Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A weekend in the City!

There’s a lot you can tell by a name. Honda named their B-segment budget sedan City, much like the urban township which many examples will find home to. Interestingly, this sub-compact, which started life as an ASEAN only model, is also more apt for intra-city/suburb drives than for true inter-state jaunts. Hence its all-telling and meaningful nomenclature?

Into its 3rd generation (as a sedan, the first one was a JDM mini hatch) the City has indeed matured and grown up. External sheet metals are tauter now, with more angular lines and sharper contours. The arrow-form shape is tensibly palpable as visualised from the shot shown above. Neat, smart looking and to a certain extent being copied by Kia's upcoming Cerato Forte.

Step into the new City's cabin, the dashboard, door trim and especially, Honda’s ‘universal’ dish wok steering wheel greets you, conveying a more serious demeanour, more like a junior Civic than an entry-level sedan. The last one was more MPV-ish in nature.

It’s inevitable that the City draw many parallels with the Toyota Vios since both are undeniably competitors in the same segment and in the same price range (within that few thousand ringgit plus or minuses, depending on trim level). Honda’s local chapter has denied that their new offspring is meant to compete head-on with the Vios, not at least in the numbers game. After all, they are not interested in delivering beyond some two thousand units per month from their Melaka Pegoh's assembly plant. As such, waiting period for the 1.5S is averaging about two months while the higher spec 1.5E’s incubation for interested buyers has dragged on to about 4 months. Meanwhile, over at the other camp, the Vios is being Frankenstein-ed with TRD decals, fancy paints plus ‘sport’ accessories. At Toyota showrooms level, there are enticing overtrade, down payment rebates, low interest rates, discounted standard bodykit and the list goes on. Very telling on who is after sales volume in numbers. So, it is a foregone conclusion which model will be the bestseller come end-2009 when the all revealing total sales figures are tallied and released by the Malaysian Automotive Association (MAA).

By now, if you have not fallen asleep with the cold facts above, I supposed most will naturally ask: “So, which is the better car?” While I can’t really tell you with definitive authority – this isn’t a shootout or a comparo at any rate – I can say there is a lot to like about the new City. It’s rather complete for a car that’s sub-RM90k. There are paddle shifters, new 5A/T, decent audio system that interfaces with your i-Pod/MP3 music player and that improved 1.5 i-VTEC with nice on-paper figures. However, it’s more like “Win Some, Lose Some” scenario here.

Things that I missed (my family had an i-DSI City from ’03) in the new City are the deeper/taller boot (Honda claims this new one is bigger though at 506 litres), versatile ULTRA seat and double-tiered gloveboxes. The other missing items are proper metal sheet or plastic cladding covering - in the engine bay - at the fenders section bilaterally and the useful green tinted band in the upper section of the front windscreen.

While the seats are supportive enough, I couldn’t ignore the fact that thigh support are shorter aft (versus 2nd gen), for both front seats. Could this be a case of flattering mimicry? If you happen to delve into things a little deeper, you may have noticed that seat trim pattern and overall dark, sombre interior tone also mirrors the Vios somewhat, more so the last 2nd generation model. In the E-grade City, the rear reclinable seat is a nice touch, while the centre foldable armrest with cup holders adds a premium comfort touch for the rear passengers. Interior headroom and overall feeling of space is however a tad more claustrophobic now – with the lower roof, lower seating overall and darker shaded interior.

Driving impression of the new City conveys an overall tighter, solid feel with more positive handling - contributed by the weightier rack, firmer ride and tauter body control. Great if you’re single (or dating) and loving it. Less appropriate if you’re more into wafting comfort and have a young family to pamper. It isn’t exactly Type-R grade stiffness but let's just say this all-new City can be caught by rough tarmac surfaces and sharp ridges at low speed. At other times, it can be as plaint as a cat falling on to a soft pillow.

Going on to highway, I mostly tried my best to keep the 4-pot ticking below 4000rpm. Above this, the i-VTEC powerplant (?intake manifold) bellows an incessant hollow drumming. Sadly atypical of Honda’s previous VTEC motors singing smoothness. In all fairness, the new City does 140km/h with the engine ticking circa 3000rpm. That’s two overdrive gears within the 5A/T working for you I guess. Disappointingly, the high rev ‘protest’ notes were perhaps even a decibel or two higher than my last 8-valve twin spark i-DSI drone at high speed. Once again, this reminded me much of the ‘T’ make’s character, a trait which the latest Vios has toned down quite significantly.

Before returning the tester, the odometer was reading some 410km to the tankful of 42 litres (minus the reserve volume) of benzene laden fuel. While it’s not fair to comment on fuel consumption since more than half the time the car was being pushed quite hard (I didn’t pay attention to the on-board computer figure, my apologies), I reckon that this new City will never be as frugal as the last i-DSI. At best, it will barely match the fuel efficiency of the last VTEC City. Pity it doesn’t have the CVT option like the JDM Honda Fit. This will improve century sprint timings, climbing gradient smoothness as well as improve mileage to the tankful.

So much for our local motoring ‘enthusiasts’ preferring a more spirited feeling or sporty drive, which is afforded by a regular torque converter, according to Honda Malaysia. Maybe, just maybe…these guys should just get a Toyota Vios J manual. It’s light and spirited working the stick shift, rowing thru all 5 forward ratios. In fact, it was lovely to sprint about in one, the last time tested in 2008 as part of the NST-CBT COTY review. And oh! Just in case if that isn’t sporty enough there’s always localised (more affordable?) TRD goodies, to be made available soon, last I heard.

Related posts:

All-new Honda City launched in Malaysia

Driven: Honda Jazz 1.5V Modulo

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