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March 12, 2001

Review: 2001 BMW 523i vs Honda Accord VTi-L

We know what’s circulating in your minds: here’s another crazy match up between a BMW and a Honda—an uneven match-up, much like letting Mike Tyson go against Yukozuna.  On paper, there’s actually nothing the same with the Honda Accord and the BMW 523i: the German is rear-wheel drive, powered by an inline-6 and costs three million bucks.  On the other hand, the Accord is the typical exec-sedan of choice offering front-wheel drive, powered by an inline-4 and priced at half of the Bimmer’s list price.

Oh yes…but then again, we’re here to prove a point.  There’s something more than meets the eye in this match-up of sorts.  In fact, unlike the Honda Civic and Subaru Impreza Turbo, which fought for top honors a few months ago—we’d declare a winner here.  The reason for is simple: both of these cars are fighting for a space in the executive’s parking lot.  Albeit the BMW is more suited to the CEO and the Accord to the junior executive—during the course of this test, we’d remove all the badges and the glamour.

We strip down both of these cars to what they should stand for.  Unfazed by all the hype, we’re testing the true value of these two Philippine executive sedans, both of which stand for the epitome at their own right, the BMW being the most dynamic German car and the Honda being the best handling car of the east.

We'll prove just which car is more value and which one is more marketing...

Honda Accord VTi-L  

The Honda Accord is nothing to look at—it’s a Japanese car for Pete’s sake.  The nicely chiseled body resembles the previous generation Accord; only the design has been cleaned up and evolutionized to produce this new shape.  At some angles, the Accord can easily be mistaken for its smaller brethren, the Civic and City.  Blame the lack of originality of the Honda stylists—but no matter, it looks good, albeit a bit bland.  Of course, placing the Accord near the other similar Japanese sedans: Nissan Cefiro, Toyota Camry and the Mitsubishi Galant, the Accord is among the prettiest there is, losing only to the aggressively styled Galant.

This Accord is an all-new unit that differentiates itself from the old unit in many aspects, the biggest of which has to do with the suspension set-up.  The current Honda Accord uses a double wishbone / multi-link suspension set-up, compared to the front and rear double wishbone of the Accords of yesteryear.  Of course, this new suspension set-up has produced remarkable improvements to the car’s ride.  More than ever, the Accord feels safer since the car tends to wobble less and the ride is firmer.  It absorbs all sorts of bumps with ease as well—cocooning the driver in a calm and tranquil environment.

Unfortunately, the buzzy 2.3-liter SOHC VTEC inline-4 unit mars the peace. Think Honda Civic and enlarge it to a displacement of 2.3-liters—that’s now the engine noise is undifferentiated within the SOHC VTEC engine range. The engine, although quite at idling, tends to hum in the background at 2000-3000 rpm and grunts when the second stage VTEC engages at around 4000 rpm.  Thankfully enough, the scruffiness of the VTEC engagement is followed by a sudden serge of power all the way to its 6500 rpm red-line.  In fact, the VTEC unit is rev-happy, a trait it shares with the more sophisticated BMW inline-6 unit.  The power band isn’t that wide, but once you find the proper gearing and punch the accelerator, the Accord can be propelled to speeds in excess of 190 km/h.

Mechanicals, like the engine is rock solid.  Inside and out, the Accord is simply bulletproof.  At around 30,000 kilometers on the odometer, this unit is still pretty rock solid with no hints of creaks and squeaks—a triumph for locally assembled cars, which aren’t supposed to last long compared to their imported counterparts.

The interior is cleanly designed and ergonomically sound, although the materials could have used more class.  Everything is within the driver’s reach from the ventilation controls…radio controls…everything!  It is as if Honda designers thought of making the Accord a driver-oriented car.  The only dismaying part is that the materials used don’t feel like a million bucks—some are hard plastic, while the rest are the same components shared with the outgoing Honda Civic (e.g. switches and stalks). The simulated wood trim and leather seats may have added a bit of class, but they just don’t add up enough. Interior is airy as well providing ample room for five or even six adults in an emergency squeeze.

