Honda ups the ante with the Honda City

Ace of the 1.5-1.6 litre class sedans, in Langkawi. — Pictures by YS Khong
Ace of the 1.5-1.6 litre class sedans, in Langkawi. — Pictures by YS Khong

KUALA LUMPUR, May 13 — Is there really any difference in the cars of the 1.5-1.6 litre class sedans available here in Malaysia?

The popular brands would be the incumbent test car of which today’s subject is about, and its local competitors, the very popular Toyota Vios, the hot-selling Nissan Almera, launched the second half of last year, and the Volkswagen Polo Sedan, also launched last year.

It does seem though, that we Malaysians are getting spoilt for choice — which makes the buying decision even more challenging.

Being human, we naturally want to get the best value for our money — motivation to buy any particular make or model comes in many forms — some go for performance and handling, some go for price, some others go for the looks.

There are those who go for accessories and trivial stuff that come with the car, while more serious ones want as much safety features as possible.

Behind all that, there are the issues of cabin space, boot space, second hand value, service availability, and what the friends and neighbours would think, etc, etc. Most would have a combination of wants and needs. It’s tough, without a doubt.

I would suppose the car maker that can package a product that suits the majority of people would be the most successful — there is no real secret about making a successful seller — give people what they want, at a reasonable price.

The latest trend here is to “package” one model with three or four variants, priced from a low entry model to a top-of-the-range model with everything thrown in bar the kitchen sink.

A group of us motoring media went to the beautiful island of Langkawi last week to test out the locally assembled Honda City. What was available to us to test out was not only the four variants, starting from the lowest specked S to the S+, E and the top range V variants, but three other “competitor” models as well.

In addition to the drive around the island, the media were given the opportunity to do a drag race with the City’s competitors, a high-speed performance drive on a short stretch of winding roads, and a double “accident avoidance” sudden lane change exercise.

I have actually driven all of the aforesaid cars in isolation, but the fact that we were able to test all of the competitive models side by side was a revelation of sorts to me.

By doing side by side tests, one model after another gave me an “apple to apple” comparison, and the Honda City aced all of the tests.

The most significant difference between the Honda City and its competitors would be the additional stability and safety that comes with the VSA (Vehicle Stability Assist) feature that was introduced towards the end of the lifespan of the previous model, and is carried forward into the current model.

During the accident avoidance exercise, we were to go at 60 km/h, and do two last-minute lane changes to avoid obstacles made up of empty cardboard boxes. I crashed heavily into the boxes with two of the competitors’ models, and barely escaped with another, hitting some cones instead, the latter signifying that I was actually marginally out of control.

With the new Honda City, I am very happy to report that I successfully performed the manoeuvre, and emerged unscathed.

I ran every car through the exercise at exactly the prescribed 60 km/h speed, and although I do consider myself quite an accomplished driver, did not have the same amount of control over the car behaviour with the others as I had with the Honda City.

The test was performed in dry conditions — in the wet, I cringe to think of what may happen to an untrained driver who has to make such an action to avoid an accident.

With this exercise, I will definitely consider the VSA a boon to any driver.

Just as an aside, vehicle stability control systems are also known by a variety of other terms such as ESP, VSC, and DSC in other brands, but are usually found in more expensive cars.

I found the ride and handling of the Honda City to be better than two of its competitors, but one other competitor was just as good. This was during the back-to-back driving test.

Coincidentally, I also found the seating to be the best in the Honda City in terms of how it hugs the body and hold it during corners, and the overall comfort. Cornering stability in the City scored top marks, with one competitor very close to it.

By the simple virtue of the fact that the Honda City has 120PS, and has variable valve timing (I-VTEC), it out-accelerated all the others in the drag test.

I did bemoan the fact that Honda has decided to bring back the CVT (Constantly Variable Transmission) after moving from it to a 5-speed automatic transmission during the last model change, but it appears that the performance is not affected.

Anyway, the Honda’s Large Project Leader in charge of the Honda City (who happens to be known as Mr Suzuki) did say in his product presentation that the CVT has been totally re-designed, comes with a torque converter (viscous coupling), which the previous City of two generations ago did not have, and provides a much improved driving experience. Admittedly, the car drove better than the previous CVT model, but I still do not like CVTs.

There are only two items I do not like about the new Honda City — the first being that the Honda people have omitted the paddle shifters — the one I drove in Thailand a while ago had it, and I believe the City would be much more fun with it.

According to Honda Malaysia, they did a survey, and it appears that not many respondents really cared about whether the paddle shifters were there or not. Apparently, I belong to the minority, but the paddle shifters make the City a better driving car.

Nonetheless, the packaging of the new Honda City is in my opinion, very well-thought-out, and there is one that will suit every possible buyer of this category of cars.

One thing is for sure — the Honda City has upped the ante, and the other brands will be looking at the Honda City as a benchmark for their next model change.