Trivia Time : New 3rd Generation Honda City

The Honda LPL or Chief-Engineer) for the new 3G Honda City, Mr Takeshi Nakamura, was here for the City launch and subsequent media test-drive event. Nakamura-san is a particularly friendly and talkative fellow. And he is clearly quite proud of his work with the new 3G City and was eager to share some of the rather interesting 'behind the scene' stories about the new car. My notes taken of what he shared might be of interest to owners and fans of the Honda City and is used for this special '3G City Trivia' article. Hope you enjoy it.

Getting the Right Design Concept

A story Nakamura-san spent particularly long time on was how he came up with the exterior concept look for the 3G City. Nobody really denies the fact that the 2G City's biggest weakness was its exterior looks. While he did not said it outright, I believe I saw a hint of Nakamura-san's determination to get the looks right this time round. It wasn't easy to come up with a concept they (the design team) were happy with. Apparently they tried so many, only to end up not liking it and eventually they actually gave up at 1 point.

Then Nakamura-san related how he was watching a movie one day, one of the modern Hollywood blockbuster involving lots of sword-play. He said he forgot the exact movie but believe it was most probably Gladiator. According to him, there was a scene where one warrior was shown in a rather macho poise drawing an arrow across a bow. That scene gave him an idea. Getting his team together, he discussed at length with his designers and eventually they agree on the concept of an arrow being drawn across its bow, tensed and ready to be unleshed with great energy. Thus was born the 'Arrow-Shot' form.

Window into the Soul, Good Looks and then the back

One of the new 3G City most distinctive feature is its sharp and narrow headlights. The design have been carefully selected and here too there is a story to be told.

Nakamura's team of designers surveyed many people during the design of the new City. One of their visits was to one of their top dealers. The owner, a lady, apparently was responsible for giving them the direction for the design of the headlight. She said that she likes to look at people in the eyes. To her, a person's eyes are like windows into their soul. She claims she can tell a lot about the other person's character simply by looking into their eyes. This idea was then adopted to create the headlight design for the new City. The headlights are like the eyes of the car. Nakamura's team called the headlight design the confident eye (a term literally translated from its japanese name by the Honda Malaysia translator) and it gives the 3G City a solid and confident look when viewed from the front.

It was at this dealer too where they met a Honda owner, a guy this time. Anyway, this guy was saying how good looking ladies tend to be more easily accepted for all their faults. The first impression is really quite important for many people and so too the same approach is used for the City. No car is perfect and for whatever imperfections the City might have (since it is designed and built to a pretty tight budget), it is hoped that if it looks good, then perhaps it might be more fully accepted despite its shortcomings.

Similarly, the rear tail-lights have a story of their own. Traffic jams is an unescapable part of modern day driving all over the world. In a traffic-jam or crawl, one literally sees only the extreme left or right rear corner of the cars in front. What Nakamura's team wanted to acheive with the tail-lights is such a distinctive design that one needs only to catch a glimpse of the tail-lights before readily identifying the car up ahead as the new 3G City.

The 'Cool Lounge'

The interior of the new City is probably one of its most important areas. Here is where the most important element of the car is - its human occupants. Nakamura's concept for the interior is what he calls the Cool Lounge (again literally translated from its japanese term). The idea is of an oasis of peace isolating the driver and passengers from the cut-throat world of traffic outside.

The sound system is considered a core element in this Cool Lounge by Nakamura-san. And a lot of thought went into it. The provision of a USB input port was considered of great importance. Not only does it allows modern devices to be hooked up to the player, like a 'thumb-drive', or a modern MP3 player/recorder; a USB port also means one can hook up a handphone to the player. This means we can now even re-charge our handphones in the car, without the need to get one of those bulky in-car mobile chargers which needs to be hooked up to the cigarette point.

