Not so long back, I found myself jostling a Type 1 (1998-2000) Honda city up the mountains on a fine Sunday morning shoot. It was a dream that had come true; I finally had my hands on the Type 1 (yes I never drove the car before, ever). The early morning sun reflected into the bare cabin, where I sit low to the ground devoid of any distraction. The owner had garnished the interior with a single din cassette player, but in today’s day and age it serves the same usefulness as a sundial to tell the time. While crossing a small village on my way up the mountains, I remember muscling the steering so hard through traffic that it would twitch my butt cheeks, the Type 1 never came with a power steering. I kept questioning myself about what it was that made me so crazy to drive the city all these years, and then fear crept over. Was this a classic case of “never meet your superheroes’”? Thankfully my chain of thought was interrupted by an empty stretch of tarmac where I could stretch the City’s legs. While pulling through the tall gearing the 1.3-litre SOHC cleared its throat. As the straightness of the roads began to curl up under the purity of morning sun, the mountains ahead engulfed the vision of the road. As I kept the pace up the hill, the steering started decoding every bit of tarmac the tyres touched. This is what it was all about! This is what all the people who I’ve met over the years owning an Old Honda City have been talking about. The communicative chassis, the direct steering and the beautifully damped suspensions, all-working together were making the drive an experience that I had longed all these years.
The Honda City was a low-cost solution that was developed purely for the developing Asian markets, so low cost that it did not have power steering, no central locking, no stereo, no door pockets, no wheel caps and wait for it, not even a tacho!! And well, it worked! Well proportioned from the outside, the second generation was a riot! Honing a 1.5-litre VTEC engine underneath, it was the perfect recipe for fun. The City gave the country its first 100bhp. As years went on, the Type 2 “Dolphin” shape took over. It was a far cry from ‘sporty’ either in looks or handling. In search of better fuel economy the VTEC was chucked out and replaced by an i-DSI under the hood, displacing a miserable 77bhp, it ended the city’s sporty stint with the enthusiasts. The hydraulic steering was replaced by an electronic power steering transforming the handling of the City from predictive and direct to light and nervous. I remember having sweaty palms while trying to push the Gen 3 “Arrowhead” shape City past 120kmph. The once known to be the perfect car for enthusiasts fell into the pit of eco-conscious commuters, a marketplace that was filled up with Hyundais and Marutis. And this is where Honda’s conundrums began. The Hyundai and Maruti both offered similar cars as the City, but with better features and for a better cost. More importantly both the manufacturers were sitting on a goldmine that trumped not only the City but also every Honda in India, a low-cost diesel!
“We need a low cost diesel!!!” Some one screamed Eureka at Honda nearing 2010, but it was already late. Indians had already adopted to the frugal diesel engines from Maruti and Hyundai leaving Honda sales kept plummeting. Finally though after extended testing and development, Honda launched its first low-cost diesel engine with the Amaze which quickly made its way into the City.
Its 2014 and Honda is back! With the 1.5-litre i-DTEC beating inside the Amaze and City, Honda once again has started raking number in sales and the City is on its way to once again aiming for the top. Within less than a 6 months the new Honda City has already clocked near 20,000 units and will continue to show the same strong sale in the coming years. Although things have changed. Where earlier Honda was known for their build quality and refinement, the current cars are way from these ideologies. From the Brio to the Amaze and City, Honda cars are now clad with cheaper plastics and unfinished interiors. No doubt these are capable cars and would continue to exuberate Honda’s strengths in reliability, efficiency with a hassle free user experience, they completely ignore some stand points of what Honda is known for globally. The cabin suffers from poor plastic quality compared to the international standards Honda follows. There would be severe disappointment for an American or European user to try out the fleet of Honda cars that are presently in India. And now with the Accord and Civic gone, the hope for a well-built car from Honda India’s stable has been taken away.
This new philosophy of building new cars is here to stay. And now with the Mobilio joining the lineup, its more dreary plastics and clattery interiors to follow. No doubt the cars will still sell by the numbers and Honda could provide the better experience, compared to Hyundai or Maruti as the brand understands the needs of its target demographic. But for someone like me who recently met his youth hero, it’s a sad departure in philosophy from what Honda stood for back in the day.