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Tracing the evolution of the Honda City

For close to two decades, the Honda City has set the benchmark for the segment and for the whole industry. We take a trip down memory lane and find out why

Images by Gaurav S Thombre

Every generation has a defining car: for mine it was the Honda City. It was the turn of the century, we were all graduating from college, the car industry had only just been properly opened up and cars like the Astra, Lancer and City were the hottest bloody things on the road. With only ‘student’ internet connections and no mobile phones our time –and we had a lot of it! – was best spent dissecting every word in the newly glossy auto magazines that had transformed car journalism, stoking our automotive passions like nothing else. I still remember that test in the fifth issue of OVERDRIVE – the City against the Lancer, Astra, Escort, Esteem, Siena and Cielo – with the burly surdy Hari Singh (whose time was best spent flying his yellow rally Esteem off the motorsport pages) handing the crown to the Honda City. I even remember the number plate on that red car – UP 16 8083 – and thus was born the legend that is the Honda City.

To put things into perspective car posters were a big thing back then and along with the customary F40 and Countach there was Tomi Makinen flying his Lancer Evolution through the forest stages in Finland. The Lancer had rally pedigree, looked the business, and was soundly trumped in that test. The City was the first car in India with 100bhp on tap (the Lancer did a measly 87bhp) and everybody on the magazine, including Hari Singh, loved it.

It was also a test that had a defining impact on my life; driving cars and writing about them was the coolest thing in the world and even before I got my engineering degree I was banging on a keyboard at the OVERDRIVE office. By the next round of comparison tests I was behind the wheel of a Type II City, a test that the Honda proceeded to win by a commanding margin. And that laid the tone for test after comparison test, every successive generation going on to win every test it was entered in. So much so that it is almost a foregone conclusion that the new fourth generation City will win all the comparos it is pitted in.It even has a diesel!

These are cars that have defined a decade and a half of Indian motoring


Which is why we are doing things a little differently. What we have here are all the generations, and all the facelifts of the City since it was launched in India – six cars that have all won Car of the Year awards and laid the standard by which other cars were(and still are!) measured. These are cars that have defined a decade and a half of Indian motoring, and the question we are asking is whether the fourth-gen City deserves a place amongst the greats.

GEN 1 TYPE 1, 1998-2000

This is where it all began, the original low cost Honda exclusively for Asian markets. And Honda really took the low-cost tag to heart, ruthlessly cutting and pruning the spec sheet. The car you see here is one of the rarest of the breed, an original 1st generation car with the 1.3-litre engine. It wasn’t really low-cost on sticker price, costing Rs 6.4 lakh back in 1998, but on equipment levels it was shockingly pared down. No power steering(yes, really!), no central locking, no stereo, no door pockets, no tacho, no wheel caps (forget alloys), no nothing really. Did not and still does not matter. Uncorrupted by power assistance, and benefiting from the kerb weight of under a ton, the steering is the purest you will find anywhere. A bit of a work out at parking speeds, though really not much worse than a Nano, but lovely when on the move.

And even today, 16 years later, the 1.3-litreengine with 89bhp can get a fair move on. In the city it never really wants for go and it’s only on the highway that the engine screams its lungs out without any corresponding build-up in momentum.

Type-1 1.3 didn’t even have wheel caps. The facelift on Type 2 made a massive difference to styling


What enthusiasts, and Hari Singh, really fell for though was the 1.5 – the first engine in India to make 100bhp. Sample this line from that test, “100bhp from 1.5 litres has to be quite a feat!” It gave the City 1.5 a 0-100kmph time of13.32 seconds and a top whack of 163.7kmph, making it the fastest car in the country. Not just that it had handling that Hari Singh termed as “ultimate” though the tendency of the tail to snap out catching those napping unawares caused others in the test team to describe the handling as “knife-edge” and “controversial”.

VTEC interiors got brushed aluminium finish while the rev-happy VTEC engine kicked out 105bhp and gained cult status


Driving to our shoot location nothing about the handling feels “controversial”, it is just too soft and that can cause bumps to unsettle the car, especially the tail. What I absolutely love though is the low-slung driving position– something that modern safety measures have all but killed off. In this original City you sit low, arms and feet nicely outstretched, the slim A-pillars causing minimal obstruction to the view out.

