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Car reviews - Honda - Legend - sedan

Launch Story

Honda logo15 Aug 2006

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

HONDA used to sell about 1500 Legends annually during the model’s late-1980s heyday, but the effects of recession, a skyrocketing Japanese currency and a Toyota Crown approach to design soon saw this figure freefall to just 15 in 2003, and a mere three in 2004. Time for a rethink, we think ... and here’s the result – a Legend that looks cool, costs almost 15 per cent less, is miles ahead in equipment and specification, and is extremely intriguing to drive. Better still, the Honda is clearly an engineer’s car, with a level of technology and sophistication that should shake this end of the luxury car market – not to mention the Germans.

We like:
A real value-for-money statement, understated styling, great grand touring abilities, V6’s smoothness, refinement and high-rev performance, plush and inviting cabin, high quality feel, highly secure in feel

We don't like:
Direct but feel-free steering, V6 acceleration not explosive, pompous name

WE’VE waited ages for this.

When the fourth-generation Honda Legend first appeared in concept-car form at the New York motor show in April 2004, its aggressive styling and promise of high-tech driving pleasure had many of us pretty excited.

And then we waited... and waited.

In the meantime, Lexus brought out a similarly bold ‘L-finesse’ design language for its latest GS and IS lines.

Now, with the Legend MkIV finally here, complete with a European suspension tune, bumpers and a pop-up bonnet that partly explains its tardiness, the haute Honda’s visual impact has been lessened as newer sedans – notably the Peugeot 407, Audi’s A6 and even the VE Commodore – eclipse it for freshness.

Don’t get us wrong, this is the best looking and most progressively designed Legend since, well, the only one worth remembering, the 1991 to 1996 MkII (that also spawned an incredibly cool coupe).

It’s just that – two years ago – the Legend would have really turned some heads.

Luckily, then, it can turn through all sorts of corners with an élan alien to any of the Honda’s luxury ancestors.

Lurking underneath the tautly drawn body, with its muscular stance, is a uniquely refined four-wheel drive sedan.

It uses trick differentials and plenty of computer power to allocate just the right amount of torque to whichever wheel (front to rear or side to side) will best see it through.

Cleverly the Legend can also increase the rotation speed of an outside wheel during hard cornering for more effective and efficient drive.

If it were not for a natty instrument display monitoring the proportion of drive to each wheel, you would probably be blissfully ignorant of the constant to-ing and fro-ing of torque.

Consequently the Legend feels neither particularly front nor rear-drive biased, since this "Super Handling – All Wheel Drive" (SH-AWD) set-up aims to counteract both understeer and oversteer.

It does take a little time to get used to though, since you are aware of a cause and effect – the car feels like it’s going to run wide through a tight radius but then it powers out, more or less keeping the driver’s chosen line.

The benefits are not really so obvious on smooth, dry roads, but the results are crystal clear in slippery conditions or over uneven surfaces. It’s all about keeping control.

Combined with its standard stability control and double wishbone-front and multi-link rear suspension, the Legend lopes along at high speed with an almost French-car level of ride quality and security, even over wet backroads out in the country.

Strangely, it isn’t quite as solidly planted as some Audi quattro cars sampled in similar environs, but the Honda is certainly as secure as a Subaru AWD set-up. And remember, it weighs over 1.8 tonnes.

Perhaps the disappointingly uncommunicative steering is the culprit.

Sure it’s light – but not distractingly so. And, sure, the handling is responsive and surefooted. We cannot help thinking, however, that a bit more steering feedback would really transform the Legend into a better driver’s car.

We also felt that, under initial acceleration, the 3.5-litre V6 does not feel like it is quite churning out 217kW of power (or 351Nm of torque, for that matter).

Both outputs occur quite high-up the rev range (6200rpm and 5000rpm respectively), so the driver must wait until the brilliantly smooth and sweet-sounding V6 hits the 3500rpm-plus mark before the engine hits its stride.

We will reserve final performance judgment until we drive a car with more kilometres than the new and tight launch-day demonstrators.

Similarly, the five-speed automatic will probably need to acclimatise to lead-footed journalists before it too reacts with the sort of instantaneous gear changing we now expect since the advent of the six-speed self-shifter found in many of the Legend’s enemies.

Such optimism is borne out of previous positive experiences with run-in Honda V6s, as well as the assimilation habits of its automatic gearboxes. Anyway, in manual-shift mode (with steering-wheel paddles no less), this one won’t change up until the driver decides – and that’s always a good sign.

Honda seems to have done a great job isolating the Legend’s occupants from the environment, since the hushed cabin and its rock-solid tracking means that the car never feels like it's going fast – a mark of an accomplished luxury sedan, we believe.

The 13.2 to 13.4L/100km trip-meter reading backed this up, as did the speedy way we arrived at our destination fresh and ready for more.

Many may disagree: the stylised dash and centre console treatment is reminiscent of two recent fine Nissan efforts, the Maxima and the Murano.

Except that it comes across as fussy, the design and layout largely works well after familiarisation in conveying ‘luxury’ and ‘premium’ in feel and operation.

The high-set centre screen will be at its best when the coming satellite-navigation software is united with the awaiting hardware. Right now the elaborate trip computer, calendar and calculator (among other functions) smack of gimmicky.

Never mind though, because the fit and finish of this Japanese Bullet Train-on-wheels is first-class. As are the instruments and the detailed facts they concisely convey.

Broad, supportive and supple seating for four outboard adults (the rear-centre fifth’s unyielding stiffness is a kids-only zone – and for misbehaving ones at that), a great driving position and a suitably upmarket cabin ambience really go a long way to justify the Legend’s lofty aspirations.

Of particular note is the rear compartment’s smart knee-high air-vent housing, adequate headroom and serene ride. From the back seat the cabin detailing appears to be a mixture of Audi and Lexus.

And how generous are the equipment levels – stability control, all-round airbag protection, powered/heated/leathered/memory front seats, high-intensity discharge headlights, auto-wipers, a sunroof, side and electric-rear blinds, a reversing camera, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, ‘active’ headlights, hide trim, tastefully applied real wood trim and some classy cabin lighting aren’t the end of it.

Two relatively unique features are a pop-up bonnet to lessen pedestrian head injuries, and "Active Noise Cancellation", that uses acoustic frequencies to counteract bad sounds. It sounds great – especially as the cabin is really, really quiet.

But we abhor the foot-operated park brake – Honda needs to devise an electronic version pronto.

It also ought to have ditched the lame Legend name for something that reflects this car’s technical prowess. After all, as the NSX and S2000 proved in their day, the Honda badge has a unique engineering cachet.

We are keen to carry out a more extensive assessment of the new Legend, especially in one with a few more kilometres under its belt, to really get our heads around this compelling SH-AWD technology.

Yet we can tell you already that this stirring Japanese luxury sedan certainly delivers in its $75,000 sector.

After a decade of a Legend not worth retelling, we reckon that the latest Honda luxury car has been well worth the wait.

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