Honda's latest budget model rises above its station
Slicker City The fourth- generation Honda City (above) is bigger than its predecessor. When hooked up to an Apple iPhone with the HondaLink app, the high- definition touchscreen monitor becomes a navigation system. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Honda's previous City was priced above the Toyota Corolla Altis - a bigger and, arguably, better car - when it was launched six years ago.

The new City, however, is about 15 per cent less costly than the current Altis. At $110,900, it also costs about 5 per cent less than the Toyota Vios, its rightful rival.

The pricing strategy clearly reflects Honda's ambition to regain lost market share and perhaps climb a few notches up the sales chart.

In the first five months of the year, Toyota was the bestseller, while Honda ranked 10th. The gap between the two Japanese brands has never been wider.

However, besides its relatively attractive price, does the fourth-generation City have what it takes to win more customers?

Well, if size matters, the new Honda already has a headstart. It is bigger than its predecessor and roomier than the Vios. Its second row can accommodate three teenagers comfortably.

At 536 litres, its boot is also class-leading.

Exterior-wise, its expanded stature is also apparent, even from a distance.

The Thai-made budget car is still unabashedly plasticky as before. Everywhere you rest your hand on in the cabin, you come into contact with hard, hollow-sounding panels.

While that is unchanged from the previous City, the new car has far more redeeming qualities. For one thing, its fascia is classier, if a tad busy.

Taking centre stage is a seven-inch high-definition touchscreen monitor. Hooked up to an Apple iPhone which has the HondaLink app, it becomes an operating system for navigation, traffic information and various sources of music. You can even use voice command and Siri - the iPhone's "virtual assistant".

The set-up, with its dangling wires and temperamental interface, is not as user-friendly as integrated systems found in pricier cars, but it offers City owners access to premium services at practically no cost.

Future HondaLink variants may be compatible with Android phones.

Other amenities are pretty impressive too. It has a multi-function steering wheel with paddle shifters, cruise control, Hill Start Assist, keyless access and ignition, multi-angle reverse camera, Isofix child-seat anchorage and remote boot-lid release.

The air-conditioning is manual, but it is highly efficient.

Efficient, too, is the car's drivetrain. The 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine is basically the same one found in the previous model, but it is now paired with a continuously variable transmission.

And that makes all the difference. It is substantially swifter than its predecessor and will easily outsprint the Vios.

Zero to 100kmh is done in 11 seconds flat and its top speed is 192kmh - versus 12.2 seconds and 185kmh of the previous car, and 12 seconds and 170kmh of the Vios.

At the wheel, the new City certainly feels lively. In fact, it is as energetic and responsive as a small turbo, thanks largely to the efficiency of its CVT.

While it is undeniably whiny like most CVTs, it offers the linearity and relentlessness of an electric drivetrain.

In Sport mode, the City is quite zippy. The plus point here is that the engine does not sound strained, nor is fuel economy overly compromised.

The cabin is as quiet as many cars above its station and its ride quality is better than expected.

During the test-drive, the car averaged 12.3km a litre. Although quite far from the 17.5km declared by the manufacturer, it is similar to what its predecessor - a smaller and far less sportier car - managed.

All well and good, but will the City succeed in improving Honda's sales? Well, quite frankly, the car offers unrivalled value and quality for a budget model.

However, $110,900, by any measure, does not quite qualify as "budget".

In an ideal world (where COE is $30,000 or less), this car will fly off the shelves, but in today's world, the $170,000 Odyssey is likely to remain the best-selling Honda.

CAR INFORMATION

Honda City 1.5 i-VTEC (A)

Price

:$112,999

Engine Type

:

4-cylinders in-line SOHC i-VTEC water cooled

Engine Cap

:

1,497 cc

Horsepower

:

118 bhp

Torque

:

145 Nm

Transmission

:

CVT (A)

Acceleration

:

11 sec (0-100 km/h)

Top Speed

:

192 km/h