The launch of the new 4G Honda City for Malaysia is scheduled for December 18th, only 2 days away. As usual, this will be the first time I get a chance to check out the new model for myself. In the meantime however, based on feedback from TOVA readers in countries which has already launched the new City, plus analysis of the paper specs, I decided to offer this candid preview of the new City, sort of my personal expectations of the car. These expectations can be broadly divided into 4 categories below.
Probably the weakest part of the outgoing (3G) City is its exterior design so I will cover this first. While the 3G City's front spots a futuristic enough look which had equal shares of supporters and detractors, unfortunately the rear was more or less unanimously condemned as ugly. The mid-term update (MMC) did much to improve the rear look but it still wasn't enough, especially against its more handsome rival the (1G) Toyota Vios. Many 1G Vios owners had admitted to me that they were actually convinced of the technological and even performance superiority of the City but when it came to the looks, their heart ruled over their head and they opted for the better looker.
Help came from a most unexpected quarter when Toyota launched their new 2G Vios. It would seemed that the engineers who penned the original 1G Vios exterior design either got promoted to bigger projects or maybe he/she/they left Toyota. This was because the 2G Vios was, like the 3G City, quite unanimously accepted to be bad looking (which is actually an understatement compared to comments from many 1G Vios owners I know). Compared to the new 2G Vios, the then MMC'ed 3G City was actually good-looking ! And so too the sales figures reflected the new result as my friend in Honda Malaysia told me that their City finally managed to outsell the Vios - after the new 2G Vios came out !
Nevertheless, the 3G City is nearing its end of life and HRT (Honda Research Thailand) who is the R&D facility which designs the City has clearly learnt its lesson well. Clearly continuing the bold and futuristic path, as most all enthusiasts would know by now, the new 4G City has the flowing lines of the Euro Civic. For the rear, HRT decided to play it safe and practically copied the original 1G Toyota Vios rear end design verbatim. So expect a great looking Honda City for a change. The only thing I can assure readers is that, based on assurances from Honda and also many TOVA readers from countries where it has already been launched, whatever photos and images on the net or magazines does the new 4G City totally no justice. In the flesh, it looks even better.
Other than the exterior design, the mechanicals of the new 4G City will be the biggest change. The engine remains the 1.5l L15A but is now SOHC i-VTEC. In this case, i-VTEC, like in the R-Series, doesn't imply the existence of VTC which changes valve opening overlap, but rather that the ECU activates VTEC intelligently based on a set of sensor readings, instead of just blindly opening VTEC after a fixed rpm. The biggest upgrade to the L15A is that it now uses what some enthusiasts calls the 'power-VTEC' implementation, i.e. instead of the 12V-16V VTEC system used in the outgoing L15A-VTEC, the new L15A i-VTEC operates 16V full time and has two different cam lobes for the intake valves. One, the 'low-cam (lobe)' operates in low-rpm and mild operating conditions while the 'wild-cam (lobe)' activates when power is needed. In this sense, the new L15A i-VTEC is similar to the original 1990's D15B SOHC VTEC engines in the (JDM) EG8 Civic VTi for e.g., though rated at 120ps, it is still 10ps lower in power than that engine.
Honda has removed the i-DSI engine variant from the new 4G City. While this may seem surprisingly, it really is not because while the L15A i-DSI was designed to deliver better fuel economy (and consequently lower power) than the L15A VTEC, in real-world conditions, the fuel economy difference was trivial. The power disparity however was not trivial and while the CVT gearbox still gave the City i-DSI plenty of oomph, the City VTEC clearly was much, much faster. So with little to gain in fuel economy and lots in performance, the choice is obvious and only the price worked in the i-DSI's favour.
The biggest change in this new 4G City in terms of performance however, would have to be the gearbox. HRT has discontinued use of the CVT-7 gearbox in this new 4G City, replacing it with a normal automatic gearbox. True it is equipped with 5-speeds, the highest spec'ed regular AT in a car of the City's class, but in the end, it is still a normal automatic gearbox. This means the new 4G City no longer has the superb driving flexibility of the outgoing 3G City.