GEN 1, TYPE 2, 2000-2004

Yes, I know, with the Type 2, Honda addressed those equipment shortcomings, the 1.3 got power steering, the 1.5 a better stereo with(shock!) one song rewind and repeat, there were blue speedo and tacho dials with bold italic lettering in white and rotary air-con controls, but all we cared about were the four alphabets on the boot – VTEC. Six months after the Type 2 came to India Honda slapped on a boot spoiler, 14-inch alloys (a thing of wonder), twin exhaust tips, and sent enthusiasts into a tizzy with the VTEC-equipped engine. Power went up to 106bhp (detuned from 120bhp in other Asian countries) and we got our first carto do a sub 10-second 0-100 kmph time (9.92 seconds if you’re asking – and it required a shift to third gear unlike the Baleno that did 100 kmph in second).

Honda threw the baby out with the bath water and carried over absolutely nothing from the previous generation


I still remember we ran a deep red VTEC on our long-term test fleet and everybody absolutely adored (and nailed!) the car. It was the first car with a silver-finish centre console and see-through head rests it managed to successfully conceal the fact that the cabin was rather cheaply built without even a moulded roof lining. On the outside though the Type2 facelift, limited only to headlamps, tail lamps, fenders and bumpers, made a world of difference, turning the ho-hum City into one that we’d genuinely salivate over. Even today, to my eye at least, this is still classically handsome with perfectly judged proportions: long, low, wide and sleek from the outside with the driver sitting low and outstretched, ready to cane the engine.

Gen 2 got a new cabin with much more space and comfort but was very plasticky


You need to keep it above 2000rpm to get a move on but keep your foot in, feel the kick around 4500rpm as the VTEC valve gear kicks in, and hold on as the SOHC engine screams its way up to the insane 7100rpm redline. It shouldn’t but even today this car makes you grin like an idiot, probably explaining why our photographer has just bought the very VTEC on these pages (and enthusiasts call this car the VTEC, not a Type 2 or anything like that).The handling too benefited from revised spring and damper ratings so the rear wasn’t as bouncy or skittish as before while the hydraulic power steering, even today, is genuinely feelsome and talkative.

Long before the Octi RS and its ilk it was the VTEC that gained a cult following, tremendous motorsport success (all without any factory backing from Honda whatsoever) only adding to its allure. For six years Team MRF’s red City VTECs won every national championship rally they took part in – they looked fast, went like stink, sounded terrific and, for a car that always felt light and fragile, were incredibly reliable. The rally VTECs were retired years after the road car had been phased out, and that too only because parts were hard to come by. But in racing the VTEC still survives and as recently as 2012 the Tiger Sport-run VTEC won the National Touring Car Championship. That’s ten years after the car was phased out!

GEN 2, TYPE 1, 2004-2006

This generation was called the ‘dolphin’ but, honestly, that’s being unfair to the dolphin. Where the City’s entire image was built on sportiness, its brilliant engine and sport styling, with the new car Honda threw the baby out with the bath water and carried over absolutely nothing from the previous generation. It looked like a steam iron and, worse, out went the VTEC engine and in came the i-DSI unit. 106bhp made way for 77bhp and if there was a better way to alienate the legion of Honda devotees I am yet to hear of it. It was all done in the interests of fuel efficiency and the twin spark plug-equipped engine did go far further on a litre than you’d expect though contemporary reports of 24.5kmpl on the highway did have more to do with the tester’s imagination than actual testing.

VTEC interiors got brushed aluminium finish while the rev-happy VTEC engine kicked out 105bhp and gained cult status


Driving this CVT-equipped second-gen City it’s easy to see why it is the most unloved (hated?)of all the Citys. We’ve already established that it looks awful but even on the inside this car has dated very quickly and feels very plasticky.  Not that the first-gen was the last word in interior quality or equipment but somehow that cabin feels far more elegant today than this one with its mix of beige and brown plastics and horrid silver-rings to the dials.

Contemporary testers did put a brave spin on things with none calling the engine dog-slow or anything like that. Despite only 77bhp the City could crack 100kmph in 14 seconds, but it didn’t feel sporty or eager or remotely enthusiastic about getting a move on, a complete antithesis to what we had been used to from Honda till then. The CVT was even slower taking15.53 seconds to 100kmph and it made such a production of getting anywhere quickly that the whole country soon discovered what a CVT’s rubber-band effect was all about.

