Enthusiasts generally make for good cribbers. They cribbed when the French TGV was outdone by the Japanese Bullet train. They cribbed when the Ferrari 360 replaced the 355 and when the Mustang lost its mojo in the nineties. They also cribbed every single time when a new lead tried to recreate Michael Hutchence’s magic with INXS. So when a section called Indian auto enthusiasts cribbed about the replacement of the tingly first-gen Honda City with a boring, subdued family saloon, nobody listened. Instead everyone went and bought the car in droves, dowries and duress. Honda had listened to the bean counters for a change and the beans were certainly sprouting money trees. The poor enthusiast had to make do with, er, well, compromises.
Compromises that Honda seems to suggest don’t have to be made any more. This, the new third-gen Honda City, seems to have gone back to the good ol’ days of being performance oriented, miting functionality of the second-gen with the style and performance of the first-gen. A compromise then, if you can call it. But is it? Will enthusiasts finally stop cribbing? Or will they opt for the competition? Let’s find out.
LOOKS & DESIGN
The Honda family look has been evolving for quite some time, though somewhere down the line, they seemed to have lost the plot with the last gen City and the current CR-V. Thankfully, things have turned around with the Inspire and Insight concept. The horizontal slats on the grille can be found on the new City as well. But squint your eye and hold the silhouette against the light and you will find a coupe-like shape at first, before you scream ‘eureka’ and call it a Civic copy. Honda calls it an ‘arrowshot’ design concept (sounds similar to HMSI’s ‘rushing wolf’ concept for the CBF Stunner! – Kyle), but it’s all PR speak. From a genuine standpoint, it is a handsome looking machine, with sharp lines and edgy panel design. Prominent features include the parallelogram shaped headlamps and the thick waistline where the extruded handles have been well integrated with the outer edge of the waistline. It also looks less slab-sided, thanks somewhat to the reduced height and the larger 15-inch wheels.
The one-piece bumper integration with the angular tail lamps might remind you of a couple of BMWs, and so does the kink in the C-pillar. In every bit along the way, it is a modern Honda, and that should be enough to wake everybody up.
INTERIOR & COMFORT
The radical exterior shape blends well with the interior, though it isn’t as radical on the inside as the Civic. The only sign of commonality is the shared steering wheel, with the top-end City versions now featuring audio controls. Like the Honda family dashboards, there is a clear demarcation of the upper and lower halves, with a separate shade for either half. There is an air of solidity and quality to the way it’s been put together, though that all stops when you view the centre console.
The silver finish is a little scruffy and there are signs of cost shaving in more places than one. Well, this is one of the first Honda cars to have a substantial part of it built in India and we will need to see how Honda can remedy the situation. The radicalisation has occurred with the stereo console. Gone is the CD player and in comes a USB port behind an LCD display and a multi-speaker setup with an amplifier. I could write a lot about it, but in short, you can hook up your iPod or pen-drive and use the jog dial to shuffle through your music. At this point, I’m not sure if people have made their entire CD collection redundant just yet, though Honda will provide an optional CD player.
What you can’t ignore is that it is a fairly good setup with a commendable soundstage, despite the rear speakers being located in the doors. There’s also a new trip meter of the CR-V variety, that advises you how to be more fuel efficient while driving, range etc.But Hondas have always been about space management and this City is no exception. You get nearly similar levels of space (Honda says 16 mm of additional space) and even though you sit lower than before, the rear seat has ample legroom, while headroom is a touch shorter than before. What disturbs is the rump in the floor below the front seats to accommodate the fuel tank and the lack of lumbar support for the driver. You constantly try to keep the seat upright and that isn’t comfortable over long drives.
POWERTRAIN & PERFORMANCE
The first-gen City VTEC was a stonker. The fact that virtually nothing in the market at that time could keep in touch during a drag says everything. The new City will find it hard to keep that flame burning. What made the first VTEC such a rabid wolf was its low-slung nature and kerb weight that was just about a tonne. On paper, the new City is just a fraction lower than its predecessor in the power-to-weight ratio stakes. But where the new car takes matters into its own hands is the sort of efficiency, torque and in-gear driveability it possesses. Yet, this new iVTEC engine with 14.9 kgm of peak torque, can only deliver it at 4600 rpm. Moreover with the iVTEC cams coming to life only after 3000 rpm, it doesn’t exactly sound very driveable.
