Many a moon ago, midsize sedans were not the vanilla jellybeans they are today. No, no, no. Believe it or not, midsize sedans used to be fun. Think back – the first Ford Fairlanes, with their optional GT package and their big V8s. Or think of the classic mid-size GM A body of 1968-1972, which today is the base for some of the most beloved and valuable muscle cars out there. Or there’s the old Chrysler B bodies, which offered the legendary 426 hemi under the hood. Yes, in those days choices were numerous for the fun-seeking practical man. But one car to continue to carry the torch of entertaining and practical into the modern age was the Honda Accord, and no generation of the famed nameplate did it better than the third one, pictured here.

The Honda Accord was entering 1986 with an all-new third generation. The two prior versions of the now ubiquitous Japanese sedan had been fringe cars, far from mainstream. Back then, the big body-on-frame RWD car was still top dog with American buyers. Cars like the Cutlass Supreme, Caprice, LTD and their ilk were what shoppers wanted, offering significant size and style. For most Americans, these cars were as comfortable and familiar as your old little league baseball glove. In stark contrast, the small and frumpy Accord offered nothing the bestselling American cars of the day offered, with a spartan interior and a tiny four-cylinder engine. Bench seat? Nope. Button tufted seats? Sorry. Power windows? Ha, good one. But because it differed so mightily from the domestic competition, the auto rags of the day praised the car, citing its drivability, economy and reliability.

The second generation of the early 1980s was a different car yet much the same, as journalists praised its perky engine and strong suspension. This time regular folk began to take notice as well, as the quality of domestic cars had dropped further from an already low point in the mid-1970s. GM was in the midst of a dark black cloud of diesel smoke spewing from the whole 5.7 Olds diesel disaster, not to mention the unreliability of their X-body cars. Ford had the troublesome VV carburetor, which had serious drivability issues. Chrysler had barely escaped ruin thanks to emergency government loans. All this drove buyers to see the hyped-up Hondas, and these defectors from the Big Three could easily discern the quality and drivability of the Honda versus a comparable American car.

By the time of the Accord’s third generation in 1986, it was clear change was in the air. No longer were the domestic brands the only game in town. The proverbial 800 pound gorillas were being slowly brought down by CAFE standards on one end and those pesky Japanese brands on the other. Cars like this Accord and the similar Toyota Camry were more and more becoming common sights on the road, especially on the coasts. Fed up with Iron Duke powered Celebrities and unreliable Citations, many simply threw in the hat and bought a Honda or Toyota, and were won over by the build quality, construction and reliability versus their previous American car.

Continuing much in the same vein as the prior two generations, the third generation also added a dollop of style with its nifty pop-up headlights, similar to the related Prelude. With its low height and straight, taut lines, it was a far cry from the 1986 Ford Taurus, a seminal car that ushered in the successful mid-size sedan format that is still copied and emulated today. The Taurus’ biggest break from the norm was the flowing styling that was devoid of any straight lines – a revelation compared to the standard cars of the era, which were more angular and square than a Rubix Cube factory. When the succeeding 1990 Accord debuted, it followed the design formula set by the Taurus, with smoother, softer lines and a more flowing design overall.

With its small size and low weight, the driving experience was superior to many of the Accord’s contemporaries. The classic Honda double-wishbone suspension was present and accounted for, and control arms out back kept things under control remarkably well for a FWD car. It wasn’t all roses and lollipops though – base models had to make do with a sub 100hp carbureted motor, an antique motor compared to the more powerful, fuel-injected engines offered as standard by other competitors. This base motor limped all the way to 1989, and while provided enough oomph for around town, stepping up to the fuel-injected, 120hp LXi trim was worth the cost of admission.

Buyers took to the drivability and quality of the Honda in spades, and in 1989 unseated the Taurus to become the year’s bestselling car. It moved the brand from niche import to big-time player, and set Honda up for the further success it would find in the booming 1990s, when both it and Toyota became undefeatable in nearly every segment of the market. Today, Honda has a stellar reputation for quality and fun to drive vehicles, and it was the cars like this Accord that Honda built that reputation on. This car hearkens back to the glory days of Honda, and reminds us of what it was that built the brand into what it is today.