Driving the Accord is like clockwork.  Everything is done with minimal fuse and inspires driver confidence in the car.  The engine, being free revving as it is can be pushed to the absolute limit without making the driver think twice about a possible engine blow-up—it just keeps on going and going.  Doing justice to the wonderful VTEC engine is the 5-speed long-throw Honda gearbox, which is slick and precise.  The gearing is absolutely fabulous and perfect especially in highway acceleration. The suspension is equally sporty as well giving the car a combination of sporty and comfortable ride. It has minimal body roll during heavy cornering and when you do corner with more G than necessary, the steering provides excellent feedback to make sure the driver is always aware.

The only problems about the Accord’s performance are in two areas, which should not concern the typical car buyer.  First, the brakes need more forced than necessary to stop this vehicle from high speeds.  Unlike the Nissan Cefiro, that provides a better brake feel, the Honda is numb, but responsive enough.  We reckon it’s the fault of the poorly sized 195/65 VR15 tires of the car—Honda should have bolted on 205/60 VR15 tires. The other poor area of the Accord is that the performance it gives is already 100 percent. However the car behaves in the city area, that’s how it will be on the highway—no additional surge of power from the VTEC engine.  Perhaps it is because of the fact that the Accord is primarily designed as a city tourer rather than a long-distance highway dweller.
Then again…most of its life is indeed spent in city conditions, and in this aspect, the Accord just rocks.

BMW 523i

The 523i glared in the blinding sunlight.   This was High Noon and Terminator 2-a shootout with only one winner. The car's hooded eyes dared us to drive it and declare it anything but the winner.

This is the car widely recognized to be the benchmark for midsize sedans.  Any car that hoped to be the king of sedans would have to wrest the crown from the 5 series.   Would the Honda Accord be a match for the BMW at a third of the price?  Would the BMW be able to justify its each of its 3.5 million bucks?

The car’s clarity of purpose was immediately apparent as our photographer and I slowly paced around it.  Clean, straight lines dominated the styling; everything you see is for one purpose only: driving.   This taut, sinewy sedan has withstood the test of time. After all this body has been soldiering on since 1995 and yet, no GS300, E-class, or S-type has looked as mean and purposeful.  What it has over its rivals is an original shape, devoid of pretension and all-too deliberate attempts to look cute.  The front with its baleful stare is unfortunately all too common as all BMWs share that face.  What makes this sedan look great is the way the tapering profile flows front to rear. Even the door handles line up with the door crease for an uncluttered look. The integration of rear windshield, trunk lid and taillights is particularly successful (and much copied).

If this wasn’t the ultimate driving machine, it sure looked the part.  Could the truth fulfill the promise? We would soon find out.

Sinking into the black leather of the driver’s seat, we find it to be wide and well-bolstered.  It’s easy to find a position where pedals and steering wheel line up perfectly.  Even the gear stick for the auto is just a hand-drop away.  The seat adjustment levers, though, border on the clunky, and we would have welcomed the Accord’s power driver’s seat, or better yet, a well-designed manual system.

Twist the key (yes, it’s still an actual piece of metal) and the twin cam inline-6 barks to life, then settles into a silky smooth purr.  The throttle is quite heavy and the travel long, unlike the typical Japanese toe-tap accelerators.  This may take some getting used to, but it allows for a more precise adjustment of torque level.  The twin-cam 24-valver pumps out 170 bhp and 245 Nm at 3950 rpm.

Pity that our test car came with an auto, but what an auto!  The five-speed ZF unit responds promptly to throttle inputs, quickly downshifting not just one but two gears if called for. The 6 cylinder snaps to attention and delivers a surge of torque, propelling the car from 80 to 160 km/h faster than you can say “Williams F1 engine”—almost.  The brawny engine is quiet and smooth all throughout, and the acceleration is effortless.   With the Accord, the engine does pound away but starts to strain at around 130.   What’s more, the BM’s auto can hold your chosen gear all the way to the 6500 redline, with the engine’s eager cooperation. Few cars have such a happy marriage of engine and gearbox. On a better road the sedan would be quite comfortable going at 200 and probably wouldn’t break a sweat at going around 220.

