Though the 'lowest' model in the local Honda line-up, the launch of the new Honda City is one of the most eagerly awaited event in recent times. Already launched in most neighbouring countries, the power of the internet has allowed Malaysian fans to get more than an acquaintance with the car beforehand. Coupled to its position as an affordable, great value for money entry point into Honda ownership, the wider market means more car owners are looking forward to it than other models 'higher' up in the line-up like the Civic or Accord.

For Honda Malaysia, the new City is an especially important model. Having invested a huge amount of money into building their new state of the art assembly plant in Pegoh, they are dependent on volume sales success of the new City to justify that investment and hopefully to pave the way for more in the future.

After months of extremely hard work by Honda Malaysia and similarly frustrating wait for car fans, Honda Malaysia launched the new City nationwide on April 25 2003. I was especially happy to receive an invitation via email to attend the 'by invitation only' Honda Malaysia media launch event held at a prestigious hotel.

However the regular car fans are not short-changed for this launch. Honda Malaysia ensured that all their dealers had ready showroom stock of the new City at the same time. Thus while the media is introduced to the new City at the special event, at the same time car fans are able to check the new City inside out simply by going to any Honda dealer ! This I can verify because the same evening after attending the media launch, I passed by a Honda dealer and indeed both a silver and a red City was on display. To further ensure that fans who might be unable to visit a Honda dealer for whatever reasons are not left out, Honda Malaysia has also arranged to officially launch the new City to the public in the Megamall shopping center on April 30th, the event to last for 3 days. Bravo to Honda for taking care of all car owners in this way ! On my part, for readers who are really unable to visit a Honda dealer but can't wait for April 30th, hopefully the moving-GIF I created will tie you over till then. Click on the image of the City on the left to view the moving GIF which will give you a 360 degree view of the new City. During the media launch, I took a sequence of photographs as Honda rotated the new City on a platform and used them to create this moving-GIF.

The New Honda City

Let's get down to the important things right away. Honda Malaysia markets only 1 version of the new City and specifications-wise, it maintains Honda Malaysia's previous excellent track record with the CR-V by coming fully loaded. The engine is the same as that used in our neighbouring countries like Thailand and Singapore which means it's the same as that used in the JDM Fit-Aria. Displacing 1497cc, the L15A is the new super compact design utilising Honda's new i-DSI technology. The engine is spec'ed for 88ps max power (= 90ps JIS of the JDM Fit Aria) and red-lines at 6000rpm. Coupled to the L15A is Honda's excellent CVT-7 gearbox. This comes with Honda's new Steermatic system which is a special 7-speed sequential mode with gear shifting done via buttons on the steering wheel ala F1 style.

Suspension-wise, the new City continues to use the proven combination of McPherson struts in front and H-shaped torsion beam in the rear like the previous generation. The brake system is the standard vacumn assisted diagonal dual circuit (i.e. two separate circuits driven by the master brake cylinder, each driving diagonally opposing wheels - front-left/rear-right and front-right/rear-left for safety back-up) with PCV. The brakes are ventilated discs in front and drums in the rear. Reinforcing the brakes are ABS with EBD. Wheel size is 185/60R14. For those who are particular about such things, the City's in the media launch had Goodyear Eagle GA tyres. And yes, 5-spoke sport rims are standard.

Continuing on the safety theme, the new City chassis is designed on the G-CON platform which maximizes driver & passenger safety in a collision. Dual-SRS (twin-airbags) is standard. The interior space is optimized by various ingenius designs like centrally mounted fuel tank and of course that famous Ultra-Seat which gives supremely flexible carrying capability like that on the Honda Jazz. Continuing on the astoundingly high-end feature on the new City is the new EPS (Electrical Power Steering) system which uses an electric servo for the steering power assist instead of a crankshaft driven hydraulics power steering pump.

Colour-wise, Honda Malaysia launched the City in 5 colour options; Nighthawk Black Pearl, Royal Ruby Red Pearl, Satellite Silver Metallic, New Vogue Silver Metallic, and Zircon Blue Metallic. Again, as their name suggests, the Black and Red are pearl based colours while the rest are metallic base (some people put a premium on pearl colours over metallic). These colours are shown in the pictures below, provided by Honda during the media launch (so the colour should be quite accurate).

