New (3G) Honda City : First Drive Impressions

Almost exactly 1 month after its launch was the media test-drive event for the new 3Gen Honda City. The event was a full day event involving driving the City from the capital of Kuala Lumpur to the town of Melaka through a mixture of town roads, twisty country roads, and highway driving. As Honda Malaysia sells two variants of the City, we get to drive one of the variants on each way of the return trip. Three of us (journalists) shared a car.

I have been particularly eagerly waiting for this new City media drive. Honda Malaysia did not hold a media drive event for the 2Gen Jazz. And I (almost) always wait for a period before I borrow the cars for a full test-drive - so that they can accumulate enough mileage to properly run in. Consequently, I have not actually test-drove the new 2G Jazz i-VTEC before the event. But I really wanted to sample the revised L15A which now has a mild/wild cam implementation with 10ps more power and also how it will drive, now that the 5AT has replaced the excellent CVT. As the new 3G City shares exactly the same engine and gearbox with the new 2G Jazz, so it will be the first time I get to sample the new L15A i-VTEC engine with the 5AT.

Performance in a straight line

The first impression of driving the new 3G City is that it feels very responsive at low rpms. As part of the 'better grunt' tuning for the new model, Honda have made the engine and gearbox more 'aggressive' when drive is engaged from standstill, or at low speeds. The car surges forward quite aggressively to increased pressure at the throttle pedal. Push harder and the car jumps forward faster. It feels very 'eager to please' to throttle input. To many people, this also gives the impression of 'a lot of power'.

As highlighted by the R&D engineer, the gearbox is quite responsive. Kickdown is quite easy to invoke, just apply a little bit higher than moderate pressure on the throttle and the gearbox will kick down. Some people actually might complain about an 'over-active' gearbox though so this may become a double edged sword.

Paddle shifting in S-mode is 'shift and hold', meaning the ECU holds the selected gear irregardless. And of course we can now hit the rev-limiter in any gear if we don't upshift. It also means we can now fully exploit the entire rpm band of the engine because we can delay the upshift till the very last minute. The response time of the shifts is now faster compared to the outgoing model, especially the upshifts. However shifting can still be a little bit jerky under some circumstances, e.g. upshift at full throttle. Or downshift at high rpms.

First and 2nd gears are geared very short (i.e. with relatively high gear ratios). After slugging our way past K.L. city traffic, we finally reached the highway. At the first toll gate, I gleefully slot into S-mode and squeezed the left paddle, to get into manual sequential shift mode. When I did the WOT run, I was shocked (surprised) I could not reach 100kph in 2nd gear when the engine revs hits and start bouncing off the rev-limiter. This is actually a very high gearing ratio - it's higher than the 2nd gear ratio on my DA6 Integra for e.g. Actually it's even higher than 2nd gear ratio on the FD2 Civic Type R.

So the new City surges forward very well from standstill and acceleration is quite good in 1st and 2nd. In fact, the car drives well at low-speeds until speeds of around 100-110kph. After that unfortunately the limitation of having fixed gears slows down the City significantly. Gear ratio for 3rd gear onwards is rather tall (numerically low). 3rd gear for e.g. will reach almost 160kph and this is a rather big drop in ratio from 2nd (3rd gear on my DA6 Integra for e.g. reaches only 140kph, from 99kph in 2nd gear, both at 8,000rpm). Acceleration in 3rd gear is still acceptable but barefly. So when there is a need to get moving, say overtaking another vehicle that is travelling at 80kph, then the City can make the overtaking 'an event', especially if an oncoming vehicle is fast coming towards us.

5th gear is really for highway cruising while 4th is only good for relaxed, slow overtaking at high speed. Top gear acceleration is really lacking. When tried for top-speed run, the new City could not accelerate much after hitting speeds of 160kph (with 3 full adults). When I tried to go for 180kph, it was struggling, even on level roads. I only managed to hit 180kph on downhill stretches but once the car hits an uphill stretch, even a relatively gradual one, speed immediately falls back to 160kph. At one place it even dropped to below that.

Nevertheless, high speed cruising itself was quite impressive in the 3G City, especially considering that it's supposed to be a small B-segment sedan. The most impressive thing about high speed cruising is the very much lowered wind noise. Previous Hondas of this size, and even the larger 8G Civic suffers from a 'booming' wind noise at high speed. In the Honda City, the tyre noise is actually louder than the wind noise, even at speeds as high as 140kph. It's only when speed approaches 160kph or more that wind noise becomes intrusive. The car also rides relatively well at high speed, feels stable and confident though at times a bit floaty when hitting some uneven patches.

