As you might have already know, the latest fifth generation Honda City has just gone on sale in Thailand earlier this year. Honda’s B-segment sedan will now one-up its chief rival the Toyota Vios with an all-new 1.0-litre turbocharged engine.
The latest Honda City is not expected to be launched in Malaysia until 2021. Thailand remains the only market in the world to sell it, to be followed by India in the second half of 2020, and the rest of world starting 2021.
This means that we can’t give you our typical review of the new generation Honda City in Malaysian driving conditions yet but actually the engine itself is not new to us.
Back in 2015, yours truly have already sampled the same engine at a closed course at Honda’s R&D Centre in Tochigi, albeit in a different car.
At that time, the 1.0-litre VTEC Turbo engine has yet to go on sale, so the test drive was conducted using a prototype European market Honda Civic hatchback, fitted with the new engine and paired to a CVT-type automatic transmission.
Basically the engine and transmission is mechanically identical to the turbocharged Honda City.
It was just a short two-lap test drive (the focus was the 1.5-litre VTEC Turbo that was destined for the then yet to be launched Civic FC).
Since then, Thailand have changed its tax structure, especially for its locally-produced, tax-deducted ‘Eco Car’ segment, which now requires CO2 emissions to be less than 100 g/km to qualify.
As a direct result of this change in policy, the 1.0-litre VTEC Turbo, which was originally meant only for countries in the European Union (again, due to CO2 emissions tax) is now available in Thailand.
Rummaging through my 2015 test drive notes, I simply concluded the driving experience of the 1.0-litre VTEC Turbo to be ‘meh.’
There’s not a single 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine in the world that’s worth your attention and the one fitted in the latest Honda City is no different.
However because our country don’t have CO2 emissions tax, local users have a somewhat twisted, outdated view of what a turbocharged engine is supposed to be like.
In reality, not all turbocharged engines bump up the power output and not all are nice to drive. The worst of the lot are three-cylinder, 1-litre capacity ones.
The Ford Fiesta EcoBoost was the most recent example to be sold in Malaysia, and we all know how that fared even when compared against its own 1.5-litre naturally aspirated Duratec engine-powered variants.
On paper, all these three pot turbocharged engines have higher torque figures than a larger 1.5-litre capacity naturally aspirated engine but the real world driving experience tells a very different story. Again, the Fiesta EcoBoost against Fiesta Duratec are a good examples.
1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinders only make sense in countries where there are penalties for high CO2 emissions engines, or if you get some tax deductions on small, cleaner emissions engines.
Without such incentives, these asthmatic look good on paper engine but fare poorly in real-world driving conditions.
Even back then, I remember noting down that there’s no away this 1.0L VTEC Turbo can be an upgrade over a 1.5-litre naturally aspirated i-VTEC, nevermind a 1.8-litre one (remember the focus then was the Civic).
In the prototype Civic Euro, the driving experience was OK but I wouldn’t say it’s better than a bigger capacity naturally aspirated engine.
Standing starts were lethargic. Despite the high 200 Nm claim, it didn't felt like it at all. Performance is better once it gets up to speed, mid-range acceleration was good enough, on the account of a good spread of torque.
At higher speeds, the driving experience was rather effortless but it runs out of puff once you go past 90 – 100 km/h, and the engine feels like it’s working harder than a regular higher capacity naturally aspirated engine just to maintain highway crusing speed.
An equivalent higher capacity naturally aspirated engine wouldn't be working this hard. There is no replacement for displacement.
Don't get us wrong. We love turbocharged engines, but not when it's this small, not when the cylinder displacement is less than a drinking bottle.
Yes, the Civic is heavier than the City but that particular engine also had a higher state of tune – 129 PS/200 Nm versus the City’s 122 PS/173 Nm. Power output had to be reduced for the City to keep CO2 emissions below 100 g/km. It was doing 107 g/km in the prototype Civic’s 129 PS/200 Nm tune.
The problem with most three-cylinder engines is that they are noisy and vibrate a lot. The Honda’s unit is among the more refined examples. The engine remains quiet enough even when you step out of the car with the engine idling, with none of the lawn mower/motorcycle engine noise.
Whether will this engine be introduced elsewhere is left to be seen. We are betting that the answer will be a no.
Without CO2 tax incentives/penalties, it makes no sense to introduce the higher cost engine in Malaysia. With the 1.0-litre VTEC Turbo, expect prices to go up by at least 10 percent. That's not going to work in a price sensitive B-segment, which will have to contend with the forthcoming Proton X50 - different segment but same target users.
As far as driving experience is concerned, the 1.0-litre VTEC Turbo is not an upgrade over the current Honda City’s 1.5-litre i-VTEC.
In Thailand, it makes perfect sense. Driving speeds are not that high and more importantly, you pay less in tax. Of course Thai buyers welcome it. Which consumer will say no to paying less tax?
Over here, every other Perodua Myvi is speeding past you at 140 km/h and without tax incentives, which consumer will want to pay more for an engine that doesn’t drive any better than the older one? Telling Malaysians that they have to pay more for something that emits less CO2 doesn’t fly here.
The best powertrain combination for the Honda City is still the i-DCD Sport Hybrid. It is by far the best powertrain in its class – 137 PS/170 Nm, offering the best power-to-weight ratio in its class.
Frugal yet packing a punch, the only complaint with the City Hybrid is that the Atkinson cycle engine sounds quite rough when it fires up at idle to recharge the hybrid battery. The Otto cycle Honda HR-V Hybrid feels a lot more refined.
Without any longterm clarity on our national automotive policy, Honda City Hybrid will most likely be a one-term one-hit wonder. The government is unable to give a clear yes/no answer as to whether hybrid cars will continue to get excise tax exemptions/deductions (it is currently evaluated on a case by case basis).
Remember that the City Hybrid was originally meant for Japan and Malaysia is the only country outside of Japan to sell the model.
We’ve also recently reported the Honda City will soon be discontinued in Japan later this year, which will also mean no more City Hybrid. 2020 will be the last year to buy a Honda City Hybrid.
In Japan, nobody buys B-segment sedans. The only buyers are corporate clients, for their travelling sales staff who want the security of a locked boot to keep their merchandises/samples, but even that is a diminishing segment.
The next Honda City, in our opinion, will most likely revert to a one engine option only model line-up, carrying over the current 1.5-litre naturally aspirated i-VTEC and CVT combination.