Test-Driving the new City

As part of the launching P.R. for the new City, Honda Malaysia arranged a special 3-days test-drive session for selected journalists in two weeks time from now but which I won't be taking part in. I was told review cars will only be made available after that session so the earliest I can expect to review the new City for TOVA will have to be in a couple of months time. This means the unusual situation where most TOVA readers interested in the new City will actually get to test-drive the car earlier than me ! Of course it's not a problem at all but because CVT is a relatively new technology to the general Malaysian car owner, lack of experience might lead to some getting an inaccurate picture of the driving characteristic & performance abilities of the City during their test-drives. Without being able to do a proper review article at this time, I think the next best thing I can do is to use my experience with the Multimatic gearbox (CVT is based on Multimatic) to explain the special operating characteristic of Honda's CVT-7 as well as to explain what the various modes - D, S, and 7-speed mode are designed to do. Hopefully with this explanation, readers who test-drives the new City now will get to understand the driving characteristic of the L15A/CVT-7 combo and thus the true performance potential of the car.

Firstly, for readers who want to understand the operating principle of the CVT-7 as well as how it behaves in everyday driving conditions, I encourage you to read my article on The Multimatic Driving Experience. They are not identical gearboxes but they are very similar. Also on my article on The EK3 Civic Ferio Vi, you can download a mpeg video which shows how the Multimatic behaves under WOT. CVT-7 should behave very similarly. CVT-7 like Multimatic is "intelligent" in the sense that it takes into account many more factors than regular automatic gearboxes do. For e.g. to determine what rpm to run the engine at and hence what gear ratio to maintain, CVT-7 looks at throttle position, duration at which the throttle is at that position, current speed, etc. But the biggest factor however is the current 'mode' which for CVT-7 are one of the three options below:

CVT-7 Driving Modes

D is the 'drive' mode which is for normal daily driving use. To understand what D means, one must understand the design target for iDSI which is maximum fuel economy coupled to reasonably good power. Also the City is meant to be an executive/family sedan so for normal driving, the driver is not expected to be pushing the car to its max. What this means is that D-mode is optimized for maximum fuel consumption above everything else and with preppy performane, but still not the maximum performance the City is capable of giving. Why this is important is because in D-mode, first, CVT-7 maintains something like a 'lowered' red-line for the engine. I.e. the L15A engine is designed to rev to a maximum of 6000rpm. But in D-mode, go WOT and no matter how long you maintain that position (or how ideal the conditions are), CVT-7 will only rev the engine to a lower (I think it's ~5000rpm) max-rev. Also the apparent 'throttle response', i.e. how 'urgent' the car feels to throttle input will also be 'dull'. Again, this characteristic is intentionally designed into D-mode because it is expected the driver will want to maintain maximum fuel economy above almost everything else (except for safety of course). I want to emphasize this because I do know of people who came back from a test-drive of the Honda Jazz commenting the car is sluggish and the CVT gearbox very reluctant to rev. I think this would not be entirely accurate. It's just that CVT intentionally behaves this way in D-mode in order to maximize economy. After all if the driver wants maximum performance over everything else including economy, he is supposed to switch to 'S' mode.

S is the 'sports' mode which is for the time when we demand maximum performance from the City without concern for even fuel economy. This then is the time when WOT will push engine revs to its max (6000rpm). Throttle response will become very 'urgent' with the car eager to surge forward upon jabbing at the throttle. When test-driving the City in S-mode, pay special attention to how the engine/gearbox behaves to rapid jabs at the throttle. Because max acceleration at any speed is available by revving the engine at maximum rpms (i.e. running the engine at maximum power and maintaining the highest possible gear ratio in CVT-7), in S-mode, the engine will try to go to 6000rpm as much as possible. As explained in my Multimatic and Civic Ferio Vi articles, this can lead to a situation whereby there's a sort of a 'time-lag' between flooring the throttle and the car surging foward. This limitation (yes, we can view it as a limitation imposed by physical law) gives to two characteristic and is actually useful to understand because it will help us to understand the rationale for the 7-speed mode.

The first situation is when WOT-ing from standstill or very low speeds. Obviously if we WOT and we have to wait for the engine to get to max rpms, the car won't be going anywhere in particular ! So MMT and CVT-7 will sort of compromise - transmit partial drive to the front wheels and also partially slipping the gear ratios in order to let engine rpm climb as fast as possible. It is because of this need that from standstill, CVT will lose to the standard automatic gearbox, the car feeling sluggish at first (before gaining in urgency as the engine revs nears red-line) while the rpm climb seems to be slower than normal.

The other situation is when we are moving at medium speeds, i.e. from ~70kph onwards. CVT will be supreme here because once we WOT, engine revs climbs straight to redline, with speed hardly changing. Once engine revs are at redline and CVT-7 S-mode has maintained the highest possible gear ratio, then the car surges forward at a shockingly fast pace (for the engine's rated power). But this is where the problem lies. In order to let engine revs climb straight to redline, CVT-7 hardly transmits any drive to the front wheels during the rpm climb and the car's speed hardly changes. This climb to redline is super-fast but still takes a finite amount of time. This gives the driving impression of a 'throttle response lag', i.e. there seems to be a delay between WOT and the car surging forward and in a tight situation, this delay can be quite unacceptable.

