Impressive on first acquaintance, especially new four-wheel-drive system.

After a three-year pause, Honda has decided to have another crack at selling a £35,000 executive saloon in the UK – a task it admits it previously fumbled because past offerings couldn’t match the standards of the opposition. Now it has an all-new Legend, due in British showrooms next July, claimed to have the style, equipment, performance and most of all the handling to impress UK buyers.Buoyed by a good reception for the car, recently launched in Japan as the Legend and in the US as the Acura RL, Honda is carefully targeting models such as the Audi A6 and BMW 5-series. But its initial sales targets are conservative. European president Shigeru Takagi says the company will be happy with Legend sales of around 600 a year, only about one-third of the number Citroën is seeking for its new C6 in the UK.The new Legend, tested this week by Autocar in Japan as a prelude to the Tokyo motor show, is a classic four-seat saloon. Mainly made of steel, it also has a variety of weight-saving aluminium inner frames and outer panels.At 295bhp, it has the most powerful V6 yet in a Honda saloon, a unique and very advanced four-wheel-drive system – dubbed Super Handling All-Wheel Drive – and a host of luxurious standard features (of which active cabin noise suppression, an active lane-keeping steering system and intelligent cruise control are likely to be three).Underlining its modernity, the new Legend changes proportions compared with its predecessor. It is 20mm wider and higher, but 65mm shorter and the wheelbase is down a striking 110mm as well.As with many contemporary cars, the Legend has a prominent nose overhang. This provides sufficient structure needed to deal with the latest crash legislation and meet pedestrian impact laws. The Legend also has a Jaguar XK-style pyrotechnic pop-up bonnet to protect pedestrians from hard points in the engine bay during an accident.Though it is shorter overall, the new Legend offers useful improvements in cabin length (30mm) and width (40mm) over the old model, but Europeans familiar with German rivals may still find the car tight for rear legroom.Honda says the new Legend weighs ‘only a little more’ than the previous car, despite the 120kg added by the 4x4 system and the fact that the bodyshell is around 30 per cent stiffer in bending and twisting.Along with 295bhp at 6200rpm, the 3.5-litre engine, which is mounted transversely in the nose, offers peak torque of 260lb ft at 5000rpm. It drives through a five-speed automatic gearbox, with a manual selection mode available either from steering wheel paddles or a Tiptronic-style forward-backward central gearlever.Before the Legend goes on sale in Britain, Honda says it will slightly shorten the car’s gearing and sharpen the gearchange software, to suit what it perceives as European tastes. It will also stiffen the Legend’s ultra-soft suspension, though the double-wishbone front suspension and multi-link rear seem promisingly suited to Europe.However, the undoubted tour de force in this car is the four-wheel-drive system. Honda claims it is the first which can vary the torque split between 30 and 70 per cent front to rear, and the side-to-side torque split across the rear axle between zero and 100 per cent.The net effect is to give the car far better resistance to understeer than a nose-weighted, soft-suspended four-wheel-drive car would normally have – as we discovered at Honda’s awesome Takasu proving ground.The Legend feels expensive, thanks to a luxurious but fairly traditional-looking wood-and-leather interior. The gearbox is ‘only’ a five-speeder, so the step-off from standstill feels a little sedate, but the engine delivers excellent power and torque above 3000rpm, accompanied by a note worthy of a somewhat sedated NSX’s. Despite the test car running Japanese transmission settings, it feels like a 140mph car capable of 0-60mph in around 7.5sec.Best of all is the handling. The Legends we drove were more softly suspended than they’ll be in Europe, and the initial swoops and troughs of the handling track made it seem that the cars would disappear off the road in terminal understeer. Honda gave us ample opportunities to make this happen – including several bumpy and tight sections drenched by water sprays on which we were invited to drive flat-out.Understeer was remarkably mild. At the point you’d expect it to take over, all that torque at the outside rear wheel seemed to kick the car back on line. And if you overcooked it the other way, the stability control was there to tame the tail. It was an impressive early demonstration which seems, at this stage, to justify Honda’s pride in the Legend.This new Legend is a far better offering than either of the first two generations, and may well shade the Germans and Jaguar around a handling course. Quality and equipment won’t be concerns, either. But buyers will still have to decide whether there’s enough room in the rear of this new Legend and, indeed, whether any Honda saloon can be worth £35,000. 

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