Braking Performance

Braking is improved over the outgoing 2G City, especially braking feel. The braking system in the new Honda City received several improvements. The brakes are now 25mm (1inch) larger in diameter with larger disc and brake calipers. The master brake cylinder is narrower and so delivers higher brake fluid pressure for a given input. To offset against the need to move the plunger a longer distance, the brake pedal fulcrum is shifted lower (towards the pedal) and the vacumn assist pump is enlarged for greater assist. So the overall brake pedal pressure required to work the brakes is still the same.

The improved brake cylinder, vacumn assist, and revised pedal lever ratio can be felt as a more confident brake pedal feedback. When pushed, the brake pedal feels nice and firm (previous Hondas tend to have a rather spongy brake pedal). The fact that the brake discs are now larger while the car is still roughly the same weight gives a lot more confident braking power. The City stops confidently in almost all conditions. The outgoing 2G Honda City has quite competent brakes already but this new 3G City brings the quality up 1 more level. However, the unit I drove had weak braking when cold. I was the first to take the wheels and driving out of Hyatt, the brake pedal feels firm but the brakes don't bite. It felt much like as if the brake pads are some high temperature high performance pads that are not yet properly warmed up. However, other journalists driving other units did not seem to encounter this problem. A possibility was offered that it could be because Honda washes the cars before passing it to us and perhaps soap water got in between the pad and disc to cause the problem in my unit. This could be true because when we go through a very deep puddle of water, the feel is similar as well. As I was the only one who experienced the issue, I believe water could well be the most probably cause. Still, it was something I encountered so it needs to be reported.

Performance in the twisties

The new City has a firm suspension, much like the outgoing 2G City VTEC. However, spring and damper rates have clearly been re-tuned. The damping is firm and confident and while the car might pitch about a bit over uneven roads, the ride is not hard or jarring. As a result, the City had quite good cornering composure, even at high speeds. On twisty country roads, we were able to take quite tight corners at speeds of 100 to 120kph before the tyres (Goodyear GT-3) starts protesting softly.

As the City features a temporary shift override mode in D, I can manually select the next lower or higher gear via the appropriate paddle shifter even in D mode. The ECU holds the selected gear for a while, until it 'thinks' that it is no longer needed and reverts back to automatic mode. In theory, this allows me to drive leisurely in D but then also go charging into controlled high speed cornering by manually pre-selecting the gear I want. This works well in tight corners where I cut the apex quickly and almost immediately wants to power out on corner exit. But it doesn't work when I go into a large high speed corner because the ECU usually changes back to automatic mode in the middle of the corner (since I am moderating the throttle), with the result I either need to invoke kickdown, or to resort to the paddle shifters again if I want to power out of the corner.

Others Observations

The engine is more vocal now. The outgoing L15A VTEC wasn't exactly a quiet engine but it usually becomes vocal only at the higher rpms. But the new L15A i-VTEC can be quite loud even at moderate rpms under heavy throttle. The engine note is quite nice however, being throaty and quite 'sporty' so it will appeal to the enthusiasts though some casual owners might now be complaining about a 'noisy engine'

Being able to actually spend time inside the car when it is being driven fast, I find the interior to be quite nice. I really do feel like going into an oasis of peace, especially when the weather outside is hot or the traffic is heavy. The drivers seat is quite supportive though being a normal car seat, I do roll around a bit during heavy cornering. Same as for the front passenger's seat. In the rear, and with the center arm rest down, it was a much snug-ier affair and I didn't have to hold on quite so much to the arm hold when the driver was throwing the car hard around corners. The Honda City is especially quiet from the back seats.

The air-cond works well and even in hot weather, the rear passenger gets plenty of cooling. This is important because Honda explains that in countries like India, the Honda City is actually considered a higher end car and some are actually chauffered driven. So rear comfort is considered crucial. This could also be the reason why the Ultra-seats were deleted, because Honda could not extract a high enough level of comfort from them to meet the chauffered driven role.

City Grade-S

The trip from KL to Melaka was using the Grade-E and on the trip back, we switched to the Grade-S. Contrary to our instinctive reaction, Grade-S is actually the base model and comes with some options and features deleted compared to Grade-E. It has no paddle shifters or other niceties like leaning rear seat rests. The price differential between the Grade-S and Grade-E is not very large which meant in practise, many people actually opts for the Grade-E for its options, eventhough many might not actually use it. Unfortunately a lousy navigator got me on the wrong route on this return trip and I ended up with an extended highway test drive, without any chance to try out the Grade-S on twisty roads.

