When we took the Honda City last Christmas season, Johor ended up in the shortlist for an extended drive as the east coast was off-limits, what with the monsoonal floods – unfortunately the worst on record with over 200,000 people evacuated nationwide.
So Johor it was. Surprisingly, the nearly 5-hour drive on the North-South Expressway on Christmas morning was clear through to Johor Baru (JB), with no wretched jams to gripe about.
Until one reaches the city centre, where locals, Singaporeans and other out-of-towners were out in force for a day of merry-making.
Given a choice, one would prefer a bigger car to use when travelling far with the family.
All the better to keep passengers comfortable and happy, haul luggage and the requisite shopping on the way home.
So when handed the key to the compact Honda City, we were at first none too thrilled with the idea, having got used to much bigger and more powerful transport on similar sojourns.
But one must adapt. With scepticism on hold, three in a family went with the City to the peninsula’s southernmost city.
After six rainy days with the small car in all sorts of traffic situations and roads, we have to give credit where credit is due. More on that later.
Small cars are generally at home in urban areas and don’t handle touring adventures well or with as much grace as their bigger – and pricier – counterparts.
Being small and light, they tend to suffer more the ill effects of cross winds, such as present on the route, and buffeting from trucks and other larger vehicles speeding by.
Their smallness oftentimes means they become rather uncomfortable after more than an hour’s drive across vast distances.
The current City has come a long way from 1996 when Honda revived the nameplate and introduced the third-generation City to Malaysia.
For all intents and purposes, this was the first-generation City to Malaysians but in truth, the previous two generations were smaller hatchbacks and were sold only in the Japanese, European and Australasian markets from 1981 to 1994.
The latest City is a much better looking sedan than the one Honda offered up from 2002-2007, which this writer once considered buying but didn’t, being put off by its awkward exterior even though its selling point was a roomy cabin as well as good fuel economy.
The current City’s overall exterior design looks far better. While its predecessor had elegant grill work that is still attractive even today, the current one sports a thick bar across, creating a bold, masculine appearance.
Halogen lights, complemented by foglamps shine the way ahead.
Viewed sideways, the car dips forward in a sporty stance and roofline flows pleasingly to the back, topped by a shark-fin antenna.
The 16-inch wheels in the V-spec City enhances the look, while the deep-cut character line adds a point of interest to sheetmetal.
But some may interpret it as enthusiasm gone overboard by Honda stylists, making the side look as if Wolverine had taken a swipe at it with an adamantium claw, leaving a gash behind.
That line connects with revised wraparound tail lights set apart by a chrome bar that confers a sense of width in the rear.
The dash has a clean look with a 7-inch infotainment touchscreen taking centrestage with electronic controls below it for the air-conditioning.
The blue illumination in the meter cluster and touchscreen is especially vibrant at night and perimeter lights in the centre speedometer changes from green to blue, clueing the driver on whether he is saving fuel or burning it.
The steering column is for the first time adjustable for rake and reach.
The main display includes MirrorLink function, an industry standard for car-smartphone connectivity, that allows an iphone (for now) to be paired with the City.
Among the premium features in this car are a multi-function steering wheel, smart entry and push start button, cruise control, eight speakers, rear ventilation air conditioning, two USB ports, HDMI, three power sockets and eight cup holders.
Honda has removed paddle shifters in the locally assembled City as its study showed most buyers of the model aren’t using them.
It offers optional extras to upgrade the looks.
While the all-fabric seats are pleasant and comfortable enough, the main cabin highlight is the generous rear passenger space.
Passengers will be delighted with the amount of legroom and there’s enough headroom for average-sized Asians.
But the Nissan Almera followed by the Toyota Vios are still ahead in the rear legroom stakes.
Honda makes amends with a 536l boot, the biggest in its segment.
There was certainly more than enough room for luggage and shopping items for this trip. Back seats can also be folded 60:40 if more space is needed. However, the enlarged boot came at the expense of cabin aesthetics; the rear parcel shelf is raised noticeably above the seats, blighting the interior somewhat.
As good food is a Malaysian pre-occupation – no doubt whetted by a certain TV channel – JB has some gems to boast of.
Have breakfast or lunch at Hua Mui café and finish the day at San Low restaurant. Both offer a range of yummy fare and the standing-room crowds are visual proof.
On the way home, be sure to stop by Hiap Joo bakery near the Hainanese café to get its popular banana cake and wood-baked buns that can be addictive for the bread person.
The RM90,800 City was roped in in the search for good grub. Being a compact car, it navigated the narrow streets to Hua Mui in the old part of the city with aplomb.
The light steering and good visibility made parking in the congested lane next to the cafe as easy as pie.
Part of the itinerary included some retail therapy at Johor Premium Outlets in Kulaijaya, where 130 stores sell branded goods at attractive discounts.
We could not resist the lobster village of Sungai Rengit near Pengerang and had no qualms about travelling 100km from JB to grab some seafood, having had a good time there last July.
In the journey to all these destinations, the City showed abilities that went beyond the norm. Its composure at high speeds is evident on the expressway and on the long undulating straights towards Pengerang. It’s not easily ruffled by passing lorries or cars although the ride is a tad soft.
The 1.5-litre engine puts out the same performance as before, which is adequate for pottering around the city where it’s in its element, being agile and able to make quick directional changes.
It is also up to the task of overtaking quickly and the occasional bursts of high-speed runs.
CVT technology has improved over the years and the one here is well matched to the engine and is not as drony as those in some other cars.
But the steering feel is light and muted as expected. Like more expensive cars, there’s a choice of drive modes – S for a little spirited driving and ECON for even better fuel economy.
On the highway, the City takes a while to get up to speed but once the engine is mustered to the upper revs, it perks up and power delivery is much more usable. More so in S mode when the engine sounds more urgent and willing.
The interior is well insulated to keep noise down when the car is driven sedately but engine and road noise tend to seep in at higher speeds.
Braking performance wasn’t shabby; the front disc/rear drum brake combo manages to bring the 1,100kg car to a quick stop on dry or wet roads every time.
Safety equipment is class-leading with six airbags onboard and electronic stability control to enhance safety especially in emergency maneuvers.
With fuel consumption rated at 17.5km/l, the City is considered an energy efficient vehicle or EEV, qualifying Honda Malaysia for various government incentives under the National Automotive Policy.
Anecdotal evidence indicated the engine was indeed frugal as we had to log a lot of miles of mixed driving before we needed to fuel up.
Honda Malaysia trumpets that the new City has raised the benchmark in the B-segment. It’s no idle boast.