A good example is in tightly winding roads. In such driving situations, maximum speed is limited by tyre grip rather than max power. So inside the corners, we will be modulating the throttle instead of WOT-ing it. When feathering the throttle, engine revs will be low. Now we exit the corner and we want to power out. But WOT and we find ourselves waiting for 'power' to come in. By the time engine revs reaches redline, we might well find ourselves out of the corner and ready to enter into the next. Thus in cases like this, we may actually find the characteristic of S-mode detrimental to maximum performance.

7-speed Mode is designed for the occasions when we need control rather than all-out performance. From the discussion on the S-mode above, I have explained how the characteristic of S-mode gives maximum possible performance in a straight or generally straight line and where there's ample time for preparation and planning (i.e. to wait for engine revs to reach red-line). However I have explained how this characteristic will actually interfere with performance in certain situations, like tightly winding roads for e.g.

In CVT-7, Honda provides a sequential shift mode with 7 virtual gears. The virtual gears are created by fixing the gear ratio at 7 discrete ratios and transmitting maximum drive from the engine to the front wheels, just like conventional gearboxes. In this mode, we are able to feather the throttle through a tight corner and when we power out, throttle response is quite instantaneous. This is what is meant by control. Again remember even when driving at the max in tightly winding roads, it is highly unlikely we can WOT the car all the time, the limiting factor to the car's absolute speed is not power but grip. And flexibility becomes the key here thus the need for control which is what 7-speed mode gives. Why 7-speeds ? Well, again we come back to the keyword 'control'. Now the L15A has a redline of 6000rpm. So it seems obvious that 7-speeds allows us to position the individual gear-ratios very closely together in relation to this rpm range. This means we have the ability to place engine revs at practically any rpm we want for a given speed. If the number of gears is too few like 4-speeds for e.g., the rpm range between gears will become too large. Performance enthusiasts know very well the problem with such a case - engine rpm is too high in 1 gear but way too low in the next gear. There's just no flexibility or control which is what the 7-speed mode is for.

Obviously too, 7-speed mode will not give the City its maximum straight line performance - S-mode will do that. 7-speed mode will give the City its maximum performance in windy roads where it's only possible to occasionally go WOT. Personally I think maximum speed from the City in such environments would be through a combination of 7-speed mode and S-mode. As an example, for readers who are familiar with the Sepang F1 Circuit, say coming in at the end of the front straights, personally I think I would go into 7-speed mode on entry into and inside turns 1 and 2, selecting an engine rev which gives maximum control. Then as I power out from turn-2, I would change to S-mode once engine revs reaches 6000rpm. I think it's probably possible to WOT through the whole of turn-3 and into the uphill straight before braking hard for turn-4, entering 7-speed mode again at that time. That would be if I am aiming for maximum speed.

These then are the 3 driving modes CVT-7 offers. Keep in mind that eventhough selecting the mode seems on the surface to be a gearbox only function, it actually changes the whole driving characteristic of the car itself. The engine behaviour and throttle response are very different between the 3 driving modes and this is important to keep in mind when evaluating the new City during a test-drive.

Taking on the Competitor

Competition wise, the new City meets-up against the new Toyota Vios . Just recently introduced by Toyota to tap into the same market as the City and is also conceptualized as an affordable entry-point into Toyota ownership. The biggest selling point of the Toyota Vios against the new City is that it's equipped with a similar size 1.5l engine but DOHC in configuration and equipped with VVT-i. This allows it to deliver 107ps, 19ps more powerful than the L15A. Equipped with a 4-speed 'Super-ECT' automatic gearbox, the Vios has a lighter bodyweight too. But it is mainly the higher power which has got a lot of people talking. However comparing power outputs is not as straightforward as just using the paper specifications Here I touch a little on this subject, hoping to clear some of the misconceptions that are floating around.

Regular TOVA readers will be very familiar with the concept of 'power at the wheels' by now. Basically, when a manufacturer like Honda or Toyota puts down a max power value for their engine, this power measurement is actually for a bare engine with only intake and exhaust. The point of measurement of the power is usually the flywheel or crankshaft (hence the term 'power at the crank'). Thus the L15A is measured to deliver 88ps while the 1.5l used in the Vios delivers 107ps.

