This article was first published in 2003.
We've commented in previous articles that our biggest reservation about 'grey' imports is depreciation; we've seen Soarer twin-turbos, for example, fall from about AUD$30,000 to under AU$15,000 in just a couple of years. But what if the import vehicle in question can be (legally!) driven on the street for around AUD$4000? Well, that's a whole new ball game...
The JDM Honda City Turbo II is without question one of the quickest, most enjoyable machines you can buy 'on the cheap'. And don't think we're giving it any concessions because it's only a small engine'd front-wheel-drive hatchback - this little bolter has performance line-ball with a 1990 Saab 900 Aero Turbo, Mazda MX-6 Turbo and automatic Holden VL Turbo.
Yes folks, the Honda City Turbo II is a genuine baby-faced giant killer!
Let's take a look at its stats for a moment. At around 730 kilograms, the City Turbo II tips the scales the same amount as the Daihatsu Charade turbo that was released in Australia in 1984. The big difference, though, is the Turbo II has a 1.2-litre turbomotor stomping out 81kW while the Charade - which when new was labelled an embarrassment for V8s - had just 50kW! And forget about the Nissan Pulsar ET - it had almost the same number of kilowatts as the Honda but its extra 250 kilograms meant it was never anywhere on this pace.
Under its stubby little bonnet, the City Turbo II uses an ER-series 1.2-litre transverse alloy four-pot with a SOHC, 8-valve head. Its static compression ratio is just 7.6:1. Exhausts gasses spin a small IHI RHB51 turbocharger (which can be found tucked near the firewall) and an even smaller top-mount air-to-air intercooler is used to knock off some charge-air temp. Note that boost pressure is quite high for an early '80s Japanese turbocar - electronically controlled between 10 and 12 psi. A lightweight magnesium rocker cover is also an impressive feature for an early '80s vehicle.
The City Turbo also scored multi-point fuel injection featuring Honda's intriguing CVCC (Compound Vortex Combustion Chamber) system. The CVCC system begins with a small throttle body passage that contains its own fuel injector. This passage leads into a secondary set of intake runners that provide a rich air-fuel mix into a pre-combustion chamber - these chambers incorporate the spark plug but are divided from the main combustion chamber. The air-fuel mix is ignited in the pre-combustion chamber and, from there, a flame front travels into the main combustion chamber; this helps to burn what is otherwise a relatively lean primary air-fuel mix. The advantages of this system are improved emissions, fuel efficiency and reduced chance of detonation.
With its low static compression ratio and considerable boost pressure, you may think the City Turbo II will be doughy down low and a torque-steering pig when boost comes on - and you'd be very much mistaken! Perhaps due to its very long stroke, the City is tremendously torquey at all revs and its small turbocharger comes on instantly and quite smoothly. In some conditions you can hear the turbo boosting from barely over 1000 rpm.
The City Turbo II's massive mid-range grunt makes it a real pleasure to point and squirt. Unlike, say, a Charade Turbo, there's no need to wind out revs. Not surprisingly, peak torque (160Nm) is attained at a relatively low 3000 rpm and peak power (81kW) can be found at 5500 rpm.
Driving through the standard 5-speed manual 'box (no auto available), performance times are difficult to confirm but we have seen 16.2-second quarter miles mentioned. Certainly, a skilled launch technique is required - it's all too easy to scramble from a standing start with smoke pouring off one of the front wheels (there's no LSD) followed not long after by the stench of burning rubber wafting into the cabin...
As we said, this car is fun!
Although the Australian-delivered Honda City Pro T (a 2-seater commercial version of the City) was - in contemporary road tests - widely criticised for its handling, the Turbo II we drove wasn't at all bad. Sure, we could feel the front-end wanting to run a little wide when zapped through corners, but it was certainly not enough to be a concern.
The City Turbo II rides on a strut front and IRS rear with a swaybar bolted to each end; ride is pretty average, especially given the rear dampers of our demo car were completely stuffed.
Surprisingly, the rack-and-pinion steering of the example we drove was quite heavy at parking speeds - similar in steering effort to a Suzuki Swift GTi without power steering. And, yes, there was plenty of air in the tyres...
The brakes feel nice and responsive and can reputedly cope with significantly increased performance. The ventilated front discs and calipers are apparently the same as found on contemporary Honda Preludes, while the rear brakes are stock City drums.
