2021 Honda City RS Sedan 1.5L CVT image

The Prime Contender

Let's face it: No sedan rival can catch up to the Vios in the Philippine market.

Every contender in the category simply cannot beat the Vios as the default top-of-mind choice in the subcompact car class and as a first car. That's how it's been for the last decade, and unless they stop making the Vios (which they probably won't) we just don't see it losing its crown anytime soon.

That doesn't mean rivals shouldn't try. If anything, rival models from competing brands need to be different. They need to aim for a different customer, even though the model is in the same class... technically speaking.

For decades now, the Honda City has been the counterpoint to the Toyota Vios. They offered more innovative engines, better transmissions, more versatility, and -let's face it- better and sportier styling than the Vios. And I still haven't seen a Honda City in taxi colors in the Philippines either. If you know of one, let us know in the comments where you spotted it.

2021 Honda City RS image

Now Honda has a new generation City, and they handed us the keyfob to the 4-door RS. What we really want to find out is whether this City is a leap forward or a steady evolution from its predecessor.

First off, things didn't start too well for this model, and the reason is that this City didn't roll out of a factory in Laguna. Its predecessors were, but Honda made the decision to shutter the factory in February 2020. The decision was definitely not easy (nor did it go over easily) but it had to be made; a factory can only operate if there aren't enough sales to make operations viable. Our market is too small for that, and since Honda wasn't exporting, the decision had to be made. That's why the City we're driving is a Thai-made model.

The fact that it's now imported doesn't have any bearing on whether the vehicle is good or not, and at first glance, it definitely looks good. The style of the City has changed significantly. It seems to have a bit more conventional three-box sedan rather than trying to adopt a more fastback-type look with a rather high rear trunk lid. But that said, it does look very classy for a B-segment car particularly with those LED headlamps that appear to have been taken from the same parts bins belonging to the Civic.

2021 Honda City RS image

There are actually times when a new model doesn't get the same acceptance in terms of design as the predecessor, but not in the case of this. But perhaps the most significant change is the very horizontal character line on the side versus the forward sloped one normally seen on most Hondas. Typically it's the German brands that like to do that like Audi or VW, and it does work well on the City.

Being that this is an RS style model means it has a few nice sporty bits and pieces like the black grille, black side mirrors, the larger 16-inch wheels, the faux rear diffuser, and the like. The vehicle that arrived is finished in a very nice shade of red. It's not Mazda's style of Soul Red, but it does look good. Then again, I am partial to red with black accents or black with red accents.

It isn't so obvious, but the vehicle is actually significantly bigger too. Honda stretched it out a little bit; this one is longer by 113mm, wider by 53mm, and has a 20mm longer wheelbase. The City, however, is a bit lower overall, and the official ground clearance is a little less than before; instead of 150mm, it's now 134mm. We'll see how that plays out with handling and ride comfort.

2021 Honda City RS image

Remember what I said about the rather German-inspired exterior design? The same applies to the interior, especially with the obsession with symmetry on the dashboard. Granted, nothing can be done with the steering wheel ruining that symmetry, but the entire look of the dash appears to be conventional, clean, and with a lot of straight lines. It looks neatly pressed, like a suit.

Sitting in the driver's seat, I immediately like what I'm looking at. Again, more black and red here with the instrument cluster, the accents, and the upholstery, but what I like is the way Honda factored in things like having pockets that fit larger smartphones, wallets, and other things you may or may not have in your pockets. That means there's no need to dump all your stuff onto the passenger seat.

It's easy to find a good driving position, and the seat is nicely contoured. The shifter feels great even though it isn't a manual; you can select “gears” manually via the paddles behind the wheel. The steering wheel is easily now my favorite in the whole class with a nice leather wrap. The steering wheel even has buttons for the audio system and even cruise control; yes, this may be the only one in the category with cruise control. Let me know if I'm wrong.

The multimedia infotainment is good and has the usual like Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. The clarity of the screen is nice, even though this appears to be a unit designed for right-hand markets (like Thailand) as evidenced by the buttons on the right side of the screen. Even the speaker system is good and is easy to tune for good bass. But perhaps the change I like best is what's below the audio system: Honda finally tossed out the touch-sensitive climate control panel for a more conventional array of rotary knobs and buttons. And they arranged the panel in a very symmetrical way.