Actually, it is not that straightforward. An aspect of the CVT-7 which affects its performance is its operational characteristic - how HRT programmed it to work. Bear in mind that this is not a real 'weakness' per se, but rather a function of how the CVT-7 is designed to operate. What I am referring to is the rather 'soft' (some would call it 'weak') take-off of the CVT-7. By this, I am referring to the fact that from standstill, no matter how much throttle we give the engine, the City has a rather indifferent take-off, lack-lustre might be a good description. Actually this characteristic is pretty much in all of the 5AT gearboxes equipping Honda's current models. From what I understand, Honda intentionally programmed a 'soft' take off because they don't want a 'rocking horse' effect, especially in slow moving or start-and-go traffic. By this 'rocking horse' effect, what is meant is that the car more or less 'jerks' forward when the throttle is pressed and if traffic is a painful stop-and-go, this means harder than normal braking is needed almost immediately lest the car rear-ends the one in front. So in this kind of driving, it can be quite unpleasant on the occupants (not so much driver but more the passengers) as the car charges and then stops quite suddenly each time traffic crawls forward a few metres. So Honda designs the gearbox to engage gradually so that even with heavier than normal throttle, the take-off is gradual and smooth and consequently, the brakes don't have to pushed so hard to stop the car shortly after.
When one wants to 'get a move on' however, and especially from standstill, this characteristic can be a hinderance. Apparently, the start-up clutch on the CVT-7 accentuates this. The new 4G City uses a regular 5AT gearbox which of course uses a torque converter and this engages stronger than the CVT-7 with its start-up clutch. So expect more 'urgency' from the gearbox when giving the throttle a harder than normal push from standstill.
In real-life driving what this translates to is a false sense of 'power' from the engine. Of course the new L15A i-VTEC is 10ps more powerful than the L15A VTEC (120ps versus 110ps). But in truth the amount of low end torque/power difference is going to be little or none. However, it is the better 'bite' of the 5AT and the subsequent 'surge' of the car to heavy throttle inputs that will make the uninitiated feel that the new 4G City is 'more powerful'. Unfortunately, this won't last because the 5AT just won't have the flexibility of the CVT-7. And so once moving, the engine will have to climb through the rpm band upon each gear-change. What it means is that when pushed hard, the engine will now feel like it runs out of breath faster compared to the old L15A VTEC with the CVT-7 (which would be running constantly at 6000rpm all the time, like it never runs out of breath). So the feeling of 'more power' on the new City will quickly give way to complaints of 'lack of power' when we push it hard, eventhough the new L15A i-VTEC do actually have more power in the high-rpm than the old L15A VTEC. Bear this in mind because there is a very good chance that you will be reading vastly contrasting reviews, some proclaiming the new City to be more powerful while others will probably be complaining about a lack of power from the new engine.
Performance is of course not totally defined by just acceleration alone. Braking is a much more important element of performance and for the new City, I do expect an improved braking system, especially in terms of braking 'feel', even if only just a little bit. Bear in mind that Honda's brakes are not exactly universally loved by enthusiasts and many, especially I myself, have always felt that Honda needs to do a lot better in the brakes department.
One area which I am quite confident of all round improvement in the new 4G City, compared to the 3G City, is the suspension. In terms of ride quality, handling, and stability, I expect the new 4G City to be much improved over the old 3G City. This has been proven even in the mid-term MMC for the 3G City and with the ability to actually improve the geometry and design of the suspension (rather than just change specs of the components), I am quite confident of a lot of improvement in this area.
Based on the new Jazz, I am expecting the interior of the new 4G City to be generally good news mixed unfortunately with a little bit of bad. The design will be much better as Honda improves on the 3G interior. However, the quality of the interior material is one area I am eagerly waiting to check out. Unanimous amongst Jazz fans is the opinion that the material quality of the new 2G Jazz interior has taken a step backwards. This is not only for those who (like me) owns the original 1st batch of Jazz VTECs which were manufactured in Japan (according to Australia/New Zealand specs), but sadly also for those who owns the later Jazz i-DSIs and VTECs which were manufactured in Thailand. Even regular non-enthusiast but discerning car owners are in full agreement that the materials in the new Jazz is very dissapointing especially compared to the original 1G version. And so for the new 4G City, I wait to see whether Honda has done anything or not. Bear in mind that the 2G Jazz for Malaysia is manufactured in Thailand while the 4G City will be manufactured locally in Honda's Malaysian plant. So there is a chance for things to improve.
