Slicker Citys: Performance VTEC Citys
Can you turn a decade old, humble Honda City VTEC into a fast, fun car without breaking the bank? With VTEC, we think it is possible.
Words: Abhay Verma
Photography: Vikrant Date
It depends on who you talk to. Mention Honda City to the average buyer and he would assume a comfortable, spacious family car, which is what it has grown into. But, to a tuner, there’s only one Honda City that matters – the third generation (codename: SX8) and the VTEC in particular!
The third generation City VTEC, the first VTEC to be sold in our country, is the car that tuners have wet dreams about. It was replaced by a rather odd-looking, vastly more practical successor and the fact that none of the SX8’s successors were as sporty has only increased the appeal of the car to those in the know. Back then, the VTEC distinguished itself from the 1.5 Exi with its chrome alloy wheels, disc brakes all round, twin tail pipes, silver dash inserts, and most importantly a sporty looking spoiler. It was quick to appeal to the ‘go faster boys’ thanks to its ballistic top-end performance, its improved responsiveness and back then, India hadn’t seen anything like it. It had a slick five-speed transmission mated to a 1.5-litre engine producing 110bhp in a 1200kg car that sat low and boasted great handling along with a brilliant steering. Sigh!
Below 3500rpm it was rather fuel efficient too but it is beyond 4000rpm that it’s VTEC magic starts. Past 4000rpm, the engine takes on a fizzing, buzzing, intense rush to the redline. It was special. Tuners swear by its engine’s potential and its surprising reliability even after being modified to the moon.
It’s why I’m in Bangalore, I miss the VTEC and I hear there are plenty of them here. Bangalore is home to some serious petrol heads and they even have VTEC clubs. I’m here to meet Joel Joseph, a close friend and petrol head who’s a biker turned tuner. Joel has been working on VTEC engines for a while, and has probably been under the hood of most tuned VTECs on the streets of Bangalore because he’s started his own tuning brand called Race Concepts a couple of years ago. He’s someone who can make a City VTEC run rings around more expensive machinery and he’s even built some of the fastest VTECs around.
It’s why I’ve turned up at his door with a “Please Joel, can I drive your cars?” and a cheesy smile. Being the nice guy he is, he let me loose in a naturally aspirated car with serious modifications to the engine and another one that, hold your breath, is a turbocharged version that Joel claims puts out well over 250bhp at the wheel!
I was expecting bewinged, NACA ducted, slammed monsters but to my bewilderment, I found myself staring at two completely tame- looking Citys! Well, that’s how Joel likes to build his cars, he likes sleepers – cars that look docile but have a mean bite. No worries though because the moment the cars were cranked up, they announced their intentions with louder, sportier exhaust notes. Both cars are daily drivers with credible reliability despite being over a decade old and modified seriously. The golden City on these pages is the naturally aspirated one and by the looks of it you really wouldn’t be able to tell what’s under the hood! The bottom half of the engine block is stock, and so are the pistons. It’s the cylinder head that’s a stage 3 unit with stiffer valve springs inside. A Honda JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) intake manifold, imported from the home of VTEC allows it to breathe better. The camshafts and compression ratios have not been altered, though the car runs a race exhaust system.
The first few runs down an empty, deserted road outside Bangalore were revealing enough, and it took me just a couple of minutes to figure out that the transmission was not stock too. Karthik, the owner, swapped the stock gearbox for a close-ratio unit with custom ratios, while the clutch is a stage 3, circuit spec race clutch to minimise losses and quicken shifts. The flywheel has been lightened and the final drive is a close ratio unit. Adding to the healthier performance throughout and noticeably stronger bottom-end grunt was the custom Race Dynamics engine management system with a custom ECU map. The car runs on lighter, forged Enkei alloys shod with 205-section BF Goodrich G-Sport tyres to lay down all that extra power better. Quite a list, eh? I was stumped when our VBOX showed a 0-100kmph time of just over 7 seconds. Joel claims the car will do a quarter mile run in just over 14 seconds, which is really quick for a decade old naturally aspirated car!
