Honda designers couldn’t beat the Cutlass Ciera, so they copied it

Hi there! Thanks for coming to this week’s meeting of Accords Anonymous. I’m your host—you can call me “Jack B”—and I’ll start the meeting. I’ve been Accord-sober since… oh, hell, man, it hasn’t been a whole hour yet. I drove one of my Accords here.

That’s right, I said one of my Accords. One of my 2014 Accord V-6 six-speed manual coupes. ’Cause I got two of them. Bought one brand-new in 2014 and put 73,000 miles on it. Bought the other one from a pro race team and took it to the Pirelli World Challenge last year. I own 28 wheels for Accords, and 36 tires. Not only do I love my Accords, I’ve convinced almost two dozen people to buy Accords of their own.

You know what? I’m not fit to lead this meeting. I’m outta here. I’ll see some of you guys later this week at the VW Phaeton Abuse Survivors’ Group down the hall.

You get the point, right? I simply adore the Honda Accord, particularly in its most aggressive variants. This is not a passing fancy for me. Way back in 1989, a fellow BMX racer spent $500 on a ’77 five-speed Accord hatch that was half the color of raw sewage and half the color of iron oxide. The clutch slipped and the alignment was best described as “directionally challenged.” It smoked and stalled and the seats had long since turned to beige dust, but I loved it. It had more pure emotion baked into it than my Marquis Brougham coupe, the 200SX I drove to get my driver’s license, and the pair of stick-shift “eta”-motor BMW E30 coupes owned by my father. It was low-slung, with a visually absent hood and goldfish-bowl visibility.

Those original Accords were utterly revolutionary. In concept, in execution, in detail. You got into the thing a skeptic and climbed out a convert. I don’t know how much of an exaggeration it would be to say that the Accord of 1977 had the same kind of impact on people that a Tesla Model S has today. There was zero doubt in the mind of any sane person that the Accord would be the family car of the future.

Which turned out to be the case, didn’t it? With a few exceptions, the Mojo From Marysville has consistently topped charts of retail sedan deliveries since the Taurus gave up the crown 20 years ago. It has solid-gold brand equity. You can’t rent one, and if you wait more than a day or two to call on a Craigslist ad for a decent example you’ll be sent straight to voicemail. In base trim it serves tech contractors and ambitious young families; as a fully-loaded Touring or EX-L it lurks in the garages of Midwestern McMansions and coastal homes. The recently-departed ninth-generation sedan, in particular, has an almost universal appeal. I couldn’t imagine selling my coupes; they are as fast as Nissan Z-cars and as spacious as 8 Series Bimmers while returning 31 mpg on the freeway.

Yet it’s worth noting that my coupes in no way resemble that 1977 hatchback which stole my heart 30 years ago. They are nearly a thousand pounds heavier. They cast a much larger shadow. Most critically, they have more than three times the power.

I know, I know. Everything is bigger now. Except that’s not really the case. My mother’s 1977 Cutlass Supreme had a 403-cu-in V-8 under the hood and stretched about 207 inches. The newly-downsized Buick Electra was a foot-and-a-half larger than today’s S-Class Benz. The Volvo 240 was bigger than today’s Volvo S60. And if you think today’s three-row SUVs are gargantuan, I’d invite you to take a look at a 1977 Ford Country Squire Wagon.

Which brings me to an argument currently raging online between a few of my friends regarding the “A-body” Cutlass Ciera and its siblings. The Ciera was basically a product-improved variant of the 1980 “X-body” Citation/Phoenix/Skylark/Omega with more dignified proportions. I won’t bore you with all the details of the argument. Let’s summarize the two sides:

1977 Honda Accord
1977 Honda Accord BaT / Allstar

The Import Lovers say that the Accord and Camry drove the A-bodies out of existence by being better-built, longer-lasting, more reliable, more economical, and cheaper to own, and that the beating was so bad that GM never truly dared to face the Accord on even ground again.

