Honda City LXi (1999)
Life is good at the top of the Japanese automotive ladder. Sitting behind the leather-clad wheel of an Accord or a Cefiro, pampered by push-button everything, one cannot have much reason to complain. But what if we go a few steps down to the bottom rung? Would we find that driving, if not a sheer pleasure, is at least something still to look forward to?
This was precisely our question when we test-drove the Honda City LXi. The City is Honda's stab at the entry-level car. With prices ranging from P414,000, it's not exactly a people's car. (A cheaper P369,000 model with less electric features is available.) It's within the range of other 1.3-1.4 liter cars with larger bodies like the Sentra, Corolla, Lancer and even the Polo. Yet at less than half the price of an Accord, we wondered if the City would still be pleasant to drive, responsive, well-built, reliable and comfortable. In other words, would it still be a Honda?
The engine is certainly of Honda caliber. It's a 1.3-liter sohc 16-valver with fuel injection. Its being fuel injected cannot be dismissed as standard fare, since two of its rivals, the 1.3 Corolla and 1.3 Lancer are still living in the carburetor age. Indeed, the fuel injection and multi-valve design make this a spirited engine. You'll experience a reaction delay of a few beats when you floor the accelerator at 2500 rpm, so for spirited driving the revs have to kept at 3000 or more. From there, it lives up to its "Hyper" badge as it revs willingly to its remarkable 6800 rpm redline.
We're glad then that our car had the 5-speed manual for keeping those revs where we wanted them. It was easy to select our gears, but shift feel was rubbery, somewhat like Nissan gearboxes from 10 years ago. We sorely missed the usual click-click Honda manual in this car.
Contrary to what its name suggests, the City is not merely for chugging around to work or the supermarket. Its engine-gearbox combination is capable of powering the car to a comfortable 130 km/h with speed still to spare. The only drawback of running fast is the high tire and road noise, which takes out some of the satisfaction of passing even 2.0-liter cars on the highway.
Such speeds would require a firm suspension and powerful brakes. Fortunately, the City has both. Due to cost constraints, it may not have double-wishbone suspension found on all other Hondas. It only has struts at all four corners. However, the struts have been tuned well. Bumps and dips in the road are absorbed nonchalantly, while potholes don't jar the cabin too much. Brakes have good feel and acceptably short stopping distances. The weak points in the chassis set-up are the tires. They're size 165/80 R 13, and amount to a low adhesion limit for the car. The 80 aspect ratio doesn't help, either, as lane changes feel soft and soggy.
Certain aspects of driving the City had a wooden, lifeless feel. The steering, for instance, tracked precisely but was too slow, particularly for a small car. Pull on the handbrake, and you'll feel like you're engaging air.
The interior particularly is quite disappointing. It is quite roomy and will seat five small-to-medium adults comfortably, but the dogs are in the details. The radio-cassette player is mounted so low that it's distracting to change stations or increase the volume. The glovebox is not damped in any way so opening it and closing it results in a plasticky twang. Gauges are complete with tach and speedometer flanking central fuel and temp indicators. However, the gauge cluster is so unimaginative, it looks like it came from a van. The dials for tach and speedo should be made larger. Or why not go bonkers and install a floating digital display in a central pod, like Toyota's Yaris?
The aircon controls are also strange, with a large temp knob to one side and clumsy slide controls for fan speed. What's stranger is that there are three aircon vents at the center, with the middle vent having an open/shut lever, but the others don't shut. What's the use?! The aircon is very powerful, though, providing cooling all the way to the rear passengers.
Power features are half-hearted, too. There's power steering but no power door locks. Only the front windows are electric; the rear are hand-cranked.
However, if you're looking for an affordable brand-new car, you won't do badly to choose the City over its rivals. It has a capable and economical drive train, and runs about 10 km/liter. Chassis is also competent.
Bottom line is that the City inspires confidence. The mechanical parts of the car pull and work together in such a way that you know you can overtake that truck, you can stop in time for the intersection, you can go fast enough on the highway. That confidence leads to driving satisfaction. One suggestion if you choose a City: change those wheels and tires right away!
Here's our comprehensive wish list for a new Honda City, when it's designed and produced:
Radical exterior styling, like Peugeot 206 or Toyota Yaris. Why make a practical car look dull?
Cleaner, more logical interior styling. Put those door pulls on a diet to increase interior room. Improve the quality of the plastics.
Better switches and placement of controls. Higher radio, rotary knobs for the aircon would be appreciated.
Larger and more interesting gauge cluster. Be proud of that 6800 redline--put a large tach in the middle.
The foundation that is the current Honda City is already encouraging. If they put these suggestions in place, Honda will create a truly world-class small car that will not only be worthy of the Honda badge but will propel it higher on its own merit.
By Jason Ang | Photos By Jason Ang and Ulysses Ang
Originally Published in the July 1999 Issue