Welcome to the first in an occasional series of stories we're calling "half-price heroes". Here's the idea: we identify a new vehicle that has special character traits or some standout features, and then go looking for a model that can give you a taste of those same traits or features for half the price.
It follows that the benchmark car will generally be a premium model although not always. This is not a traditional comparison test, either: the idea is not to find out whether the cheaper car is better than the more expensive one, because that's often unrealistic. Besides, the two won't always be evenly matched in terms of powertrain, performance and equipment.
But we are trying to find out whether a half-price car can deliver in some crucial areas. Whether there are models out there that can give Everyman a taste of what it's like in the executive corner office.
Our first test illustrates the point perfectly. You'll be familiar with the latest Mercedes-Benz E-Class: it's a pretty special car for a number of reasons. But what's most interesting about it is the suite of safety and driver-assistance technology that comes as standard.
The E-Class is arguably the closest thing yet to an autonomous car for the New Zealand market: a high-tech package called Intelligent Drive brings features such as adaptive cruise control that keeps you the right distance from the car in front, lane-keeping assistance that will automatically steer the car to keep it within the road markings, blind-spot monitoring, headlights that can automatically dip and even autonomous braking to help prevent or minimise an accident if you approach another car too fast on the motorway. Only the new S-Class (which came after the E) can better this car for safety technology.
It's pretty amazing stuff and surely the preserve of the lucky few who can afford a luxury car.
Or perhaps not. Honda's latest Accord also has a few safety and driver-assistance tricks up its sleeve. In fact, it has all of the tricks mentioned above if you opt for the flagship NT model (that's Navigation and Technology). The 2.4-litre four-cylinder Accord NT is $55,000, while the 206kW/339Nm 3.5-litre V6 NT starts at $60,000.
That makes it a half-price contender for the Mercedes-Benz E-class, which opens at $114,000 for the 155kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol model.
So on paper, the Honda looks good. But does all that technology deliver the right experience on the road?
Mercedes-Benz's Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control is arguably the best such system in the automotive world. You select it via a wand on the steering column and it's stunningly smooth in operation - you seldom feel hard acceleration or braking, it can easily handle low-speed roundabouts and it will gently decelerate right down to a standstill in traffic. Simply tap the accelerator pedal when the road is clear again and the system reactivates.
If only Honda's adaptive cruise control were half as good. Like the E-Class, you can easily set the Accord's speed and choose from three different distance settings. However, the abiding impression with the Honda is that it can't "see" nearly as far up the road: it tends to charge along at the selected speed and then slam on the brakes at short notice when a car comes into view, sometimes causing discomfort to the passengers - and perhaps embarrassment for the driver, if the occupants assume that he or she is in control of the stop and go pedals. The Accord system also shuts off at 30km/h, not much use in traffic.
Luckily, the Accord comes good in other areas. The E-Class has a nifty active lane keeping assist system that works automatically when you activate Distronic Plus. It uses a stereo camera to view the road ahead and gently guides the steering wheel to keep the car on course - provided you keep your hands on the tiller. The Accord does the same thing with a single camera and does it almost as well, with surprisingly subtle wheel-movements. You can also activate the Honda's autonomous steering via a button on the steering wheel - a feature the Mercedes does not have.
The E-Class supplements its active lane keeping assist with a blind spot warning system on either side of the car if there is traffic in the adjacent lane. The Honda takes a different route, which is unique and quite clever in its own right: if you indicate left, the so-called lane watch camera in the offside mirror gives you an 80-degree view (a normal mirror is only about 22 degrees) of what's behind you on the dashboard's eight-inch colour screen, with a superimposed graphic that shows you how far past the other vehicle you need to be to safely change lanes.
The downside of the lane watch camera system is that there's nothing on the right-hand side, although Honda argues visibility is so much better on the driver's side - and besides, it would be counter-intuitive to look left to the screen while turning right.
Overall, the Accord is not nearly as sophisticated as the E-Cass. It matches the Mercedes-Benz on some key features, but the German car's technology just keeps on going: it can avoid a nose-to-tail accident automatically at up to 50km/h, recognise pedestrians or traffic crossing ahead and even use its PreSafe system to prepare the car and occupants for an impending collision.
Is the Honda Accord V6 NT a half-price hero?
Adaptive cruise control is one of the most useful and most-used driver-assistance features on executive cars like these, so it's disappointing the Accord's is so awkward. However, the other technology is well executed and certainly allows the mainstream buyer a taste of what's available in a cutting-edge luxury car such as the Mercedes E-class.