On the face of it, the arrival of the all-new fifth-generation 2020 Honda City could be considered understated. That is, until you realise that the car hasn’t actually been launched, yet there’s all this hype surrounding the newest version of the popular B-segment contender.
Honda still projects that to happen before the end of the year, as vague as that may be, but keep in mind that the range-topping City is unlike any other small saloon car you’ve probably ever driven, and its current absence from showrooms starts to justify itself.
At the Melaka International Motorsports Circuit, we (myself, more accurately) had the pleasure of sampling the variant in question. Called the RS, it’s equipped with Honda’s latest electrified powertrain called i-MMD or Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive. Granted, it just was over a brief couple of laps, but that was enough for it to leave a distinct impression.
Before we get on with that, however, let’s talk a bit more about the overall Malaysian rollout of the incoming all-new 2020 Honda City. First off, buyers who were on the fence about all the new, possibly intimidating tech stuffed into the car should rest easy as this car carries a very similar intuitive spirit to its predecessors.
That said, the car is now larger than its predecessor, as well as being 10mm lower. Overall length has increased by just over 110mm and it is about 54mm wider too, giving it some segment-straddling proportions in person - bigger than B-segment, not quite C-segment.
So far, the variant spread is also expected to remain roughly the same, comprising of the entry-level non-hybrid S, mid-spec E, and higher-end V. What’s more, these variants are to be powered by a 1.5-litre naturally aspirated i-VTEC engine very similar to the outgoing version, albeit with some enhancements.
The car shown off here looks nearly identical to the version first seen here in late August, so if you happened to see the car during its roadshow tour, you already have a pretty good idea of what to expect. It looks rather nice in this dark Passion Red body colour, accented by the gloss/matte black trim and some smatterings of faux carbon fibre weave that play nicely with its new Civic-inspired fascia.
In place of the outgoing City Hybrid, which used the automaker’s i-DCD hybrid system, will be the RS. But unlike the car it’s replacing, the RS is a true range-topper with the best equipment levels, cosmetic enhancements, and tech features such as Honda Lane Watch and an almost full assortment of the Honda Sensing suite - more on that later, too. So far, it’s a pretty straightforward generational leap.
This step forward is very apparent when driving the new electrified City as it works quite differently to other hybrid powertrains. I knew it would offer up a different sensation, of course, but it still came as a surprise when the started car moving via the electric motor alone while the engine, essentially, is having no direct impact on the spinning wheels.
See, the i-MMD system utilises two electric motors: the Traction Motor, and a smaller electric generator. Sandwiched between these core components are the battery array of 48 lithium-ion cells and the 1.5-litre Atkinson-cycle i-VTEC naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine. What’s important to keep in mind here is how they work in synergy.
The combustion engine and the electric generator work closely together, leaving the Traction Motor to power the car’s motion exclusively. This electric motor is able to generate that impressive 253Nm torque figure - instantaneously - and channel that to the front wheels and onto the road.
In fact, this ‘mode’ of the car being powered directly by the electric Traction Motor is how the City RS operates during the majority of driving situations and endows it with predictably strong acceleration off the line but also quick throttle response in corners. That being said, despite the similarities, this isn’t classified as an EV with a range extender.
This is mainly due to the additional ‘mode’ that the powertrain can switch to, hence the name. When cruising at highway speeds where electric motors are generally less efficient, the car can temporarily decouple from the Traction Motor and receive drive from the 1.5-litre combustion engine via a clutch system to keep the car’s speed constant.
Though the limitations of the preview drive did not allow for high speed tests, we assume that brake regeneration works as normal at high speeds to recoup electric charge and that the Traction Motor would be called upon from time to time to help with overtaking.
It’s true that the City RS i-MMD does drive a lot like a fully electric car. The vibrations of the engine can be felt but, because it does not match the road speed or throttle position, it keeps you under the illusion of full EV driving. Naturally, I immediately stomped on the accelerator pedal when the accompanying instructor gave the go-ahead.
The surge of torque was noticeable but was definitely not overwhelming. Note also that I was the first of the many participants lined up to drive the car in quick succession, so the batteries should be cool and fully charged for full power delivery.
Perhaps the sensation was slightly muted, literally, due to the lack of audible feedback - the car just gained speed, yes, though undramatically. A second or two later was when the combustion engine started to make itself known.…or heard. Revs rose high but, again, did not match the road speed or what I was doing with my right foot.
That’s just the nature of the i-MMD powertrain, and I can’t deny that it’s very effective at delivering segment-defying acceleration, and doing so with little fuss - eerily so. I did my best to ignore the wrestling between electric motor and petrol engine, leaving the car to manage its sources of power, focusing instead on the upcoming corners.
MIMC has a series of technical bends that string together before the main straight, and the City RS acquitted itself very well here. The car felt composed and coped surprisingly well despite me (intentionally) giving it full throttle too early on exit. I had expected the instant 253Nm would overcome the front wheels, which were still partially turned, but it pulled cleanly. That’s either a very clever and discreet traction control system or the car not allowing me full power from the electric motor, or both.
The City RS also felt assuredly planted, leaving me to guess that the additional weight of the batteries and the rest of the i-MMD system only serves to lower the centre of gravity and help push the car onto the surface. However, this might be a different story with a load of passengers and a full boot.
The other ‘big deal’ items being offered in the City RS is Honda’s more advanced safety systems. Specifically, LaneWatch and Honda Sensing. The former comes in the form of a stubby protrusion on the passenger side mirror stalk that houses a wide-view camera that provides an incredibly helpful live feed of a driver’s left side blind spot when blipping the turn signal. It’s a feature that’s also coming to the non-hybrid V variant as well and invaluable to those already used to its benefits, and I’d love to see it on the right-hand side as well.
Honda Sensing here is also fully featured - well, nearly. There’s the usual roster of Collision Mitigating (AEB), Forward Collision Warning (now with pedestrian and cyclist detection) Lane Departure Warning, Automatic High Beam, Lane Keep Assist, and Adaptive Cruise Control.
On that last feature, the only thing missing is Low Speed Follow, which is an advanced automated system that enables the car to come to a complete stop to match the car ahead before accelerating again in tandem. At medium to high speeds, the City RS is still able to follow the car ahead while keeping a set distance, and is very competent in this regard next to other systems, but self cancels at speeds below 30km/h, requiring driving intervention to slow down further.
Overall, this all-new 2020 Honda City is a big step forward over the outgoing model, especially when experienced in this range-topping RS with the innovative i-MMD powertrain. A lot will still depend on how cleverly Honda can position the car against other newly refreshed rivals, but we reckon it’s still the model to beat, even at its lower tier variants.
The RS, on the other hand, is a real showcase of how blurred vehicle segments have become thanks to it being packed to the gills with tech and convenience features, even performance and refinement, usually reserved for D-segment cars. We’ll definitely be arranging a back-to-back comparison as soon as we can.
There's just something about cars. It's a conveyance, it's a liability, it's a tool; but it can also be a source of joy, pride, inspiration and passion. It's much like clothes versus fashion. And like the latter, the pursuit of perfection never ends.