The head-unit features an over-sized LCD screen. This is to allow very clear display of the playing information, e.g. current radio channel or current CD track and so forth. In India, the Honda City is actually considered an upscale car. In fact, often it is even chauffered driven. So the owner will more probably be sitting in the back seats rather than in the driver's seat. India domestic market Honda Cities actually comes with an audio remote control as an optional accessory, for the owner to control the sound system from the rear seats. The large LCD screen allows the owner to see the information clearly, even from all the way in the back seats. The front seats as well as the way the center instrument panel are mounted in such as way as to ensure an unhindered view from the rear seats.

Nakamura-san professes to be a music fan himself. Actually I suspect he might even be an 'audiophile', like me. And so he made a special effort to ensure that the new City's sound system offers a good audio quality. The condensers used in the amplifier electronics were specially selected by Nakamura-san himself. These very expensive condensers were hand-picked for their superior sound quality. In fact, the amplifier in the head-unit is strong enough to drive JBL speakers directly.

And the Million-Dollar Question - Why 5AT ?

Inevitably, the discussion led back to the question of why Nakamura's team decided to go for a 5AT for the new 3G City. The CVT (or MMT as it is called in Japan), despite its design limitations, is almost perfect for a small engine. It's ability to operate at the optimal gear-ratio for any given condition simply makes it superior to other automatic gearboxes, including the DSG, and especially for small engines.

Nakamura-san's reason for the use of the 5AT is simply for getting what he calls the 'Gutsy Feeling'. Again, this has to do with the way the CVT/MMT are designed for engaging power from the engine to the driving wheels. To avoid a jerky 'rocking horse' feeling especially for slow speed driving, Honda's CVT gearboxes 'eases' power to the driving wheels when the throttle is floored. However, it seems that this does not agree with a lot of previous City owners.

Nakamura-san claims that many owners of the 2G City have complains about the start-off (from standstill) acceleration of the 2G City, i.e. the relatively lack of urgency when moving off from standstill. The original 1Gen City on the other hand had a good launching performance and while the 2Gen's CVT is super smooth it has a weak launch. Nakamura-san's team tested numerous cars including competitors cars and also in different categories, in order to decide exactly how that 'gutsy feeling' should be like. Besides the 1Gen and 2Gen City, they tested such diverse cars as the BMW 3-Series for e.g. Eventually Nakamura-san's team decided that within the design constraints, the launch characteristic from the 1G City would be the target for the new 3Gen City to have. To acheive this, they decided to adopt the 5AT instead of the CVT (the 1Gen City used a 4AT).

To extend this 'gutsy feel' to actual driving, the kickdown response-time and actual acceleration 'setting' of the gearbox was carefully tuned as well. This means that the gearbox kicks-down more readily to throttle input while actual gear ratios were carefully selected to give good acceleration, especially from standstill or low speeds. The 'rolling acceleration', taken to be from 50-80kph or 80-100kph, were particularly important.

This 'gutsy' feeling was extended to the whole rpm range. Consequently the L15A will rev well right to its red-line - for its size and design. The original CVT/MMT's driving behaviour - its 'rubber-band' like feeling to throttle input is, according to Nakamura-san's team, just not compatible to what Honda owners likes in general.

I can't help but bring up the fact that the new 2Gen Fit - JDM version - continues to use the MMT (CVT) but now fitted with a torque-converter which replaces the start-up clutch, just like the JDM Honda Odyssey. Nakamura-san says that while this torque-converter equipped MMT (CVT) offers much better pick-up, ultimately, its 'physical feeling' is not as good as the regular 5AT.

Q&A Revelations : VTEC point and Other Such Important Stuff

The Q&A session that follows at the end of the media drive too offers some new insights into the 3G City. The most important question one has for any Honda VTEC engine will always be at what rpm VTEC engages. I asked this question and was told by Nakamura-san that even he is not sure exactly ! Apparently, during the course of R&D, the team played around with different VTEC points when they were trying to get that 'gutsy feeling'. And he simply forgot what rpm they eventually settled for. A promise was made to get back to me with the final VTEC rpm point, though at the time of writing this article, I still have not gotten the answer yet.