But, the engine does not operate in isolation when mounted in the car. For a typical engine for e.g., attached to it will usually be the alternator, the air-cond compressor and the power steering pump. Then attached to the block will be the gearbox of course. Each of these devices; alternator, compressor, pump, gearbox, all will incur power loss. There's just no perfect loss-less mechanical device. As a result, from whatever power the engine generates at the crankshaft, some power will be lost to driving the various ancilliaries and then more power will be lost in the gearbox itself. The end result is that the power that arrives at the wheels will be less than what the manufacturer specifies. But in terms of the car's performance, the power at the wheels is the most important item because this is what is available to drive the car.

Regular readers will remember the series of 'reference' dyno-power articles I recently ran which looks at various Honda engine/models to see what kind of power they actually dynos at the wheel as compared to the power specified in the 'catalog'. For Hondas with the older 4AT automatic gearboxes, readers will recall we arrive quite consistently at a rather high 30% power loss from engine crankshaft to wheel, most of the loss due to the torque-converter equipped 4AT box. Actually this high level of power loss applies quite consistently to other makes as well as I have seen dyno's of cars ranging from Nissan Cefiros to FD3 Mazda RX-7 (autos of course) and compared to the manufacturer's spec, the resultant power dyno'ed at the wheel quite consistently comes to ~30% less. It's not for no reason that the torque-converter equipped gearbox is often called the 'slush-box' as it really literally 'slushes' massive amounts of power away ! I believe that the Toyota Vios too should experience similar power loss.

Now the new City is a different situation in many ways. Firstly the L15A drives only 2 ancilliaries; the alternator and the air-cond compressor. There is no power steering pump on the City because the City uses EPS or electrical power steering where steering assist is from a electric servo, not a hydraulics pump. This by itself means less power loss from driving ancilliaries. Secondly the CVT-7 gearbox is based on the Multimatic which does not use a torque-converter. Just like Multimatic, CVT-7 couples directly to the flywheel and uses a viscous coupling clutch to couple to the drive shafts. Now, the torque-converter is what is mostly responsible for the massive power loss of a regular auto gearbox which directly means the MMT and thus CVT-7 incurs less power loss compared to the standard auto gearbox.

So what what loss figure do we use for the new City ? Well because CVT-7 is based on the Multimatic, I think we can use Multimatic Civics to give us some sort of a baseline figure. The best case study would be the current generation JDM-only ES3 Civic Ferio RS. This model not only use the Multimatic gearbox but it also uses an EPS system ! Now I have not seen the actual dyno printout but have been told that completely stock ES3 Ferio RS dynos at almost 110ps at the wheels. From a spec of 130ps engine power, this works out to an extremely impressive 16% power loss figure ! I think we can use this to give us some indication that the new City should experience similar power loss figures.

Now I have absolutely no references to indicate that both the Toyota Vios and the new Honda City will follow these power loss figures to the letter so I will just stop the comparison at this point. Suffice it to say if we really do use the 30% and 16% power loss figures, the power at the wheels actually works out to almost exactly the same for both cars ! I think it would be very interesting indeed to dyno-check both the new City and the new Toyota Vios to test out the conjectures in this section. Without such reference data, I hope readers will approach power comparisons between the new City and new Vios from the proper perspective. On my part, I really do believe the figures above are quite representative of the actual power loss. So my opinion is that the Vios will probably have a slightly higher top speed due to its slightly better power-to-weight ratio (courtesy of its lower <1000kg kerb weight) while the City will be faster for daily driving especially when overtaking on the highways. It would be very interesting to see if actual test-drive experiences tallies with these assumptions.


It seems my extremely good impression of Honda Malaysia's new City is shared by many car fans. The extremely good pricing - M$78,888 means it's the only japanese car with this level of specs that is selling for below M$80,000, a first for car prices in Malaysia ! The extremely generous specifications for the City doubly makes it a great value package. I feel quite confident the new City will become a huge success and indeed when I checked with some dealers today, I was told that there's already a 2-3 months waiting list to get the car, with over 1000 new bookings for the car taken over just 3 days ! An astoundingly successful launch and all of it very well deserved !

There have been comments about the 7-speed mode, and whether its practical for everyday use. Personally I think Honda included it more for the enthusiast's driving pleasure than for road condition requirements. Yes the City is not terribly powerful, and with 88ps, most purpose built performance cars will be faster. But for the enthusiast who can only afford a Honda City, there's absolute no need to feel guilty about sneaking away to that windy road for some clean fun after sending the family to the in-laws for e.g. After all, there's no law that says there must only be rich enthusiasts, just a general desire for only socially responsible ones. So for us enthusiasts, Honda also gave the new City the 7-speed mode. Yes, even the humble City's owner has every right to be a driving enthusiast !

Wong KN
April 2003
© Temple of VTEC Asia