Rating 9 9

New 2014 Honda City review, test drive

13th Feb 2014 6:41 pm

How much of a leap forward has Honda taken with the all-new City? Here's our comprehensive road-test review.

  • Make : Honda
  • Model : City
Every generation of the Honda City has been a winner. One of the ingredients of its success has been, in no small measure, Honda’s out-of-the-box approach when conceiving this mid-size saloon. The pattern has been fairly predictable. Once every five or six years, Honda introduces a drastically new City that bears little or no resemblance to its predecessor, and it inevitably goes on to become the mid-sizer to beat. Hence, the new, fourth-generation City’s design, which is evolutionary rather than radical, is a bit disappointing, although the car is, in essence, completely new. 
 
Honda has played it safe and probably didn’t want to take a risk with another extreme design in today’s tough market. It’s clear then that the company has focussed on pleasing the masses rather than sticking to the petrol-headedness that enthusiasts love it for. But it’s the common consumer – the type who wants to be pampered in every possible way – that will eventually let Honda meet the lofty sales targets it has set for the City. 
 
As a result, sixteen years and three generations later, Honda has finally given in to the country’s demand for a diesel engine. It’s also packed this latest iteration with a tonne of features – something we Indians love. The diesel City may have missed the sweet spot when it comes to timing, but it definitely beats not turning up at all. So how good is the new ‘consumer-oriented’ City? We thoroughly tested both, the petrol and the diesel manuals, to see if it sets new benchmarks yet again. 
 
 
After a decade and a half, the City finally gets an oil-burner under its hood and it’s the same 1.5-litre i-DTEC motor that’s found in the Amaze. Honda hasn’t opted for the VGT turbo that this engine comes with in Europe in a bid to cut costs, and the spec sheet carries over the identical figure of 98.6bhp from its smaller sibling. But, the added sixth cog and slightly shorter ratios compensate for the City’s extra weight over the Amaze. So, how well has this motor adapted? 
 
 
Honda’s main goal with this engine was to offer the best possible driveability and fuel economy, and to this extent it’s done a fantastic job. Despite having to shoulder the added weight of 160kg, the engine feels extremely tractable and pulls cleanly from as low as 1800rpm all the way to its rather modest 4400rpm limit. At full tilt, it’ll breach 100kph in a modest 14.75 seconds. Doubtless, its higher-capacity competition, the Rapid, Vento and Verna, can post better figures, but when it comes to snappy low-end response – what you’ll need in the metros – the City is as good as it gets. Also, the diesel’s short-throw, six-speed manual ’box has a crisp mechanical feel, and the well-defined gate makes it easy to drive the gears home. Most importantly, the additional ratio is instrumental in keeping the engine ticking over at low revs while cruising  at highway speeds. And it’s best to keep this engine at low revs because it’s pretty noisy when you rev it hard. 
 
 
In a bid to make it quieter, Honda engineers claim to have added more noise insulation material, along with some tweaks to the engine. Sadly, they haven’t achieved the desired effect, and the all-aluminium motor remains intrusive, making it impossible to escape the fact that it feeds on diesel. Honda’s forte is the petrol engine and expectedly, there are no refinement issues here. Though it’s the same 1.5-litre i-VTEC motor from before, Honda has tweaked it substantially and it shows. The intake manifold has been redesigned and now the VTEC kicks in at lower revs, resulting in a much improved bottom end. The cooling system has been redesigned to warm up the engine faster, and double-needle spark plugs have improved the combustion process. 
It’s remarkable how these tweaks have added incredible flexibility to this engine. Keen drivers will love how the tacho needle sweeps cleanly from as low as 1,700rpm to all the way past 7,000rpm. Come 4,600rpm and the clever valve timing gives you that classic VTEC ‘step up’, leaving only the limiter to keep the revs in check. Flat out, 100kph is dispatched in just 10.13sec – a class benchmark. 
 
The fun-factor is amplified by an encouraging exhaust note, and with a hint of induction noise thrown into the mix, the high-revving engine eggs you to slam the next cog home and repeat the mad dash to the rev limiter. Yes, it does sound frantic when worked, but never unpleasant.
 
Honda claims the diesel City is the most efficient car in the country. Highway and city figures of 19.5kpl and 14.2kpl make the diesel City one of the most economical cars we’ve ever tested. The petrol’s an easy sipper too. We saw figures of 11kpl and 17kpl, city and highway – way ahead of its rivals. The only hitch is the small 40-litre tank which slightly limits its range between tank-ups.
 
 
 
The five-inch screen you see here is found on the top V and VX trims. Honda has reinstated the 
CD player and there’s Aux, USB and Bluetooth telephony too. The unit powers eight speakers (four mid-range drivers and four tweeters) and sounds decent for an OEM setup. However, the front speakers easily overpower the rear ones, leading to the rear passengers wanting to turn the volume up a bit. This interface also doubles as the screen for the reversing camera.
 

Despite its familiar design, what you’ll immediately notice is that the new City is bigger than before. The wheelbase has increased by 50mm and the overall length has grown 25mm too. While the numbers may not look like much, the cleverly revised styling is what’s responsible for its perceived size and mature look. 
 
