The Honda City was an instant hit when it first made its debut in India back in the late 1990s. Sedan buyers in India, up until that time, simply hadn’t experienced the kind of slick engineering refinement and driving pleasure that Honda offered with the City. And while the first City came with a choice of 1.3-litre and 1.5-litre petrol engines (both of which were pretty good), Honda also introduced a 1.5-litre VTEC engine just two years down the line, and the City VTEC went on to become something of a cult classic. With their variable valve timing, Honda’s VTEC engines are rightfully revered for the high-revving thrills they provide, and even today, 20 years on, Honda enthusiasts still speak of the City VTEC in hushed tones. Gone, but never forgotten. If the City VTEC of the early 2000s was a bit of a wild child, later iterations of the City went in a different direction. Sure, the refinement always remained, but Honda traded the first City’s sense of fun for more grown-up things like improved safety, better fuel economy, lower emissions, a bigger cabin, and more comfort. The hard rocking frat boy exchanged the ratty pair of jeans and sneakers for a gray suit, and sensible shoes. From its second generation onwards, the City has been a car for bankers and dentists and lawyers, dutifully helping Honda fill its coffers.
In India, few cars have been as dominant in their segment as the City was in its, during the first 10 to 12 years of its life. After years of trying, manufacturers like Ford, Fiat, General Motors, Mitsubishi, Renault, Nissan, and a few others, simply gave up. Even the mighty Toyota couldn’t build a car to compete with the City. However, over the last few years, the City has had a fight on its hands; the Maruti Ciaz and Hyundai Verna have traded some serious blows with the City, while the Volkswagen Vento and Skoda Rapid have also made significant inroads into what used to be the City’s exclusive domain. So the question is — can the recently launched fifthgeneration City rework its old magic, or will it simply be one of the also-rans in the face of newer, tougher competition? Despite diesel being demonised in recent times, the new City is still available both in petrol and, yes, diesel engines. There’s a 1.5-litre i-VTEC four-cylinder petrol unit with high-accuracy variable valve timing control. Smooth and refined as ever, this engine produces 120 horsepower and 145Nm of torque. It’s available with either a 6-speed manual (who would want one in this day and age of never-ending traffic jams?), or an automatic 7-speed continuously variable transmission, which is seamlessly smooth and efficient. Naysayers should note this is a much-improved version of Honda’s earlier CVTs, with reduced ‘rubber-band effect’ (wherein, under sudden and hard acceleration, engine revs go up quickly, while the car struggles to accelerate). Also, the paddle-shifters allow a degree of manual control over the CVT, for tricky overtaking manoeuvres, so that should keep ‘enthusiasts’ happy.
Then, for those who’d rather have slowrevving, low-rpm torque, there’s the Honda 1.5-litre i-DTEC diesel, which produces 99 horsepower and 200Nm of torque. It certainly doesn’t have the petrol engine’s high-revving zing, but the diesel does have more low-rev torque, if that’s your thing. As you’d expect, the diesel is also a bit more fuel-efficient than the petrol (24.1kpl vs 18.4kpl) and, what with diesel costing about 10 per cent less than petrol, it’ll help you save a few rupees per litre while you’re at it. The diesel doesn’t get an automatic transmission option though, which we thought was a bit weird. Everyone wants an automatic these days, especially those who are buying bigger sedans, so why did Honda hold back here, we wonder. With the Honda City, cabin space really matters. That’s because while a lot of owners drive their City themselves, many do employ chauffeurs. And regardless of whether you spend time upfront or at the back, the City doesn’t disappoint. Like many of its owners, the City has steadily increased in size over the last few years, and the car is now a bit bigger in all areas than the competition. The seats are large and comfortable, nicely upholstered in leatherette, and generously proportioned. The City is a genuine five-seater — here, we’re talking five adults who dine at the Le Cirque Signature fairly often.
Apart from its sheer spaciousness, the new City’s cabin looks good even otherwise; it’s all muted beige and brown and black, with reasonably high-quality plastics, nice leatherette, imitation wood trim, and a large full-colour touchscreen display for infotainment. The tech-savvy will likely be happy with the City’s smartphone connectivity and Apple CarPlay / Android Auto compatibility. You can hook up your USB device for music, or stream via Bluetooth. Amazon loyalists, who won’t stop at Prime delivery, can even get Alexa to control some of the car’s functions. So, yes, you can get Jeff Bezos’s little bot to open your car’s door for you and switch the AC on, bless your geeky heart. In an interesting aside, the full-colour TFT-display instrument panel even has a G-meter, which lets you keep tabs on how hard you’re accelerating, braking or cornering. So what if the NSX Type R didn’t have one, your new Honda City has a G-meter, and it’s undeniably cool.
About driver aids and safety, the new City has a five-star crash test rating from ASEANNCAP, which is the best thing ever for car buyers. Yes, that NCAP safety rating really does mean a lot, and the Honda is loaded with safety tech; it has up to six airbags, antilock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD), a stability assist system, and ISOFIX-compatible rear seats. There’s also a tyre pressure monitoring system, multi-angle rear camera and four parking sensors at the back, and an advanced monocoque chassis that utilises superiorgrade steel for added strength. Safety has to be one of the most important parameters in a family sedan like the Honda City, and this fifth-generation car aces it. In terms of the ride and handling, the new City features McPherson struts with coil springs at the front, and torsion beam with coil springs at the back. The suspension is set up for plush ride comfort rather than cornering heroics, which is just as well for a family sedan. Remember, the City gave up its boy racer status way back in 2003, with the launch of the second-generation car. This new one, like its predecessors over the last decade, is designed for corporate types who want plush, not racy. And the City delivers inasmuch. The one thing we’re forced to note here, however, is that with its enhanced dimensions, the new City now dwarfs the 16-inch alloy wheels that it rides upon. Relative to the car’s bodywork, its wheels look quite small and we wish Honda was offering bigger wheels (17 or even 18-inchers would look good) as an option. That, and a turbocharged petrol engine for a bit more power. Along with a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic. Oh, well, one can dream, right?
The Honda City is a good all-around family sedan, and the petrol-automatic is the one to go for. It’s safe, spacious, comfortable, refined, reliable and fuel-efficient and, yes, those are things that matter in a family sedan. The diesel needs more refinement, more power and an automatic transmission before it becomes a viable option, but the petrol-automatic quite holds its own against the competition. Just give it some bigger wheels, Honda.