2020 Honda City | First drive review

We’ve gotten our hands on all petrol and diesel variants of the 5th generation Honda City. Has the wait been worth it?
2020 Honda City | First drive review

The segment benchmark that is what the Honda City is, and has been for the past 22 years. Ever since it was launched back in 1998 the City has been winning hearts and comparison tests. It is Honda’s bread and butter, standard against which all C-segment cars have been judged, and it is one of the longest running automotive nameplates in the country, second maybe only the E-Class. So you’ll forgive the hype and excitement around the 5th generation of the Honda City.

Unmistakable styling

In your face, that’s the new Honda City. Save for Gen 2, the City was always a handsome, but restrained car. No longer. Check out the nose and that slab of chrome stretching across the width and over the headlights. You don’t get the full effect in this silver but imagine that grille on a black City. Those headlights too, they are LED lights and amp up the bling quotient, along with their full width eyebrow DRLs. It runs on suitably bling-y diamond-cut 16-inch rims, but these look under tyred and this new City has definitely been designed for 17- if not 18-inch rims. The tyres too are narrower than its rivals, which we shall come to in a bit.

The new Honda City is a properly good looking car
The new Honda City is a properly good looking carHonda City

The design has gotten crisper and more European — check out that tightly pinched shoulder line that stretches from the front fender and goes all the way to the taillamp. That’s so Volkswagen! In a good way! There’s another crease at the bottom of the doors to cut visual bulk while the blacked-out taillamp with the LED lighting elements and the prominent spoiler integrated into the boot lid looks really nice. And where the whole world is going towards ever wider grills to snort it more and more air, Honda have nearly blanked out their grille and narrowed the air dam to give it better aerodynamics.

All-new interiors

The Japanese are nothing if not detail oriented and you notice it everywhere on the new Honda City. The wing mirrors, for instance, are mounted on the door to reduce the blind spots. There’s a blind spot camera in the instrument cluster that comes on when you flip the left indicator — very useful! Visibility is excellent with the bonnet, rear parcel shelf and boot lid re-profiled to improve the view out. There is the all-important sunroof along with plenty of cubby holes and trays, though the mobile phone tray is too narrow for a Max-sized iPhone and it doesn’t have a wireless charger. The 7-inch digital cockpit is very well designed with the dial on the left alternating between a tacho, g-force meter and comprehensive trip computer while on the right is the speedo — both having needles that swing the right way (clockwise). The steering wheel itself has a nice, tactile feel to it while also looking good.

Heavily reworked cabin
Heavily reworked cabinHonda City

Honda engineers have gotten everything right, except the 8-inch touchscreen that’s ever so slightly canted towards the passenger (at least that’s the impression that you get from the driver’s seat). It works very well, you can read it properly even in harsh sunlight, is mated to a 180W 8-speaker sound system, and has CarPlay, Android Auto, something called Web Link plus Alexa integration. It also gets 32 connected car features operated via the Honda Connect app including tracking, remote start-up, geofencing and more though we found the Android app to be slightly laggy, and we were in an area with good mobile network.

The benchmark for spaciousness

The City continues to set the benchmark as far as the boot space goes (506 litres) and spaciousness of the back seat. Honda claims the shoulder room has increased by 15mm, rear knee room is up by 15mm and together with the flat floor this is the only car in this class where you can seat five abreast comfortably. The seat back is also reclined to a comfortable angle but the headroom is just about adequate. Overall height is down by 6mm, though Honda claims headroom is up by 5mm. The font seats are the widest, plushest and most comfortable in this class with the best ergonomics and visibility. Honda has even coined a term for the City’s cabin — Ambitious Beauty. Which is a bit ambitious, but there’s no denying this is the nicest cabin in the C-segment.

Continues with the same i-VTEC petrol

The i-VTEC petrol is carried over from the Gen 4 City but with a new head featuring twin overhead cams. Power is up by 2bhp to 119.3 bhp while torque peaks at an identical 145Nm. And it feels quick. This engine, like every VTEC engine we’ve ever sampled, is a beauty spinning up with rabid enthusiasm and thoroughly enjoying hammering against the redline. It revs nearly 7000rpm which is rather a lot, considering we are now getting used to turbo-charged engines that peak at just over 5000rpm. And that brings me to the question — isn’t it time Honda brought along their turbo engine (which the City now has!)

i-VTEC engine
i-VTEC engineHonda City

I’m not so sure. To be honest there isn’t that effortless performance turbo engines deliver thanks to the rush of low down torque, but that said this naturally-aspirated engine has a unique character and there’s a joy to be had in working the engine. It is the most powerful engine in this segment. You never tire of whipping up the engine and rowing that sweet and slick 6-speed manual. It reminds you to hell-and-toe while downshifting, and when you get it right it brings back a rush of fond memories of the very first VTEC you drove. Of the times every Honda road test had the words, ‘maker of the world’s best engines’.