The world as we know it today is in the grip of a global economic slowdown. With that, smart car buyers have become much more critical and prudent in their spending. In this sense, the new 4G City's launch cannot come at a worse possible time. However, the fact remains that there are still many for whom their current car urgently needs to be replaced, usually because it has started to fall apart (especially if it's a particular brand). Thanks to the internet, I know of numerous potential new 4G City buyers, people who needs to replace their car quite soon but has been postphoning it because they have seen the beautiful photos of the City and wants to wait for it to be launched before making their final decision. For these people, in the light of the current world economy situation, price is almost certainly the highest overriding concern.
Whenever a new Honda model is to be launched, one very common question asked to me by friends, enthusiasts, TOVA readers and others would be how much I expect the new car to be priced at. My answer is always an affirmative 'more expensive than the old one !'.
A few years ago, my dear and greatly respected friend Zainuddin-T who was then the marketing manager of Honda Malaysia had a very curt lesson in the realities of the Malaysian car market. At that time he along with another dear and greatly respected friend Nick-G who was the product planner for the Civic had found that some lazy buggers in the old Kah Motors (original distributor of Honda before Honda Malaysia came in to set up office) had not done their homework on getting the full tax exemption benefits for locally assembled Malaysian cars. Consequently by exploiting these benefits, they were able to lower the cost of producing a Honda Civic VTi so much that they could actually lower the selling price of the Civic by RM10,000.00 ! And so they happily announced a reduced selling price for the Honda Civic. Only to receive numerous calls from irrate Civic owners who gave them a nice sounding off because in one simple stroke of the pen, they have effectively destroyed the resale value of the Honda Civic (when selling price of a new unit is 10k lower, resale values drops a lot more than 10k). I remember both Zainuddin-T and Nick-G were totally confused and they did asked me why it is that Malaysian car buyers don't seem to appreciate good gestures like voluntary reduction of selling price. The truth is that Malaysian buyers would love lowered selling prices but few if any will actually buy a new car outright. Almost all potential Civic buyers will have to sell off their old car first and as it is, sadly we are all helpless puppets under the manipulation of the used car traders. Sad but true. (Note : both of these wonderful persons have since left Honda Malaysia, a great loss to the company. Very fortunately, the people now in charge of marketing and product planning are equally as good - Honda Malaysia should thank their lucky stars here.)
I have often told this story in follow-up to my exclaimation that the new model will definitely be more expensive than the old one. Many have been outraged and demanded that Honda Malaysia cannot blatantly increase price just because of that one nasty experience. Unfortunately they had misunderstood the actual reason for my story. My actual intention of the story is to explain that in the world as we know it today, prices of everything, especially raw materials, have been incessantly going up. About the only way possible for any manufacturer to lower their car's selling price is either from a reduction in duties and taxes or from correcting mistakes made by lazy buggers, like the one from Kah Motors. And while the first possibility is probably rarer than a blue moon, the second one is even rarer. Thus, very sadly, it is more or less a given that a new model will spot a heavier price tag, because it will quite surely be more expensive to produce.
Honda Malaysia has been doing rather well in this sense because prices of the new Stream, new Accord, etc while higher than the outgoing one, has always been contained within a 3k to 5k window. An exception would be the new Jazz VTEC, with the higher Grade-V selling at almost the price of the Civic 1.8S. As for this new 4G City, I am expecting similar to the new Jazz. I think there will probably be two specs, like for the new Jazz. Both will be powered by the 120ps L15A i-VTEC and both will use the 5AT gearbox. And just like the new Jazz, the base model will be more spartan, again without many of the features that enthusiasts value (like the paddle shifter for e.g.). Consequently, the selling price will be modest, probably just 3k or so higher than the 3G City VTEC (not City i-DSI). Then the higher grade will, like the Jazz Grade-V, be fully equipped with whatever Honda Malaysia can fit in. And similarly, the selling price would probably be quite high. I would expect this variant to sell in the low-90ks, probably nearer RM95k.
Expect Honda Malaysia to offer the Modulo bodykit package. If you like the kit, it would be very worthwhile to get it together with the car. Not only would it be properly painted and fitted, you will also be able to finance it together with the car and have only a very small impact on the month payments.
The Honda City is Honda's best selling model in Asia and rightly in almost all countries, it is Honda's most important model. Consequently, it also has the most number of enthusiasts eagerly waiting for its debut in their country. I hope this little preview of mine gives readers who are eagerly waiting for the new car an idea of what to expect.