The slightly garish chrome slab on the grille may not to be to everybody’s taste, but the sleekly cut and technical-looking twin headlamps look superb. The new City retains its predecessor’s ‘Arrow Shot’ silhouette, but the addition of a strong character line across the door adds dynamism to its profile. Elements such as this and the sharper creases on the bumper are all part of Honda’s new design language, christened ‘Exciting H’. The Civic-like tail-lamps are wide and extend into the boot lid. They help highlight the 1,695mm width of the car and look premium too. But, the skinny 175-section tyres and smallish wheels fail to do justice to an otherwise energetic shape.
For this all-new platform, Honda has managed to improve the torsional rigidity by a good 24 percent, while simultaneously reducing overall weight. To achieve this, they have used higher-tensile steel in the body and lightweight parts in the suspension assembly. Honda has also moved the fuel tank back to the conventional position under the rear seat to minimise fuel line plumbing, which saves weight as well as cost. Cumulatively, these steps have resulted in a good 45kg weight reduction, spec-for-spec, over its manual gearbox-equipped predecessor, while the CVT is an impressive 75kg lighter than previous automatic. 
 
 
The new City uses conventional MacPherson struts up front and a twist beam axle at the rear. Instead of discs, the rear wheels still rely on drum brakes, albeit slightly larger ones. In its quest for fuel efficiency, Honda has stuck with narrow 175/65 R15 tyres, which may again disappoint enthusiasts.
 
However,  the company has its priorities clear. Fuel efficiency takes precedence over all other driving attributes and it is for this reason that Honda has lowered friction with a manic focus, wherever possible. Lower-frictions hubs, brake pads that are further away from the discs and pistons with anti-friction coatings are some of the efforts. And, the added sixth cog on the diesel City plays a vital role in keeping the engine more relaxed at highway speeds, further reducing consumption. A ground clearance  of 165mm may seem insufficient, especially since the earlier car had a reputation for scraping its belly over speed breakers, but Honda has shaped the underbody such that the typical contact areas have been recessed in. 

The cabin is where Honda has really focussed its efforts, and with good reason. The Verna, which has been dominating the segment of late, woos buyers with its well-equipped interiors, and this is the Hyundai’s key selling point. But with the new City, Honda is ready to beat its key rival at its own game. The equipment list is long, and includes four 12V power sockets, keyless entry and go, a sunroof, cruise control, steering-mounted controls, electric folding mirrors and a rear AC vent as standard on the top-spec VX version. All variants get ABS, EBD and at least one airbag as standard (higher trims get two), and it doesn’t stop there. 
 
 
Nestling oneself into the new City’s cabin is a pretty pleasing experience. The first thing that comes to mind is just how incredibly comfortable the driver’s seat is. Immediately, your shoulders will love the soft supporting bulges in the seat back. Then there’s the generous seat cushion that gives you the feeling of being in a car that’s at least a segment above. In fact, Honda tried a lot of different seat foam densities and we feel the end result is just right. And interestingly, the softer foam lets Honda get away with a stiffer suspension setup on the new City.
 
The driving position is a bit  ‘stretched out’ and slotting the gear lever into first requires a bit of a stretch too. A slightly lower cowl and a reach-adjustable steering wheel would have been ideal, but it isn’t a deal breaker. With a bit of experimentation, you can settle into a comfortable driving position.
 
The technical looking instruments are very easy to read both in the day and at night. You may want to turn down the brightness though, because the neon blue rings that flank the dials can be annoyingly bright at night. Drive with a light foot and these blue accents turn green to reward you. A bit gimmicky we think, but no doubt many owners will love this bit of bling. As for the dashboard, a large silver ‘T’ forms the core of the new design and, against the black dash, it looks aesthetically pleasing. However, the overall design has a bit too many elements vying for your attention and lacks a cohesiveness or simplicity we would have liked. 
 
 
Recessed into the large central piano-black surface is a five-inch LCD screen (lower trims get a 3.5-inch screen) that acts as the multimedia centre and reversing camera screen (the camera gets three viewing angles). We’ve criticised the previous City’s lack of automatic climate control and Honda has hit back with a touch panel-operated system – a segment first. While the interface does look fantastic and a tad sci-fi inspired, the downside is that you need to take your eyes off the road to operate it. Submitting to customer feedback, the audio player now sees the return of a CD player. Additionally, it supports all contemporary audio formats through USB and Bluetooth telephony. However, while you can either answer or end calls via the buttons on the wheel, cycling through the contact list or even redialling requires you to use the multimedia interface and hence take one hand off the wheel. Another letdown is that the expansive piano black surface scratches very easily and may not look as pleasing after a few months.
 
Honda’s packaging prowess is best experienced at the back. You’ll find an incredible amount of knee room here and again, in a blind test, the soft and comfy cushions could trick you into thinking you’re in a luxury car. The back seat is good for three people, thanks to a flat floor and wide cabin, which according to Honda is 40mm wider. However, headroom is surprisingly limited and taller folk will find the roof too close. Also, the small fixed headrests won’t really protect you from whiplash injuries. 
 
Apart from the extended wheelbase, the trick to all this extra space is that an all-new electric power steering system frees up space in the front, while the rear parcel shelf has been moved upward to release a few more inches both in the cabin and the boot, although this severely hampers rear visibility. As for the boot, the 510-litre capacity is the best in the segment, but the load lip is a touch high. 

Though the new City continues to ride on weedy tyres, that doesn’t make it a dud dynamically. Throwing the City unrealistically hard into corners does result in the tyres fighting for grip, but it isn’t half as bad as you may imagine from such slim rubber. Even the electric power steering has been reworked to be more accurate and is now more realistically weighted. However, it does feel inert, and the feedback from the front tyres is very limited. 
 
 
At expressway speeds, the City shows rather noteworthy composure, even when suddenly confronted by a rough patch. It’s the improvements underneath that contribute to this. Honda has beefed up the front anti-roll bar by 2-3mm and the stiffer suspension helps in keeping spring rebound in check. Conversely, at low speeds, the ride isn’t exactly plush and sharper edges thump into the cabin quite easily. Honda’s attempt to eliminate the issue of scraping over speed breakers has been largely successful, but we did see the underbody scrape over one large-ish speed breaker.

 

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