Current Hondas offers more aggressive lock-up of the gearbox, for more efficient transfer of power from the engine, better acceleration and yes, also better fuel economy. The actual conditions for lock-up depends on several factors - actual throttle input, engine load (measured by throttle position, rpm, and other sensors) and so forth. The 3Gen City has a very wide lock-up range. For sure when we are cruising gently at light throttle, the gearbox will not lock-up but lock-up now happens at lower speeds and with lighter throttle positions. Like the VTEC point, Nakamura's team revised the lock-up criteria several times during the City's R&D.

One of the innovative idea pioneered in the 7Gen Honda Civic was that for a FF car, there really is no need for the traditional 'center hump' that runs down the middle of the cabin. This hump was originally meant for the prop-shaft for RWD cars but there is no prop-shaft in FWD cars, so why should we continue to have a hump which simply intrudes into the cabin space ? Thus the 7Gen Civic was the first model to offer a completely flat cabin floor. However, the 2G City continues to have a center hump and so too the 3Gen City. Why ? One of the reasons it seems is for chassis rigidity. Nakamura-san also pointed out that the 2Gen City was sold in JDM as well. And the JDM had a rt-4wd version which required the center hump to accomodate the prop-shaft. The center hump in the new 3Gen City is actually quite a bit smaller than that in the 2Gen City, but it is still there, now for reasons of enhancing chassis rigidity.

For Malaysia, Honda offers the 3Gen City in 2 variants. The base model is the Grade-S while the higher Grade-E offers paddle shifters, 1-inch larger wheels and various other niceties. At the time of the media test-drive event, the breakdown in sales between the two variants is 70:30 in favour of the Grade-E. Recently too Honda Malaysia had reported total sales of the 3Gen City to hit the 6,000 mark already, barely 2 months after its launch.

Honda's CEO Takeo Fukui had already formally announced a Fit-Hybrid for the near future. And so I asked Nakamura-san - point-blank - if there will also be a City-Hybrid for the future. He remarked that there is currently no plans for such a variant.

One of the features lacking in the 2Gen City was the lack of a footrest for the left foot. The new 3Gen City has a foot-rest but some journalist found it to be placed awkwardly, especially for a shorter framed person. Nakamura-san explained that the foot-rest position takes into account safety during front-end collision. It is also purposely placed further to the left in order to avoid drivers confusing the brake and throttle pedal with the foot-rest (!! must be very blur drivers). Apparently some countries even have regulations about the actual placement of the foot-rest, probably for safety reasons again.

With fuel prices so inconsistent and lower RON petrol being generally cheaper to buy, I asked Nakamura-san to confirm that RON-91 petrol (fuel) is good enough for the new L15A i-VTEC which he confirmed.

And finally, the 3Gen City do feature a rather large engine bay. Someone raised the intriguing question to Nakamura-san as to why the engine bay had to be so big while the L15A i-VTEC is such a small engine. Perhaps, it was suggested, Honda has plans for a larger engine for the City sometime in the future. To which Nakamura-san replied that in some Asian countries, there actually is already a larger engined City. Specifically for the China market, there is a 1.8l 3Gen Honda City. The engine has a reverse layout, with the intake and exhaust side swapped. It seems it has something to do with meeting EnCap regulations in China, which required a big engine bay. Nakamura-san did not mention whether it was still an L-Series though. Perhaps it was an RSeries instead. It would have been interesting to find out more though unfortunately it did not occured to me to ask. So that large engine bay does not point to exciting possibilities of super-powerful K-Series City's for the future, just a need to meet extra stringent safety regulations in China.

And In Closing...

I hope you have as much fun reading this trivia article as I had writing it. Next up for late this month would be the short technical overview of the new 3G Honda City. Lots of thoughts went into creating this new model and we will be covering some of them in the tech-overview.

Wong KN
February 2009
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