Inside, it's '80s styling all the way. It's surprisingly comfortable though, with standard sports seats offering a very liveable combination of firmness and support. Standard features include a manual sunroof with removable trim blind, remote mirrors, air conditioning, a thick-rimmed 3-spoke steering wheel, and a digital dashboard (which is a pain to read in direct sunlight). Note, though, we're told that the very last Turbo IIs had conventional dial instrumentation.
There's good head and legroom up front and width is reasonable given the size of car, but rear passenger space is - as you'd expect - fairly limited. It's not as uncomfortable as the back of a Nissan S13 Silvia though.
Heading toward the hatch, a fold-forward backrest and space saver spare can be found.
It's not easy to make a grocery fetcher look trick but Honda did a pretty good job with the City Turbo II. Compared to the locally delivered City Pro Ts, the Turbo II got a "power bulge" bonnet, a sports front 'bar and a great looking set of flared wheel arches. These changes give the tall and stubby City a tough look from its front quarter angles, but the rear-end looks nothing special. Standard wheels are 13 x 5 alloys wearing 185/60 rubbers.
Note that the muscular appearance of the Turbo II lead to its widespread - and very apt - "bulldog" name.
The first generation City Turbo - retrospectively called City Turbo I - was manufactured between 1981 and 1983. The Turbo II then carried over until discontinued in 1987.
Note that the early Turbo Is didn't get flared guards and made slightly less power. With a smaller turbocharger, 0.1 ratio less static compression, a different intake manifold, plenum and throttle body and minus an intercooler they made 'only' 74kW and 147Nm (7kW and 13Nm less than the later Turbo II). The first generation City Turbo is, however, about 40 kilograms lighter than its successor.
Interestingly, there are also reports that the City Turbo was produced in limited numbers as a cabriolet!
Today, City Turbos can be imported to Australia and complied in accordance with the regulations regarding vehicles 15-years and older. The vehicle we drove was supplied by Adelaide's Yahoo Motorsport and was stickered at AUD$3500 plus compliance. We're told by John Verban - the head of Yahoo Motorsport - he can arrange compliance for around $800. If you're prepared to do some work yourself, however, this cost can be significantly reduced - talk to John for further details if you're interested.
Unlike many other grey Japanese imports, the City Turbo shares all of its glass and much of its panels and suspension with the locally-delivered City Pro T. As mentioned, its front brakes are the same as you'll find on an early Prelude. Engines and gearboxes can be found at import wreckers, but supply is very rapidly drying up.
From all accounts, it's easy-as to get a City Turbo running in the high-14s across the quarter mile; its light weight is a wonderful thing!
The first step should be to upgrade the factory 1½-inch exhaust system and the convoluted air intake arrangement. Depending on the effectiveness of these mods, you may start hitting a fuel cut at around 14 psi boost; some form of FCD is required to eliminate or raise the boost cut trigger value.
Next, the standard intercooler - which doesn't appear particularly efficient - should be discarded to make way for a bigger 'cooler. For cost-effectiveness you can't go past second-hand import intercoolers. With more control over charge-air temps, it is said you can push 15 psi without leaning out - and 15 psi is all you need to crack a 14, given a good set of tyres.
You may, however, find that a clutch upgrade is necessary. Gearbox strength also remains a question; we notice the Turbo II has the same 1st and 5th gear ratios as the locally-delivered City Pro T, but the quickie gets a slightly taller final drive ratio and shorter 2nd, 3rd and 4th gear ratios.
Interestingly, there used to be a very popular City Turbo racing class in Japan. The racecars were fitted with a revised camshaft, an upgrade exhaust, injectors and copped a massive 22 psi of boost. Quarter mile times of around 13.5-seconds are claimed for these little fliers!
In a bizarre twist, an Australian entrepreneur purchased these ex-racecars hoping to continue the series locally. This idea never eventuated, though, as the cars were buried in an earthquake while being stored in Japan!
1984 JDM Honda City Turbo II Fast Facts...
- Great fun to drive
- Practical and comfortable seats
- Looks kinda tough
- Can embarrass many other cars in only standard form...
- And can annihilate them with only a few mods!
- What have you got to lose?
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Also check out www.cityturbo.com for your City fix!