How Honda have managed to solve the problem is by the adoption of a few tricks. The iVTEC system is a two-phase unit with a low and high switchover. Moreover, it utilises a high tumble intake port and smaller gear modules for gears third to fifth. The benefits? Well, the engine has become more low rpm friendly, though there are still traces of lack of torque at the bottom end. However, discounting the engine just yet might be a little naive, after all 116 bhp at 6600 rpm from a 1500cc engine makes for an interesting performance recipe. But does it taste good?Sure enough it does. This one has all the right condiments for a good performance run, with 15-inch wheels, a short throw gearbox, lower kerb weight and an aerodynamic shell.
Standing starts to 60 kph come up in just 5.46 seconds. Spank some more and it will do 100 kph in around 11.64 seconds. These figures tend to resemble some of the numbers we achieved with the Ford Fiesta 1.6S a couple of issues ago, but the car we tested here had an engine with just 300 kilometres on the odo. Expect improved numbers once we re-test the car once again in the future, but one thing is for sure; when we do, it will pretty much stay at the top of the heap.The speed through the gears isn’t bad either, and importantly the 100-140 kph runs came in just 12.1 seconds, some two seconds quicker than the Fiesta. Goes to prove how VTEC can make a difference to mid and top-end performance. Top speed was nicely placed at 185 kph, that again should improve with a run-in car. What the numbers don’t reveal are some interesting facets. On our runs from 1st to 2nd gear, it was quite easy to slip into neutral.
Moreover our test car’s gearbox felt ‘sticky’ as Aman put it, even though under regular driving circumstances it slots in well. There is however, a very sweet engine note that creeps in from 3500 rpm onwards that turns a tad buzzy post 5500 rpm. There’s also a fair amount of road noise that filters in and requires turning up the stereo volume to dilute it.
RIDE AND HANDLING
If there was a complaint against the last City, it was the overall nervousness with the car’s handling. The car felt top-heavy, skittish at speeds anywhere over 120 kph and the steering lifeless. It really was a ‘City’ car that could do the occasional highway run. Enthusiasts should stop complaining now. For one, even though the steering is an EPS system, Honda have managed to dial in some steering feedback.They’ve reduced the steering ratio from 18.3 to 17.7. A higher capacity motor has also been installed, from 40 amp to 60 amp. While the number of turns lock-to-lock have been reduced, the steering radius has increased from 4.9 metres to 5.3 metres. That is partly due to the increased wheelbase, by nearly 100 mm. It does show up in the way it handles; the car feels more positive to turn-in, the body well held together and even the high speed stability is quite good. It showed while we were testing, never threatening to corkscrew on its front wheels or get blown away by cross winds. Very unlike Honda. The ride, however, is slightly firmer. In the quest for improved handling, Honda have ensured the suspension, especially the units at the rear, stay firm. Low-speed ride is still comfortable, but as speeds rise, rear seat occupants start to feel the ruts on the road. This despite sticking to the H-type torsion beam setup at the rear, while new McPherson strut units grace the front axle. Braking is accurate, but on all the test cars that we went through, an irritating throbbing crept in through the pedal and the monocoque when the brakes were applied. It felt a lot like on the first-generation ABS units some decades ago, and even though Honda have promised this was a problem isolated only to our batch of pre-production cars, we will reserve comment until we try out some fresh pieces.
Honda’s latest City straddles two worlds, that of the last generation’s practicality with the first generation’s performance intent. Yes, this is exactly how the car should have been the last time round, but hey, Honda managed to even turn that into a money spinner.With a split personality that tries to keep everyone in the food chain happy, the new City does nearly tick all the right boxes. There is some amount of cost cutting evident, and the car could go through some amount of fine tuning, but right now, it’s the best in its segment.
Yes, enthusiasts can now stop cribbing.