2020 Honda City first drive review

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2020 Honda City first drive review
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

VTEC wasn’t exactly popular in India in 1998 when the Honda City first came to our shores, but the seeds were sure sown back then. And over the years the City has gone from strength to strength, not just as one of the most spacious and premium sedans in its segment but also as one that’s loved by enthusiasts. In fact, the Honda City has been the highest-selling C-segment sedan for the better part of two decades with its kind of comfort, build quality, refined powertrain and excellent dynamics.

Honda City 2020 - Topgear Magazine
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

It’s only in the recent years that the Honda has faced stiff competition from rivals like the Maruti Suzuki Ciaz and Hyundai Verna. Buying trends have also been evolving and a slew of similarly priced SUVs have been denting sales of sedans, meaning only a few established names are doing well, including the City of course. And Honda is now launching the fifth-generation City that packs a lot more in its arsenal in keeping with the times. For now, the hybrid powertrain has been given a miss, meaning at launch we only get 1.5-litre petrol and diesel engines. Should we be disappointed just yet? Maybe not.

Evolution is the name of the game

The previous-generation City’s design was an evolution of its predecessor’s and the fifth-gen City is a similar story. The front end is new but has familiar design traits like the thick, single-slat chrome grille and slightly rounded nose that reminds of the Civic. The ZX trim gets full-LED headlights, but more importantly, it’s the sharp design of its internal elements that make the headlights look so distinctive. The styling proved to an absolute head turner – more so given the stunning design than the novelty factor of the new-gen City. The side profile hasn’t really changed and even the door handles are the same. The alloy wheels look similar too, though not entirely.

Honda City 2020 - Topgear Magazine
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

Wing mirrors have been moved backwards and sit on the shoulder line in a bid to reduce the blind spot caused by the mirrors and A-pillar together. The rear end is the most appealing to look at, particularly the rear three-quarter. Stop lights look particularly nice and I dare say, have a BMW-esque design. I also like the way the tail lights ‘wrap around’ and extend onto the sides which increases their visibility and visual appeal. The dark hue of our test car meant that lines and creases were visible well, adding to the appeal. Overall, there’s an elevated sense of grandeur to the design besides which the increased length and width make for better road presence.

Honda City Car Review - Topgear Magazine
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

Top-notch interiors

The new City offers a more luxurious feel inside with its beige-black theme and high-quality plastics that almost look like they’re soft-touch, though they aren’t. The dashboard does get some soft-touch leather, with real stitching. There are faux wood inserts as well, though the overall theme is clean and clutter-free. An eight-inch touchscreen takes centre stage on the dashboard flanked by larger air-con vents, while AC controls sit right underneath and interestingly, Honda has gone back to rotary dials from the previous car’s touch panel. Storage spaces in the centre console are well-designed while USB and 12V sockets have been repositioned and sit higher for easier reach.

Honda City Car Drive Review - Topgear Magazine
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

A crisp seven-inch LCD display functions as the instrument console, though most of it is black and white and I would have some more colours. Interestingly, while the tachometer needle is a digital one the speedometer needle an actual needle. Information is arranged well and the tachometer also integrates a G-meter that displays Gs generated as you drive, which is a segment-first. The steering wheel is new and its controls are positioned well and it also integrates a wheel for scrolling through menu options! The switchgear offers a tactile feel, as you would expect of a Honda. Another segment first is the addition of Honda’s Lane Watch Camera that debuted on the current Civic in India. Needless to say, it is a useful addition!

Honda City Car Drive Review - Topgear Magazine
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

The increased length and width (109mm and 53mm respectively) make the car more spacious, while Honda’s usual ‘Man Maximum, Machine Minimum’ philosophy ensures interior space is class-leading. I was also impressed by the space around the driver’s seat as elbow room and space in front are excellent! Of course, there’s a sunroof as well, in case you were wondering. Move to the rear and you’re instantly reminded why the City is one of the most preferred chauffeur-driven cars in its segment, given the acres of space you get. Honda has increased legroom and knee room both further by scooping out the rear of the front seats and creating additional space under them for rear occupants to tuck their feet underneath. Clearly, the Honda City should have no trouble in retaining its title of having the most spacious rear bench in the segment.