2021 Honda City RS image

So far, it's hard to find anything glaringly wrong to gripe about, and that's a good thing... until you sit in the back. The rear seat of the City isn't bad; actually, the seat has good space, good cushioning, and even has rear A/C vents for comfort. It doesn't have USB ports in the back, but there are two 12-volt outlets so you can plug in your adapters and charge up your phones and devices.

There are actually two things that are a bit wrong with the rear though. The first is the armrest. It's way too low, so much so that it's more like a thigh rest or divider. The other is the fact that Honda deleted the 60/40 rear seat split that was present in the top-of-the-line model of the previous generation which would be the VX+ Navi.

The absence of a 60/40 fold system wouldn't normally be a factor. Besides, the City still has a very respectable boot at 519 liters. It also enables you to fit items that are about 51 inches long, meaning it should be able to fit an average set of golf clubs without the need to fold the seats. But there is also the fact that the previous generation City has 536 liters of space, meaning the boot of the new one is actually smaller.

2021 Honda City RS image

Regardless of variant, all City units in the Philippine market will have the 1.5-liter i-VTEC engine mated to either a CVT (as is the case with this RS) or a manual in the lower grade model. The engine is actually improved, as it now has 1 extra horse worth of power at 121 PS (previous: 120 PS) even though the torque remains at 145 Newton meters. It's barely an improvement, but Honda fans will now be able to put DOHC i-VTEC stickers on the rear doors because this is now a twin-cam power unit, not a single cam. Yay.

Yes, I think the engine could have been so much better, and my reason is this: since this is a Thai-made unit, why isn't the Philippines getting the 1.0-liter three-cylinder VTEC turbo engine from the Thai market? That engine may have just 122 PS, but it comes in earlier at 5500 rpm. The 1.0L also has more torque at 173 Nm, and it comes in far earlier at 2000 rpm up to 4500 rpm. In my opinion, Honda was being a bit too conservative by still opting for yet another derivative of the L15 engine. But if it drives well, do my concerns really matter?

2021 Honda City RS image

As an urban drive, the City RS excels; heavy-handed as that may be. The CVT is smooth, the engine is smooth, and the car rides very comfortably. The extra wheelbase does factor in there, but I think it's a combination of the suspension manners and the seats. Yes, there is a bit of noise from the tires while on EDSA concrete, but it's not too bad. This is still a B-segment car after all.

On the highway, the City is even better. Wind noise isn't a big factor at all, and it feels stable even at a steady 100 with some gusts. But what we did like is the fuel economy. Even without trying, the City was doing just over 20 kilometers per liter. Of course, fuel economy depends greatly on how eager your right foot is, but if you keep it steady you should be getting outstanding numbers. Even in urban environments, that holds true: the City was doing a bit over 10 km/l in moderate to somewhat light traffic.

2021 Honda City RS image

Perhaps what I like most is the overall balance that Honda achieved with the City. That's always been Honda's thing: building cars that hit the right notes very well in all the major aspects that customers look for in cars. Style, comfort, practicality, features, and technology; all are strong suits of the City RS sedan. Even if you're looking for something that handles well and has good acceleration, this is a good bet. You'll enjoy making quick work of twisty roads with the City.

This is yet another solid offering from Honda, no doubt. That said though, my misgivings are still there. The City RS is good, but with a few changes, this would be great. The 1.5L i-VTEC is good, but with the 1.0L VTEC Turbo, it would be great. The rear seat is good, but with the fold-down seat, this would be great. Let's start small though: this could use some more USB charging ports and a 360 camera system.

No doubt Honda has a good car. And judging by the number of City sedan units I see on the road, many customers agree. And a good percentage of those are the RS variant even though it's already pushed past the 1 million "threshold" in the subcompact class. Still, I see more of the City RS than the Vios GR-S, and that says a lot.

2021 Honda City RS image

The City won't outsell the Vios; they already know that. But what Honda is going for is solidifying its position as the prime contender if a customer wants to drive something that isn't just a default choice. What will really be interesting is how it compares to the new Almera, the only real challenger to the City in the spot that Honda is aiming for. And the Nissan has the 1.0L turbo.

This looks like it will be a very interesting comparison.

  • Make: Honda
  • Model: City RS Sedan 1.5L CVT
  • Engine: 1.5-liter DOHC 16-valve Inline-4, i-VTEC
  • Max Power: 121 PS @ 6600 rpm
  • Max Torque: 145 Nm @ 4300 rpm
  • Transmission: CVT
  • Price as Tested: ₱1,058,000