 6-speed automatic transmission will garner a class-leading 34 mpg on the highway. To put that in perspective, that's the same rating as the outgoing 4-cylinder model. With 278 horsepower, the V6 is plenty potent and effortlessly motivates the Accord. In the coupe version, this engine sacrifices only 2 mpg on the highway, and when connected to a snappy 6-speed manual transmission, is invigorating to drive and has a hearty exhaust note.

LaneWatch  This new option uses a tiny camera in the right-hand mirror that transmits an image to the LCD screen. The image appears automatically when you signal to the right, can be on constantly, or turned off completely.

New, tech-savvy interior  All Accords benefit from higher-quality cabin materials. Higher-end models receive dual LCD screens, the bottom one a touch-sensitive unit.

Hybrid still hazy  Like the coming Ford Fusion, the Accord sedan will be offered as a plug-in hybrid and regular (non-plug-in) hybrid. But pricing and mileage details have not yet been announced. On a short drive in a pre-production plug-in hybrid, the Accord's performance was adequate, but we could still feel the powertrain system switching between the electric motor and the 4-cylinder gasoline engine, similar to hybrid versions of the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima. Hopefully the system will become more refined by the time it's ready for production next year.

The 2013 Honda Accord sedan is set to go on sale September 19, with the coupe following on October 15. Prices will range from about $22,000 for a base LX coupe with manual transmission to the mid-$30,000 range for a top-of-the-line Touring edition with V6.

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