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Honda City VTEC - Pace of mind


Since a new City is now out, I suppose we must call the old one, well... the old City. And I remember the time when I fell in love with the old City. It was about three years ago, when I had a bright red VTEC all to myself for two full weeks. I was coming back from the airport at two in the morning (one of those weird international flights) with four adult passengers, and what must have been a hundred kilos of luggage. I was taking it easy, lounging along at some 60 kph in fourth, when I was told to hurry up a bit. ‘Can we get home and get some food and sleep, please?’ Ah, but of course. A downshift to second, accompanied by burying the throttle produced appropriate results – the car spun its front wheels, the 106 bhp VTEC snarled its rasping thrum, the needle on the rev-counter shot up instantly and we were off. Of all the cars ever sold in India, the Honda City VTEC was, without question, the most exhilarating. When it was time to just leave, the City VTEC was the car to have. If you got all aggressive with it, it wouldn’t back off one bit. Instead, it was your ever-willing partner in crimes of speed, goading you on to swap gears quickly, rev the cams off the engine, drift it sideways and generally behave like a complete hooligan.

Law of progression
Now, after all these years, we have a new City. One that’s completely different from the old one. In intent, performance and packaging, the two couldn’t be less alike. And indeed, the new City is a significant car, for it defines the new social mores which all contemporary cars must stick to. The old City was a satisfyingly middle-rung, junk-food parlour. Lots of beer, well-done steak and chilli-cheese fries. Burp! The new one is an upmarket sushi bar. White wine, green salads (without the dressing of course) and tofu. And please, do not burp. 

‘Men are the new women,’ said one of the editors of the New York Times a few months ago. Laugh if you will, but that’s how the new order seems to be. Think chic linen, pedicured feet, organic facepacks, deep-breathing exercises, ‘wellness’ (eek!), flavoured oxygen and Tai-chi, and you have the new City.Based on Honda’s very successful Jazz/Fit hatchback platform, this car is sold as the Fit Aria in Japan and as the City in Thailand. It’s a high-tech, contemporary vehicle, and the focus is on maximum cabin space for occupants and maximum fuel-efficiency. The cab-forward styling is not strikingly beautiful and in what may be slightly unfortunate for Honda, seems to have shades of the Tata Indigo. Yet, it’s not at all bad looking. Actually, I think it makes every other C-segment car in India look dated. At least two of my colleagues think the old City still looks ‘more premium’ than the new one, and that the old one ‘looks like it means business, the new one doesn’t.’ I don’t agree. Parked alongside the old City,the new one looks very here and now. It will never have the hot-rod charm of the old car, which could be made to look very sporty, with a set of spoilers, skirts and bigger wheels and tyres, but this new machine certainly has an air of sophistication about it. The compact nose, high waistline, abbreviated glass area and rather substantial boot are all vaguely MPV-ish cues, but I’d say the overall effect is pleasant enough. The hood has a central crease running down it which is Accord-like and makes the City conform to the Honda family look. There’s also a very discreet little spoiler on the boot, which is somewhat akin to what you would find on a new 5-series BMW. Fit and finish is impeccable, and you’d be hard pressed to find fault anywhere. Doors shut with a muted ‘whump,’ shutlines are tight and paint quality seems a shade better than it used to be on the old City. 