The autobahn specs don’t end with the engine. The 4-wheel discs, armed with ABS, can bring the whole party to a halt more effectively than a camouflaged policeman. As for the chassis, it’s a BMW philosophy that the suspension is always faster than the engine. Now this engine is close to the bottom rung of the 5 hierarchy but we think it's capable of handling even the 3.0 V8 with no modifications. This was manifested with the car's behavior at 160+ km/h.  The car remained firmly planted, ignoring undulations, ruts and bumps that the North Expressway pitched under it. Ride is on the firm side, the comfort good but not exceptional.   It absorbs imperfections but it's nowhere near as soft as say, a Camry. If you’re going to be brought home after a hernia operation, you'd be better off riding the Camry.

The car’s steering is an unqualified delight.  The black leather wheel has a meaty rim and perfectly-positioned spokes.  On the other end is a rack-and-pinion system that swivels the 225/60R 15 tires.  On center response is sharp, something you have to watch out for when driving at high speeds.

Turn in is crisp and responsive.  On paper, the Accord has the edge over the BMW, pitting front double wishbones to the 523’s McPherson struts.  Double wishbones are generally acknowledged to give better steering feel and better ride-handling characteristics.  Still, credit must go the engineers from Munich, because the 523 tracks more precisely than its Japanese rival.  These guys chose aluminum for most of the suspension components, resulting in less unsprung weight and thus a lighter feel.

Being rear-wheel drive, its weight distribution is also closer to the 50%front / 50% rear ideal, while the Accord’s is closer to 62% / 38%.  The rear wheel drive layout also makes sure that the front wheels don’t succumb to torque steer.  With the Accord, there’s just the tiniest sideways tug on the wheel if you feed the power too abruptly; one of the tires loses traction for a split-second.   Just to play it safe, BMW has included its Active Stability Control.  It compares the intended angle of trajectory, based on the steering angle, to the actual car’s direction; if there’s a discrepancy, the ASC can cut power to the drive wheels to help the car stay on course.  A button on the dash deactivates the ASC and lights up a yellow warning triangle below the main gauges.

The crack in the German’s armor is actually inside its armor—the interior.  Except for the main driving controls (steering wheel, gauges, driver’s seat, pedals, gearstick), the rest of the interior borders on the awful.  First, the layout.  Compared to the Accord’s uncluttered, harmonious layout of all controls and switchgear (with the Accord’s many-buttoned Alpine 2-DIN being the device that’s difficult to decipher and operate), the 523i’s controls are surprisingly confusing for such a driver-oriented car.   The stereo does have a knob for the volume, but the rest of its controls are similar-sized buttons that you won’t have a clue as to what they do, unless you read the manual.  Ditto the ventilation system.  The headlamp switch is separated from the foglamp switch, and the doorlock switch is on the center console, nowhere near the door.  The hazard switch is hardly visible, etc. etc.  All counter-intuitive and difficult to use without taking your eyes off the road.

Now that in itself wouldn’t be so bad, as an owner would get used to the switch layout.  What is terrible is the way the interior bits are falling apart after only four years.  The front cupholders are in pieces, and the rear ones aren’t even there any more.  Fine, there are aircon vents for the rear passengers, but the switch has popped out of its socket.  The wood on the dash does look elegant, but only if it would fit properly.  Our test car’s ashtray and trip computer cover were badly misaligned.

The tales of woe from the car’s owner didn’t end with the interior.  He’d already had electrical problems and several instances of overheating.  The worst of it is, the entire engine block cracked and had to be replaced.  Twice.  Third engine block in 50,000 km is unacceptable for any car, particularly a supposedly bulletproof BMW.

Great expectations of a great car, and the driving experience fulfilled the promise.  The 523 is every gram the driver’s car it’s reputed to be.  Only it was tripped up by its poor fit –and-finish and reliability.  Given the half-day that this shootout lasted, the BMW would have won easily.  But one reason for spending a little more on an executive sedan is expecting it to be more reliable and robust than just any other car. The 523i boasts of excellent mechanicals, but its reliability problems rubbed off too much of its luster.  The Accord’s appeal is more subtle, but its excellent value and durability shines through each day that you drive it.  For this reason, the Accord emerged as our exec-sedan champion.

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