What the i-VTEC cannot do is make the City the fastest car in this segment. Those banzai revs actually makes the City feel faster than it really is, taking nearly a second more to get to 100kmph than the Vento/Rapid TSI at 10.9 seconds. That’s not only due to the lack of low-down grunt but also courtesy the extra wheelspin you get in the City, Honda sticking with 185-section tyres while every other car in this segment gets wider 195s. In the Honda you do get ESP, that can be switched off for a better launch but it comes back on when a major loss of control, like when you deliberately unsettle it with the handbrake.

Fantastic refinement and efficiency of i-VTEC

Performance is one aspect, the other is refinement and the i-VTEC is deathly silent at idle and even while cruising. It’s silky smooth and completely noiseless unless you deliberately rev it hard. And even when you rev it to the limiter you cannot feel the engine or any vibrations. It’s brilliant. That said there’s no engine noise to drown out the tyre and wind noise that is quite audible in the City, despite the spray foam sound insulator in the body and double sealing for the doors.

The i-VTEC is available with the CVT automatic that has seven steps (electronically) engineered into it to simulate the operation of a conventional automatic. Take it easy and the refinement of the gearbox is spectacular. This gearbox-engine combo is a paragon of refinement, you never notice it working and that’s a very good thing. It is also very efficient delivering 18.4kmpl, which is better than the manual’s 17.8kmpl. Surprising, I know, but on the ARAI cycle the CVT is more efficient than the manual!

The i-VTEC is very silent at idle
The i-VTEC is very silent at idleHonda City

What the CVT is not is an enthusiast’s gearbox. Though the rubber-band effect has been cured to a large extent there’s no eliminating it altogether on hard acceleration. The petrol-CVT is also more noisy, I guess because you have to work it harder to maintain the same speeds as the manual. And the 0-100kmph acceleration times drop by over a second. But you do get steering wheel mounted paddle shifters for the CVT, which is a nice touch.

The i-DTEC diesel

As much as I’m a fan of the VTEC petrol, I don’t really care too much for the diesel. At 99bhp it isn’t the most powerful, at 200Nm it isn’t the most torquey and before it even gets to 4000rpm the engine has run out of breath. You only get it with a 6-speed manual and, like always, it doesn’t suit the City’s effortless nature.

That said, I will have to admit the refinement of the engine is pretty good, especially when you consider how noisy it used to be in the past. At a gentle cruise it is now nearly silent and of course the fuel efficiency is fantastic at 24.1kmpl.

Familiar road manners

The architecture is carried over from the Gen 4 City but with rigidity up by 20.4 per cent thanks to increased used of ultra high tensile steel along with Super High Formability 980Mpa grade steel. This also results in the excellent 5-star Asian NCAP crash test rating making it the safest car in this class, complete with six airbags. Honda claims the weight of the body has reduced by 4.3 kilos though the added features and equipment have pushed the kerb weight up by 46kg to 1153kg. Unchanged is the 2600mm wheelbase while the track has gotten ever so slightly wider — 6mm at the front, 4mm at the rear. The length has increased by 109mm to 4549mm, almost the size of the first Civic that was launched in India. While from behind the wheel this new car feels very familiar to the outgoing one (which continues in production).

Throw it into a corner and the dynamic abilities are nothing if not familiar fare. You get a fair bit of body roll, understeer sets in earlier than its rivals thanks to the narrower tyres, and the steering remains lifeless. That said there is more sophistication in the ride and it absorbs bigger undulations much better than the Rapid and Vento — cars that once were the benchmark on this front. The suspension refinement is also much better in that it doesn’t crash noisily into bumps and potholes and the car doesn’t feel fragile any more. This is a very comfortable car and you can tackle unmarked speed breakers faster in the City than the VW / Skoda with no fear of the nose bottoming out. Ground clearance is plenty enough to tackle even the worst speed breakers. And the steering is better weighted, and doesn’t feel too light or flighty. It makes for a lovely car to drive — and be driven in — in the city.

5-star safety rating at ASEAN NCAP
5-star safety rating at ASEAN NCAPHonda City

Out in the hills the City handles in a safe, balanced and composed manner with predictable responses and precise steering that lets you position the car accurately into bends. You do want for more outright grip and this isn’t as much fun as, say, a Vento but it won’t be blown into the weeds either.

Overall verdict

As always a lot will depend on the pricing and there’s no question the City will be more expensive than its rivals. Especially since the Gen 4 City will continue to be sold, at an expected 9.99 lakh price tag. But that said the new City is more spacious, better equipped, more sophisticated, more comfortable and with a far better cabin — and this is not compared to the old City but its current class rivals. This new City has built on the strengths of its forebears to turn out what can only be described as the new benchmark in this class.

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