– Spacious interior
– Class-leading engine
– Excellent fuel economy
– Hard cabin plastics all over
– Not enough low-end kick
– A bit pricey for its class
So far, Honda’s bestsellers in the GCC have been the Civic and the Accord. With the Civic reaching premium prices nowadays, it would’ve been safe to assume that the cheaper Honda City would’ve taken up the slack. But the existing City was one of the geekiest-looking cars on the road, so nerdy that even Honda fanboys did not defend it. That is about to change with the new-for-2009 Honda City, fully redesigned from the ground up, and all the better for it.
The exterior has a chiselled appearance, with decent proportions for a tall sub-compact. While its height is not fully hidden, its impact on the design is reduced by the long sloping windshield and swoopy roofline. Our top-of-the-range City EX tester also had extras such as a unique optional grille, attractive 16-inch alloy rims, rear lip spoiler and bits of extra chrome all over, all adding to its somewhat premium look. With pricing that overlaps with larger compact cars, buyers should be happy with these upgrades, given what they are paying.
The interior is simple and yet it manages to look good. Instead of a sea of black, there is a light two-tone theme going on, with smatterings of fake chrome spicing up the console. Indeed, the gauges, stereo-face and metal pedals would’ve been right at home in a car costing twice as much, and these are the touches that help the City rise above flops like the Chevy Aveo and the Hyundai Accent. However, it becomes evident that the car is firmly stuck in the economy-car category, no-thanks to the exclusive use of hard plastics all over the cabin. There isn’t even one piece of soft-touch trim anywhere, but at least it all looks like high-quality matte-finished plastics.
Indeed, all the money goes into building possibly the most spacious sub-compact car on the market. The stretched wheelbase offers enough rear legroom to beat larger cars like the Ford Focus and the Peugeot 308, both one class higher than the City, while even making SUVs such as the Infiniti FX50 and the Range Rover Sport feel cramped. There is no shortage of headroom either, and the cargo area is long and deep enough to trick people into thinking this is a larger car that it really is. The cloth seats offer basic bolstering, the driver’s one is height-adjustable, the rear bench seatback split-folds, and there are enough exposed cup-holders for five cans and two additional bottles.
Ergonomics are not perfect, however. While the buttons are easy to reach and use, the real issue is that the driver’s cloth-covered armrests are too hard to be comfortable, and placed far too low anyway, so long drives are a strain on the arms. And while four seating spaces get three-point seatbelts, the rear centre passenger only gets a lap-belt while he endures the raised central lump on the floor.
Our EX tester included features such as power windows, dual front airbags, electric mirrors, keyless entry, CD/MP3 player with steering-wheel controls, trip computer and a little cubby that hides premium features like an AUX port and a USB jack. The stereo was pretty decent for someone who doesn’t fret much over equaliser settings, while the manual a/c did well during our March test-drive. Beeping rear parking sensors were also there, though unnecessary in such a small car. About the only things we missed were a sunroof, Bluetooth and cruise control.
The truly class-leading piece of this entire package is the 118 hp 1.5-litre 4-cylinder engine, with i-VTEC variable valve timing no less. With 146 Nm of peak torque at a high 4800 rpm, it feels terribly slow. However, it managed to surprise us with a timed 0-to-100 kph run of 10.8 seconds as power comes on late in the rev range, enough to chase down body-kitted Civics. It also manages to be sprightly in first-gear driving around parking lots and traffic jams, so all is not lost. Our smooth 5-speed automatic also came with optional paddle-shifters mounted on the wheel itself, which proved to be rather fun to use, with only the slightest of delays in responding to inputs and holding gears on command. On top of all this, our as-tested fuel consumption only came to 6.7 litres per 100 km, easily the lowest we’ve ever tested.
But battling the highway is not its strongest suite. Its short wheelbase makes the ride a bit bumpy at times but never floaty. Wind and road noises are moderate, but gets annoying quickly at speeds over 100 kph. The engine is noisy under full throttle, but quiets down fine when cruising. All this is about average for the class, and no other small car in this category does any better than the City.
On the handling front, the somewhat-firm ride does not translate to a sporty drive. Quick movements produce a fair amount of body roll, but it is easily kept in check by the suspension and there is none of the excessive rebound that makes the Corolla so sickening. The steering has just the right amount of firmness, but not much feedback. The ABS-assisted brakes also need a pounding to make the car stop quickly, while special care has to be taken when hard-braking from 120 kph down to zero, as the lightweight car sways a bit. The rear brakes are just simple drums.
While the City is built in Thailand, it boasts build quality as tight as any Japanese car. It looks like Honda chose to leave any sporting aspirations to the Jazz, as the City seems to target more conservative commuters, although still injecting it with reasonable handling and a class-leading engine. And while the price is steep, it still manages to fill a niche in the Honda line-up left open by the ever-more-expensive Civic.
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