More than its exterior styling, inside the new City is where the action is. For the first time in this segment, apart from the base model, we have a car that does not feature uniformly dull, black-and-grey interiors. Both our test cars, the CVT-equipped top-end model as well as the manual, came with tan and cream plastics on the dash and on the doors, plush velour pholstery, and smidges of chrome. There were also imitation-wood accents scattered around the cabin, which I didn’t like very much. If we have to have plastic wood inserts, can we have more real-looking shades please? Apart from this little complaint, I have nothing against the Honda’s cabin. There’s not one, but two gloveboxes (one of them is where the airbag would have been if that had been offered in India) which can be rather useful, while the deep-set instrument panel, with its three fake chrome-ringed dials looks rather cool. The three-spoke steering wheel feels small and sporty, and is adjustable for position. The new City is quite an ergonomic delight – the controls all fall to hand without having to fiddle around much, the seats, though a bit on the firm side, are comfortable, and there is no bare metal on display anywhere. There are no power adjustments for the seats, no CD-player (there is a CD player compatible Alpine radio/cassette player in there) and no separate AC vents for back seat occupants, but then maybe it’s just the plush interiors that got me expecting too much! One thing’s for sure – the new car’s cabin certainly outclasses any other in this segment.   Chink in the armour
So far, so good, but what is it like to drive? Umm... alright then, not very exciting. The car is fitted with a new 8-valve, SOHC, 1497 CC inline-four which makes 77 bhp. The old City 1.3 used to make 90 bhp, the 1.5 had 100 horses, and the VTEC put out 106, so 77 certainly is quite a comedown for Honda. Still, this is a new-age i-DSI (intelligent dual and sequential ignition) unit with two spark plugs for each cylinder, to maximise fuel efficiency. And though I was less than impressed with its performance, the new engine is fairly frugal with fuel. While testing, we got 12-13 kpl, and that is not bad at all. With more careful, relaxed driving, 14-15 kpl should be possible, and people are going to love that.Acceleration is... er, mild. The City VTEC used to smoke its way from 0 to 60 kph in 4.15 seconds, and to 100 kph in 10.56. The new car – the one with the 5-speed manual – takes 5.5 seconds to reach 60, and 12.5 seconds to get to 100. The CVT-equipped car is far slower – 7.3 seconds to 60, and 16.9 seconds to 100. The sophisticated CVT unit also has a ‘sport’ mode (default is ‘drive’), in which the car goes from 0-100 in 15.8 seconds. This is still 3 to 5 seconds slower than cars with comparable engine capacities, and the CVT-equipped City’s performance is, I must admit, a bit of a disaster. There’s no getting away from it – you’ll love the convenience of a CVT in traffic, but out on the highway, you’d be missing the performance of the old car. Here, I must also mention that the manual City’s 5-speed transmission is very good – the ratios are well-chosen, and the ‘box is nifty and precise. The short, stubby lever’s throw is pleasantly brief and swapping cogs swiftly is a joy in this car.
Where the new City has really moved up a class is ride quality. With McPherson struts in front and an H-type torsion beam at the back, it rides very well, much better than the old car. Over speedbumps and across broken roads, the car retains composure and occupants are not tossed around at all. Low-speed ride is good,and unlike the old City, which used to crash into potholes in a rather undignified manner, the new car dismisses bad roads with authority. It’s at least as good as the Siena (which, till now, had the best ride comfort in this segment of cars), and maybe even just a little bit better.

The brakes – ventilated discs at front and drums at the back – are adequate, but perhaps no more. Anti-lock would have provided additional peace of mind, and four-wheel discs would have been more appropriate than the current set-up. Still, for whatever it’s worth, the manual City did a 16.6 second 0-100-0 kph run, and even with its wheels locked, tracked arrow-straight through the procedure. Should be safe in panic situations then.Handling too is safe more than anything else but the steering is a bit of a letdown. The new City gets electric power steering and ‘feel’ is sorely missing. The steering wheel insulates the driver from what’s happening with the front wheels, and provides very little (if any) feedback. Once you do get used to the rather dead steering, it’s possible to hustle the City through a set of twisties quickly. There’s very little body roll and the car doesn’t wallow all over the place during rapid lane-change manoeuvres. The car’s suspension movements feel tight and controlled – not firm enough to jar your teeth, and not soft enough to make you feel seasick while cornering. 

During slalom runs, the car would begin to get out of shape by the fifth or the sixth cone, but could be brought back in line with some effort. It will get into spectacular tail-out drifts, but only if you insist on being brutal with the handbrake, or with the steering wheel. Overall, the City doesn’t handle as well as, say, an Ikon 1.6, but the package is still a good compromise between handling and ride quality. Visually, the City’s 14-inch wheels look way too small for the car, but its 175/65 tyres make for adequate roadholding. Drama is not the new City’s forte – it’d much rather insulate you from the elements, and concentrate on getting you home in comfort. If you are looking for driver involvement, this is the wrong car, but it’s competent otherwise.

