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Honda City

One to avoid

by Julian Edgar, pics by Honda

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At a glance...

  • Expensive
  • Poor ride and handling
  • Dreadful auto trans calibration
  • Big boot
  • Satisfactory fuel economy
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The Honda City is a surprisingly poor car. Surprisingly? Well, given that it’s largely based on the Jazz – a car we think is excellent (see Honda Jazz GLi) – we were expecting good things of the City. But the City is expensive, has clear design flaws and isn’t even much fun to drive.

We were able to drive two models - an auto trans VTI ($22,790) and a City VTI-L manual ($22,990). The cheapest City is the City VTI manual ($20,490) and the most expensive the City VTI-L ($25,290).

Straight away, there’s a problem.

These prices are simply too high – too high when compared with the competition and too high when compared even with other Honda products. The base model Honda Jazz is $16,490 and the base model Civic is $20,490. So why would you pay – and why would Honda price – the base model City the same as the base model Civic - and not at Jazz levels? It doesn’t make sense.

And drive a City and it’s obvious it should start at waaay under twenty grand. The NVH (noise, vibration, harshness), equipment level, interior fit-out and build quality reek of a sixteen or seventeen thousand dollar car... Specific examples? Sure. On one of the test cars the rear boot margins (gaps between adjoining panels) was clearly uneven, inside the car there were exposed black bolts covered with a splash of bright paint to show that they’d been done up tightly! Classy? Nope – but acceptable on a cheap car... not one priced at $23,000. Rev the engine hard and – especially on the VTI that has less soundproofing – the engine isn’t just audible... it’s loud!

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Unfortunately, it’s not like you’re getting a car anywhere near as well thought-out as the Jazz – let alone some of the competition. The floorpan uses an extended wheelbase but otherwise appears borrowed from the Jazz. That means you sit on the fuel tank (it’s under the front seats), an approach that with the high roof of the Jazz, works very well. But in the City the roof is low – and so the front seats end up far too high. Even with the driver’s seat wound down as far as it will go (an adjuster is provided in the VTI-L, not the VTI), the seat is still extraordinarily high – and we actually like high-mounted seats! People who prefer their seats low, or who are tall, will find the City simply unacceptable.

The driver’s seat also has extreme lumbar support – there’s no adjustment... it’s just always there, shoving you in the lower back. We watched driver after driver get into the car and then grope for the lumbar adjustment knob – only to find there isn’t one.

Ride quality is also poor - in fact, nearly all the driving dynamics are lousy. The steering is slow around centre and the rear suspension, which has active toe change in bump, causes a disconcerting rear-steer feel. Do a quick lane change and the back can be felt to be lagging behind the front.

The dampers are too soft in slow speed bumps (that is, slow damper shaft speeds, like occur over waves) and conversely, too stiff in high speed bumps (eg short-spaced sharp bumps). The ride on some roads is a combination of fast bobbing mixed with a slow wallow – awful.

Aerodynamically, the car also moves around a lot in cross-winds.

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The result of all this is that the driver never feels physically comfortable, and never feels mentally relaxed. One day we drove just over 300 freeway kilometres and couldn’t understand why after doing so, we felt so tired – it was the result of the uncomfortable seats, poor ride, and need to chase the steering all the time.

Note that the VTI-L, with 185/55 tyres on 16 inch alloy rims, has far better steering than the VTI with 175/65 15 tyres.

Is there no end to the woes? Well, unfortunately the 5-speed auto trans is also dreadful. Completely unlike the logic used in most Honda auto transmissions (smarts we’ve often sung the praises of), the auto in the City is terrible. Up long hills it will hunt up/down, up/down in gear – on one 60 km/h hill, it changed up and down eight times. (And, doing that drive on a daily basis, how we came to hate the trans!)

The trans is also unresponsive to slowly increasing throttle angles, obstinately holding the one gear while the car’s road and engine speeds barely change. This can also reveal another problem – at 4000 rpm, there’s a loud engine or exhaust resonance. In the end, to gain performance, the driver has to mash their foot to the floor, whereupon the engine screams at high revs. Note that no ‘tiptronic’ style function is provided – just a manual 3rd gear position.

The manual trans car is a much better drive – with this transmission, the sweet engine can show its tractability at low revs and the gearbox can be intelligently used to extract a lot more real-world performance from the engine. Perhaps because the manual trans car was the better soundproofed VTI-L, the engine also felt a lot happier at high revs.

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In short, the engine – a 1.5 litre i-VTEC design with 88kW and 145Nm at 4800 rpm – is utterly unsuited to auto transmissions. So if you’re after an auto, forget the City (and perhaps also the Jazz, that we didn’t drive in auto form.) If you’re prepared to work the engine and gearbox hard, the manual trans driveline is fine. The manual gear-change is light and the clutch is easy to use (although a ‘dash-pot’ effect on the throttle takes some getting used to if you’re to avoid the revs flaring each gear-change).

Fuel economy? It’s little hard to tell. Honda list the manual trans cars at 6.3 litres/100 and the auto trans at 6.6 (another reason to pick the manual!) and in our driving, the dashboard fuel economy display showed figures very close to these. However, a tank fill actually indicated the economy had not been 6.6 litres/100 (as shown by the display) but 7.6 litres/100. Depending on which figure to believe, that makes the economy acceptable to good.

There are also some problems in the cabin. The dashboard and controls are conservative in presentation and are clear – no issues there. But the dash has a curved silver finish, so no matter what angle the sun is coming from, there’s a reflection straight into the driver’s eyes. And the reflections don’t stop there – at night, the middle illuminated panel can be seen in the windscreen.

One of the two cars had very poor air-conditioning. It could be felt to switch off at high throttle angles, the temperature of the air from the vents varied a lot, and at idle, the air grew warmer. The other car wasn’t as bad, but its air con could never be said to be up to Australian requirements.

So surely there must be some good aspects of the car? Well, rear legroom (but not headroom) is good, and at 506 litres, the boot is huge. But access to the boot is poor - the lid opening is quite tight. Honda state that a large ‘Esky’ can be inserted, but it must be a struggle to get it through the opening. The rear seats fold forward on a 60:40 split, but a stepped floor results. We don’t know what happened to the tumble/roll back seats of the Jazz – it appears that just the same approach could be used in the City but neither car we drove had this feature.

It is honestly hard to find anything in the City that could cause us to recommend it. Even in safety it lacks a vital ingredient – electronic stability control – although it does have six airbags. Well, actually there’s one unambiguously good thing - the sound system, that has USB connectivity for devices like I-Pods, sounds excellent and has good functionality.

The City requires major changes. The auto trans needs a total re-calibration (or an engine needs to be fitted that is better suited to the existing auto trans calibration); the seats need improvement; the ride and handling needs a lot of work; and electronic stability control should be an option. But even then, at the prices being asked, the car would only be acceptable.

As it is now, the City is one to avoid.

The Honda City VTI and VTI-L were made available for this test by Honda Australia.

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