Nevertheless this City went on to win Car of the Year awards and that’s because it marked the start of the ‘man minimum, machine maximum’ philosophy. It was the first car to feature a centrally mounted fuel tank and together with the torsion beam rear suspension it liberated far more room at the back (despite wheelbase shrinking by 50mm). The seats were also high set, almost like an SUV, and where you had to crawl into the old City, the new one you walked in and out of – a big ergonomic improvement.

What the City turned into was an ideal city car – effortless to drive, terrifically fuel efficient, cheaper to buy (nearly two lakh rupees cheaper than the VTEC), extremely spacious, very comfortable and as thoroughly reliable as we’d expect a Honda to be. To us enthusiasts it was the end of a love story – the City was slow, no fun to drive and the new electric power steering was so light and devoid of feel it bordered on the scary. No wonder VTECs still hold their value.

GEN 2, TYPE 2, 2006-2008

Something had to be done and the facelift on the ZX made it kinder on the eye. And while the i-DSI engine continued, enthusiasts were once again offered the choice of a VTEC engine. However with only 100bhp from the 1497ccengine (same displacement as the i-DSI) Team MRF weren’t going to swap their VTEC rally cars for the ZX, 0-100kmph taking 11.35 seconds to the sub 10-second time of the first VTEC. The ZX VTEC then wasn’t the answer to enthusiasts’ prayers but Honda was only keeping in step with the requirements of the times – basically space, comfort and fuel efficiency.

One needed a strong stomach to digest styling of the second generation; facelift was welcomed with joy, and got a VTEC


The facelift also saw improvements to them suspension to cure the ‘thud’ sound (Honda engineers’ words during a briefing in Bangkok, not mine) from the suspension. This generation of City was stiffer in its suspension set-up but what that cured was the tendency to scrape over speed-breakers with more than one passenger on board. The chassis wasn’t lacking in grip but thanks to tyres optimised for fuel efficiency the nose would succumb to understeer rather early, and the stiff set-up meant the rear would snap out easily and without too much in the way of provocation. The latter I experienced on our first test at a tyre-testing track in Bangkok and then during track tests at the MMRT track in Chennai where, despite being faster than a Fiesta in a straight line, it couldn’t match it for lap times. The scarily light steering also had more ‘feel’ engineered into it but even today it is just too light and devoid of any feel.

As is the case with every City though the highlight of the Gen 2 Type 2 was the VTEC engine that marked a welcome return to form for Honda. Back then Honda had a reputation for being the best engine makers in the world and road testers weren’t shy of reminding you about it in every test. Not without reason though for even today the engine is super refined, incredibly reliable, light and eager to rev and is mated to a beautifully slick gearbox. And of course it won numerous COTY awards.

GEN 3, 2008-2013

Finally the City shed its emperor’s clothes and got sleek Japanese ‘arrowhead’ lines. It came close on the heels of the Civic and marked a welcome return to form for Honda, bringing back desirability to what in any case was the default choice in this segment. It even looked like a BMW3 Series from the rear!

Based on the new Jazz platform Honda managed to liberate even more space thanks to a 100mm increase in wheelbase, something that not only passengers appreciate but the driver too with loads of space to move the arms around and even rest the left leg. The latter is something you don’t get in too many cars these days. The swoopy two-tone interiors were also inspired by the Civic with the most notable carry-over being the lovely steering wheel. But what you will all remember this City for is the controversial deletion of the CD player, Honda claiming a USB and aux input for the stereo was sufficient. Sufficient today, not in 2008 where the mostly middle-aged dudes who bought City’s carried their music on CDs.

The third generation brought Honda back into the game with the ‘arrowhead’ design. 1.5-litre i-VTEC engine debuted with 116bhp


On the mechanical front out went the unloved i-DSI and the only engine option was the VTEC, carried over from the previous generation badged i-VTEC and with power bumped up to 116bhp. The rev limiter moved up to 6800rpm and it now hit 100kmph in 10.20 seconds. Still nowhere close to the original VTEC’s sub 10-second time but a lovely engine nevertheless. It still has that lovely lightness to it, a remarkable absence of inertia and puppy-like eagerness to assault the rev limiter. Of course it got noisy when revved hard but that contrasted beautifully with its eerie silence when idling or driven leisurely.

The chassis was also uprated, tyres were 15 inches (though still a narrow 175-section and optimised for fuel efficiency) and the City finally got ABS and twin front airbags as standard. The electric power steering was also re-engineered with more weight though it is still quite lifeless.