Hit or miss?
What’s almost certain is that the new City is going to do very well indeed. Driving enthusiasts will moan about the missing performance and other car companies will make the most of the City’s missing horses in their advertising campaigns, but this car is a refined,comfortable, economical, practical and contemporary package which really does make sense for buyers in this segment. It has a really large boot for carrying loads of luggage, there’s enough legroom, headroom and elbowroom to keep everyone happy, fuel efficiency is very wallet-friendly. The sad bit is that Honda decided not to offer airbags and ABS in the Indian market... not even as extras! Quite a few brownie points lost for one of our leading contenders for the Car of the Year 2004 award.

Yes, I’ll miss the old VTEC for its raging performance and involvement, but if I were buying a car for my parents (or recommending one for yours), this would be the one. Personally, I’d avoid the poverty-spec, base model and go for the mid-range manual version, which costs around Rs 7.45 lakh. For those who have to have the ultimate in C-segment luxury, the CVT version costs all of Rs 8.07 lakh (both ex-showroom, Mumbai), but provides supremely hassle-free motoring. If you can’t be bothered with shifting gears and don’t quite trust conventional automatics, this is your car. 

The king is dead, long live the king. Now, break open that bottle of flavoured mineral water, put on some new-age world music and bring on the green salad...   HOLY SHIFT
The new City is the first car in India that also comes in a CVT variant, but what is CVT? Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) has actually been around in some form or the other for the last many decades. Earlier, it was mostly used in light industrial applications but with recent advances in microprocessor technology, it’s started appearing in cars. The main benefit of a CVT is that it closely matches the transmission with the optimum rev-range of the engine at all times, and conserves fuel better than conventional automatic transmissions. Also, unlike conventional automatics, which can snatch and jerk at times (with indelicate throttle modulation), the CVT is ever-smooth.

So how’s the CVT different from the everyday automatic? Rather than using a combination of gears, friction plates, hydraulic fluid and a torque converter, CVTs rely on a simple belt-and-pulley design. The pulleys are cone-shaped and the belt that runs between them can slide between the narrow and wide end of each pulley. This allows for a ‘continuously variable’ gear ratio, because the effective diameter of the pulleys can vary over a wide range. 

The CVT feels smooth because no actual shifts occur, and the real advantage comes from its ability to vary gear ratios instead of engine rpm for any given driving situation. If an engine’s peak horsepower and torque occur at X rpm, a CVT allows the engine to remain at this rpm even when climbing moderate hills or accelerating. While a traditional transmission must shift between multiple gears to try and keep an engine in its prime operating zone, a CVT just slides its belt between the narrow and wide ends of the pulleys to create a much more efficient drivetrain. Is this the future of small, fuel-efficient city runabouts? You bet.

The new City is purely functional, in the sense of ferrying kids, owners and wives to their various destinations. And it’ll probably die of shame if anyone ever had a good time driving it. Undeniably useful but unrelentingly dull, sums up the new Honda City for me.
– Shubhabrata Marmar

The new City is a great car for its price. It’s good-looking, contemporary, fuel-efficient and capable. Everything about it is perfect, except the name. Honda should have called it something else, because to me, the ‘City’ stands for one particular, legendary car.
– Srinivas Krishnan

Very refined. Very comfortable. Very boring. The City is dead. Period.
– Pablo Chaterji

I took people who drive the now ‘old’ City regularly for a test drive in the new one – and they hated it. They thought their car looked better and drove better. I can’t but agree. Great new car if you are the sort who would replace the ageing Nakamichi with an all-new VFM Sony.
 – Bijoy Kumar Y

How about finally loaning us that ‘old’ VTEC long-termer I had requested for about two years ago, Honda SIEL?
– Parameswaran