I think most of us grew up reading some form of that argument in the pages of various car magazines, or hearing it from our “car guy” relatives. Certainly it was what I believed as a young driver. The Accord was a Bimmer on a budget; the Ciera was a lead sled. Ah, but I had a few friends who don’t remember it that way.

The Homers say that the Accord and Camry might have shone as sported-up stick-shift magazine-test examples, but in the real world they were dog-slow sedans with astoundingly poor automatic transmissions, engines that needed to rev the heads off to keep up with traffic, and a noise-vibration-harshness level somewhere between “Karmann Ghia” and “C-47 Skytrain.” They rusted to death within three years of purchase and proved fickle to maintain outside of Southern California. Most damningly, they were Just. Too. Small.

My Homer friends like to point to the mid-’80s Cutlass Ciera as an example of a family sedan that worked as designed. Most of them were sold with V-6 engines that matched their high-quality automatic transmissions pretty well. They were sprightly around town and economical on the freeway. You could hear yourself think in them. And they had enough room for a family of five plus a bit of luggage.

Heretical thinking, right? And it enrages my import-loving friends, who point out that the GM A-bodies ended up losing the war. The Homers respond that GM didn’t lose the midsize war—it just gave up, choosing to focus on the larger GM10/W-body sedans instead. Unlike their “A-body” predecessors, the W-cars needed a six-cylinder engine to get out of their own way. They were big and floaty and not terribly economical. By the time the last of their descendants shuffled off this mortal coil a few years ago, they were competing with vastly better-realized and far more modern cars such as the Toyota Avalon.

Now here’s where things get weird. The Accords and Camrys that finally vanquished the A-body cars didn’t look, act, or drive much like the 1977-era hatchback. If you look at the dimensions and capacities for, say, a 1996 Camry or a 2000 Accord, you’ll find that…

1996 Toyota Camry
1996 Toyota Camry Toyota

Wait for it…

…they almost precisely mirror the 1982 Cutlass Ciera. In size, weight, engine capacity, interior space, you name it. Today’s Accord, as a matter of fact, is within an inch or two in every dimension of the final Cieras. Luckily they got rid of the 2.4-liter naturally-aspirated four a couple years back or we’d be awfully close to re-creating the Iron Duke Celebrity.

It would be a lie to say that the driving experience of a modern Accord resembles that of any A-body sedan. But it would also be a lie to say that the driving experience of a modern Accord resembles that of a 1977 Accord—and it would be a much bigger lie. If you fell asleep under a tree in 1977 and woke up in 2019, you would need the badges to tell you that the current Accord (and Camry) are “import” cars, rather than “domestics.”

In a way, this is just plain biology. Animals will evolve to suit their environment. The ancestors of the dolphin and the shark didn’t look very much alike, but if you want to catch fish in the ocean and defend yourself a bit you’re going to wind up looking the part. The Accord arrived on these shores as a fire-breathing hatchback from Japan and eventually evolved into a 192-inch automatic-transmission sedan from Ohio. Don’t knock it. That’s how we turned wolves into Labradoodles.

I think the most sensible answer to the dispute that my friends are having over the A-body is this: It was the right idea, with less-than-perfect execution. In a world where GM updated the Ciera every four years, adding features and comfort as it went, increasing reliability and addressing owner concerns? That’s probably a world where a Honda dealership isn’t a one-way ticket to being a multi-millionaire, and it’s probably also a world where GM didn’t have to put its hand out in 2008.

Like it or not, however, that is not the world in which we live. We are now firmly in the Age Of The Crossover, and the old A-body rules no longer apply. Today’s buyer would rather have a CR-V than an Accord, which is pretty ridiculous—but it was no less ridiculous to do what my mom did in 1977 and buy a “personal luxury coupe” for a four-person family. We’d have been better off with the sedan… or maybe waiting for the 1978 Century Aeroback… which reminds me suspiciously of the 2019 Accord… but that, my friends, is a story—and an argument—for another time.

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