I could’ve done it all day – take off from standstill, let the rvs climb and shift only at the redline soaking in the sensations each time the VTEC kicked in. But I had to remember this was someone’s prized possession! The car felt surprisingly easy to drive though there was a fair bit of squealing from the front rubber each time I dumped the clutch. There was a hint of torque steer as well, but it never got in the way of my enthusiasm of wanting to keep my right foot firmly down. The custom suspension seemed to work its bit in enhancing the car’s handling, though the lower profile tyres did seem to pass on some thuds inside. A while behind its wheel and I had to agree with Joel – the car felt perfectly driveable, be it in city traffic or blasting down an open highway. Its cars like these that we want, since they are fast, fun and yet practical enough to be driven to work.
Moving onto the turbocharged City that belongs to Jagdish, I was in awe of how neat the engine bay looked even with a Garrett GT28R series ball bearing turbocharger, custom header manifold, intercooler and some things even I couldn’t recognise sitting in there! There’s also a TS blow-off valve and a 40mm external wastegate with silicon joints, hoses and coolant lines to maximise efficiency. That’s just the turbocharger bit though. This City is easily one of the most heavily modified VTECs in the country me thinks. The engine has been bored out slightly to fit in custom built oversized forged pistons, and compression ratio has been bumped up to 8.4:1. The transmission is a custom close ratio gearbox like the other car, with a stage 2 Exedy clutch though.
Electronics include a Race Dynamics engine management system with an onboard 1.5 bar map sensor, an Apexi turbo timer and a Greddy profec electronic boost controller. Not to mention, there’s a long list of forged custom engine components that are not only lighter but also more efficient and responsible in improving the engine’s volumetric efficiency. With so much ammunition, this humble- looking City VTEC puts out a claimed 260bhp at the rear wheel with a boost rating of 15psi, and Joel claims higher octane fuel should allow higher pressures. He is in fact confident of this car nudging 300bhp, as much as the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X!
What’s common in both cars are uprated front rotors, conversions of rear drum brakes to discs and steel braided brake lines all round. They also run lighter, forged Enkei wheels with 205-section tyres, custom three- way coilover suspensions, body braces and strut bars to aid handling and rein in the extra horses. These are parts that aren’t too expensive and are available easily. If the naturally aspirated City was quick, let me tell you the turbocharged car on these pages hit 100kmph from standstill in just 6.5 seconds, and is almost a second quicker than the other car on a quarter mile run. To give you perspective, the stock City VTEC was capable of hitting the ton in just under 10 seconds, which was a big deal back then. To shave almost four seconds off that time itself is a huge deal, let alone ensuring the engine remains as reliable.
The experience of driving the turbocharged City was even more stimulating. It seemed to have an uncanny urge to quickly transform itself from being a humble sedan to beast once the VTEC kicked in. Performance seemed on offer in heaps all through the rev range, and the revs seemed to pile on a lot quicker than the other car. It felt more sensory, though the wheelspin at launch was obviously more prominent with more torque steer. How I wish this was a four wheel drive, or at least a rear wheel drive car! Driven sanely this one felt like a perfect family car too, one that I’m sure my parents wouldn’t mind being driven around in. But put a heavy right foot on the gas pedal, and it’s a different world altogether.
It is really interesting how VTEC has allowed tuners like Joel to turn humble family cars into ones that can plaster a permanent smile on the faces of owners with their performance. These are cars that truly add the thrill of driving to your daily commutes as they are faster and more fun to drive without having to either sacrifice everyday drivability or bust a bank. I believe the cars on these pages have potential to be much quicker and faster, but being front wheel drive cars, there’s only so much traction the front tyres can offer. Had they been four-wheel drive cars, I’m certain they could smoke cars that are a lot more powerful and expensive. In Joel’s words, either car here can be built at a price lower than the cost of a brand new Honda City, donor car included. Now that says something about the VTEC magic. It is a technology that can transform your daily ride into an exciting set of wheels that you can enjoy every day.