In terms of performance oriented feature, the only real difference between the Grade-S and Grade-E are the lack of paddle shifter (i.e. no sequential shifting override) and also the smaller 15" wheels (versus 16" on the Grade-E). The lack of sequential shift means gearshifts are all controlled by the ECU, though we can still get the engine to bounce against the rev-limiter at certain gears, e.g. 2nd gear, by putting the gear-shift into '2'. This actually not only interferes with spirited driving (manual selecting of gears), it also means that unless we work the gear-shift (stick) like a manual gearbox, otherwise we will not be able to exploit that last few hundred rpm of the engine's rev-range as Honda always programs their ECU to upshift very early, often as much as 300 to 400rpm before indicated red-line on the tacho. And that means not being able to exploit the engine's entire power band.

The 1-inch smaller wheels too will have an impact on performance, mainly acceleration and braking as it has a smaller angle of momentum and with the rim located nearer to the axle, also a smaller rotating inertia.

While it is not really possible to feel any difference in outright acceleration in the Grade-S vs the Grade-E, one thing that is very obvious is that the Grade-S could reach a slightly higher top speed on the highway than the Grade-E. On (slight) downhill stretches, I was almost able to touch 190kph and now on uphill stretches the City Grade-S was better able to maintain its top speed on the (slight) uphill stretches.

While I didn't really encounter it with the Grade-E, with the Grade-S on the highway, I really could feel it moving around a bit at very high speeds. It is not due to cross wind as it can happen under apparently random conditions. And it will happen suddenly, the City suddenly just moves a bit, like side-stepping a bit to the left or right but then can become totally stable and confident again after that. I am not sure how relevant or useful this analogy will be but the best way for me to describe it is to associate it with how Yokohama tyres will drive/feel on wet roads when they are half used. Those who have driven on Yokohama Advan Neova AD07s (which continues to be very popular with Honda enthusiasts for its high performance on dry roads and reasonable price) will know what I mean. When anything 40% or more used (worn) and when driving on wet roads, the AD07s can cause the car to move around simply by running over wet-patches on the road (not even going into puddles of water). The car suddenly side-steps to one side without warning but can continue without any problems after that. It was similar with the City Grade-S on the highway, except that it was on dry roads ! However, I have to highlight that I did not encounter this behaviour with the Grade-E and that actually only some but not all of the journalists reported this. Honda R&D of course definitely did not encounter or expect this behaviour. I suspect it could actually be due to some minor things, maybe wrongly inflated tyres or something. Again, I am reporting it because it was something I encountered.

In concluding....

I like the new 3G City very much and the media drive was a very enjoyable affair. The outgoing 2G City is already a very nice car for the money - within its market segment. But this new 3G Honda City really do bring the level of quality 1 step higher. I think Honda Malaysia's claim that this 3G City is the most powerful car in its class continues to hold true at the moment, with no other sedan in its class offering more than 120ps. Of course there are a few 'warm-hatches' of this size in the market that now offers more power - the Suzuki Swift Sports, or the (no longer officially available) Mitsubishi Colt Turbo. But I think their target buyers market is quite a bit different from that Honda Malaysia targets the Honda City at.

For the enthusiasts, the 3G Honda City really do offer quite a good upgrade in driving performance. So my initial doubts and fears about the 5AT was wrong placed. From standstill and low-speeds right up to fairly high speeds of 100-110kph, the new 3G Honda City should be quite a bit faster than the outgoing 2G. It is only at the highest speeds that the lack of the CVT's ability to operate in optimum gear ratio impairs the 3G City. Some would argue that 110kph is the highest legal speed limit here in Malaysia though the truth is that enthusiasts seldom work within such 'constraints'. So potential enthusiast buyers should check this out.

Other than that, I really can't find any fault with the new 3G City except for the two 'issues' I raised up. However, I do not think they are inherent in the car and I hope to get a definitive answer when I have the car for full review. That will of course be quite some time in the future as I need to wait for others to borrow the car first - so that it will accumulate the necessary mileage for the engine-chassis-suspension to fully run in. That of course is after 5,000km, preferably nearer 10,000km.

I personally know more than a few people who have been postphoning an impending car upgrade to wait for this new 3G City to be launched before they decide. I think they have made an excellent decision. As far as I know, almost all of them have now placed an order for their brand new 3G Honda City.

Report-Card : Summary Of Impressions
  • Good 'Grunt', especially at low-speeds.
  • acceleration slightly lethargic at high speeds
  • gearbox 'very active', very responsive to throttle input
  • relatively good ride and stable at high speed with very low wind noise
  • a minor issue with occasional 'wondering' at high speed on the highway
  • brakes feel strong and firm
  • good cornering grip with controlled body roll

February 2009
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