Honda City Car Review - Topgear Magazine
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

More technology than before

The fifth-gen City is the first car in India to offer connectivity with Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant. The caveat though is that only the top of the line petrol automatic version it. We did try it very briefly and you can ask Alexa to lock/unlock doors, turn the AC on or off, check fuel status and more even when away from the car, thanks to the onboard SIM card. Well, you can ask Alexa to open the boot for you or to send you your car’s service history instantly! The City also gets the updated, Honda Connect 2.0, which brings more convenience and safety features in addition to the usual geo-fencing, speed limits and the like. The key fob also allows you to turn the engine on or off when outside the car and open/close all windows and the sunroof now. Honda has also added ESC, a tyre pressure monitoring system, hill start assist and what Honda calls AHA or Agile Handling Assist which applies the brakes lightly on the inside front wheel when turning to aid cornering and stability. It is good to see Honda take the game forward with several segments firsts – the new-generation City is certainly a quantum leap over its predecessor on the technology front!

Honda City Review - Topgear Magazine
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

Powertrains and driving experience

Many were looking forward to the option of a hybrid powertrain but we will have to wait a bit more for that. For now, Honda will offer the City with its 1.5-litre, four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines only, though both have been reworked extensively. The focus has been on reducing frictional losses further to make them even smoother – trust Honda to offer some of the most refined powertrains! On the flip side, if you were expecting higher outputs you might just be disappointed a bit. The petrol mill offers the same 120bhp and 145Nm as before while the diesel offers 99bhp and 200Nm. That said, responses have improved and throttle responses are crisper and power delivery is better to say the least.

Honda City Review - Topgear Magazine
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

More importantly, the petrol (finally!) gets a six-speed manual gearbox as standard along with the option of a CVT and both transmissions are very impressive. I first spent a brief while in the automatic and I have never been a fan of CVTs, but Honda has got them right in a way that they impress enthusiasts too. I first saw that in the Amaze and now in the City – the rubber band effect has been reduced significantly and the transmission feels more responsive, choosing the best of its 7 steps depending on throttle inputs. It feels almost like an automatic with actual gears and using the paddle shifters feels good too. The manual gearbox is a slick-shifting unit and to be honest, I still like my three pedals… Hehe…

Honda City  Drive Review - Topgear Magazine
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

Which brings me to the juicy bit. The improved engine responses mean the motor pulls harder. Redlining the motor is accompanied by a sporty exhaust note and admittedly, blipping the throttle to match revs for downshifts is immensely satisfying. So did I feel the need for more horsepower? Not really, though few more horses would have been welcome. That would have come at the expense of fuel efficiency though, not something every City buyer wants. Putting the City through its paces has always been engaging (thanks to VTEC in a big way!) and feels even better now, a feeling complimented well by the dynamics. The chassis is an improved version of the previous version’s, while the suspension has been reworked and is also lighter. That, of course, translates to even more confident handling.

Honda City  Wheel - Topgear Magazine
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

The steering feels precise but is still lighter than what I would have liked. Again, that’s the enthusiast in me talking though and most buyers will appreciate its directness. The car stays planted through fast bends and body roll is well-controlled, while the ride quality is as good as it gets. Honda has also improved NVH levels further with better sound-deadening materials like a thicker floor and spray foam in the A-pillars for better sound insulation. Overall, this is an even more refined package as far as the powertrains and dynamics go.

First impressions

Honda City  Car Drive Review - Topgear Magazine
(Image: BBC TopGear India)

It’s like Honda split the new City’s development into various parts and improved everything individually before putting it all together to create a car that’s even better packaged. Its sense of premiumness – inside out – is elevated and the car gets some of the latest technologies, which was a little glaring in the outgoing car. Powertrain refinement is top notch – even better than before – which has always been one of its strengths. The car also looks grander now, almost as if belonging to a segment above. Pricing? The new car will command a premium over its predecessor given the updates, which will make it more expensive. But Honda will also continue selling the fourth-generation car alongside the new one to offer buyers a wider spectrum. That’s pretty smart in my opinion. As for the new-generation car, it certainly has what it takes to carry the City’s legacy forward.