All in all it made for a City that you wanted to buy, not had to buy because it was head and shoulders better than the rest. Good thing because this City really got assaulted by the competition, the lack of a diesel engine leaving it battered and bruised and – for the first time since Honda began their Indian innings – off the top of the sales charts.


A diesel was required, and a diesel is what the City has finally got – the i-DTEC engine from the Amaze rumbling under the hood and playing a significant role in the 9000 plus pre-orders. But to be honest the whole allure of the City has been the VTEC engine and that’s what we have here, mildly tweaked to put out one more horespower (and one less torque). The0-100kmph time now goes down to 9.9 seconds (better rubber I guess) –exactly the same as the original VTEC! Says something about the (lack of)pace of progress, or how ahead of the game the original City was!

Fourth generation builds on the strengths of its predecessor with more grown up styling, and a garish chrome grille


Despite being based on an all-new platform the Gen 4 City feels hugely similar to the Gen 3. Blindfolded I honestly wouldn’t be able to tell one from the other. Blindfolded, mind you, because when you step into this new car the interior is a completely different kettle of fish. With the competition offering every feature known to man Honda has been forced down the same road and you get a big red starter button; an integrated stereo with a CD player (it’s back!), full Bluetooth connectivity, eight speakers and a 5-inch LCD monitor, four power sockets, cruise control, sun roof, rear air-con vents and even a touchscreen interface for the climate control. I don’t think anybody can call these interiors cheap or under-equipped – a criticism rightly levelled at every generation of the City. Even the gear lever is a soft leather wrapped golf ball, a tactile delight. The only thing I miss is the lovely steering wheel on the old City, not that this leather-wrapped ’wheel is lacking in anything – just that the old Civic’s wheel was so lovely to look at and grip.


Inside things have been pulled and stretched to liberate more shoulder, head and knee room. Five-up is a comfortable affair, four-up the City offers the comforts of much larger cars, something you can’t say for too many of its rivals. The suspension is more compliant improving on the slightly jiggly low speed ride while maintaining good straight line stability. It still has a slightly firm edge to it allowing small and sharp undulations to enter the cabin but the big upside is that the suspension doesn’t exhibit any pitch or weave or wallow over a bumpy road, never bottoms out, and never makes passengers sick. Chassis rigidity has improved by 24 per cent and that improves handling (marginally it has to be said) with the City going round corners with great enthusiasm. Of course the same old problem remains, the tyres run out of grip way too early resulting in the early onset of understeer – wider and grippier tyres will no doubt hit fuel efficiency but it will make this car genuinely fun to drive. The steering isn’t too light any more but still lacks any genuine feel. This is exactly how the third gen City feels dynamically – heck, you won’t believe how similar the two cars are to drive. Evolution, not revolution, is the name of the game here.

Biggest styling update on fourth-generation are the rear quarters


Even the engine feels similar – and that’s because it is! It starts with that typical Honda crank-up; is similarly light and free revving, responding to prods from the accelerator with great enthusiasm; and the gearbox is still wonderfully slick. It is of course a wee bit faster, and has slightly better bottom end grunt, but in reality it takes a back-to-back drive to discover this. To all intents and purposes there is barely any difference.

i-VTEC engine is carried over but manages a sub-10 second 0-100 kmph time


And is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. Long time ago I had written, “As long as there is a Honda VTEC there will always be a case to be made for petrols, despite diesels becoming ever more powerful and refined.” That statement holds true to this day; there remains great joy to be had in wringing the neck of this i-VTEC motor, assaulting the red line and getting a move on. These are thrills no diesel engine will be able to deliver; not many petrol engines from the competition too. These days everybody is doing variable valve timing and lift but nobody makes engines as powerful, as refined, as efficient and as reliable as Honda. Got to wonder what Honda serves in their canteens!

Lights flanking speedo glow green when driven efficiently, blue when driven hard


Therein lies the real appeal of the City. To us enthusiasts it is the VTEC badge and the eager-beaver nature of the car, to the rest of the car buying public it is the brilliant reliability and JD Power rankings (number one for12 years, 10 of them in a row if you’re asking). And now with the fourth generation Honda has built on the core strengths of the City while adding lashings of style, masses of space, and reams of equipment. Not to mention the diesel engine. It all adds up to a car that is a worthy successor to three generations of class-leading and benchmark-setting automobiles; cars that have defined a generation of petrolheads. Now who is going to bet against the City winning the next comparison test?

About the author

Sirish Chandran

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