1982 Honda City Makes a Case for Minicars in America

From Car and Driver

From the August 1982 issue of Car and Driver.

Quick, Myrna, the Flit! It’s an infestation in the making. First the Medfly, now the minicar. The latest permutation of this important new species is the Honda City. With its front-fender mirrors posed ominously like antennae, it even looks like a Japanese Beetle.

This Honda is more than just an automotive insect, however. It could revolutionize the way America travels. Unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show last fall, the City earned universal acclaim for the way it fulfills its mission. That mission is easy to understand. If you examine the Honda City with historical perspective, you’ll see the Ford Model T far off in your time telescope. Like the Model T, the City is a minimal automobile designed strictly for utility.

Ford was able to sell its minimal car virtually without modification for nineteen years because other automobiles were essentially luxury items. Once easy credit and low prices made luxury affordable for everyone, the minimal automobile lost favor and Henry began cranking out “cars,” vehicles that combined utility with luxury, recreation, and status. The minimal automobile survived only on the sidelines, in the form of the Fiat Topolino, Austin 7, and Nash Metropolitan. Now that credit is tight and prices are high, the minimal automobile is again fashionable. Cars like the VW Polo, Fiat Panda, and Daihatsu Charade face up to the modern transportation realities of crowded highways, limited parking, and gas at three dollars a gallon.

Photo credit: George Lipp – Car and Driver

The City is in the vanguard of the minicar revolution. Even now it’s breeding in Japan at the rate of 10,000 per month. It’s only a matter of time before cars like it swarm to these shores, though the American Honda Motor Company insists that it has no plans to sell the City here.

The question is, can minicars survive once they get here? America, after all, is a country where the cities are 60 miles apart, the people are six feet tall, and the trucks are 60 feet long. Since American Honda is as interested in the answer to this question as we are, its representatives caved in immediately when we asked to test one of two Honda Citys in the U.S. for a week.

Photo credit: George Lipp – Car and Driver

Right off, it’s clear that the City is a minimal car, not a miniature car. Its wheelbase is just 1.2 inches shorter than the Civic’s, its track is the same, and it’s 4.7 inches taller. Only the 15-inch difference in overall length makes the City seem smaller.

Other than size, the City shares very little with the Civic. Honda assigned a very young team to the City project (average age: 27) because it wanted a design that would reflect the assumptions and priorities of the future instead of the past. The project engineers decided that people came first and penciled the broad outline of an egg to accommodate them. The suspension and drivetrain were designed to fit the remaining nooks and crannies.

Photo credit: George Lipp – Car and Driver

Just like the Model T, the City makes its passengers comfortable by allowing them to sit upright. We couldn’t locate any thyroid cases to try the City on for size, but a couple of six-foot-two Americans not only were able to get comfortable behind the wheel (despite the seat’s limited fore-and-aft travel), but had enough headroom to wear a hat besides. Rear-seat room proved to be equally good, with far more legroom than a Civic or even a Camaro/Firebird. The City makes you realize that cars like the Civic have been squashed close to the ground to make them stylish, not small. Let the human form sit upright instead, and it can be made very comfortable in a surprisingly tight space. Moreover, Honda managed to make this package aerodynamic with a low, sloping hood, flush windshield moldings, and a vestigial roof spoiler; the factory claims a drag coefficient of 0.40 and zero lift.

Spartan appointments are supposed to be consistent with minicars, yet here again the City is much more than a breadbox on wheels. It brings a clean sense of style to space utilization, with the emphasis on utilization. There are over twenty nooks and crannies in what Honda calls its “Pocketterior,” including a clever space for storing small drink cans where they can be cooled by the car’s air-conditioning unit. There are so many storage spaces, in fact, that you run the risk of putting things away and forgetting them. Like last week’s cheese sandwich. The City’s interior volume might be close to that of the Civic, but its space utilization feels more efficient by a factor of three.

Photo credit: George Lipp – Car and Driver

The engine lives up to the same lofty standard set by the interior. The long­-stroke inline-four’s dimensions enable it to fit into a space Honda initially thought large enough only for a three-cylinder, and its all-aluminum construction makes it lighter than a three-cylinder with balance shafts would probably be. Yet the engine’s power rating is hardly undersized. In the test car’s sporting R configuration, the 1232cc four pumps out 67 Japanese horsepower at 5500 rpm—roughly the same as the U.S.­ specification Civic 1500.

Photo credit: George Lipp – Car and Driver

The engine’s secret is a cylinder head called COMBAX (compact blazing combustion axiom), derived from Honda’s CVCC (compound vortex-controlled combustion) design. In a small, secondary combustion chamber with a separate intake valve, a rich mixture lights off to burn a much leaner mixture in the primary combustion chamber. This stratified-charge design has evolved far enough at Honda to permit the under­square COMBAX engine to combine an overall lean fuel mixture, for fuel economy, with a remarkably high compression ratio of 10.0:1, for power and response. (A third-world version of this engine has a 9.0:1 compression ratio for burning low-octane fuel.) The R engine, in conjunction with the R package’s performance-oriented final-drive ratio, powers the 1660-pound City through the quarter-mile in 18.6 seconds at 70 mph while squeezing 41 miles from a gallon of gas in American driving conditions.

The City also puts its power to the ground efficiently. Fully independent suspension and generous wheel travel with gentle ride rates swallow bumps whole. Some harshness can be felt, and the car pitches a little over freeway expansion joints, but in general the City is stable and controlled where a Civic is vague and mushy. Moreover, the City steers toward an apex almost as crisply as an old Honda S850 sports car, while torque steer is almost imperceptible. In the middle of a corner, though, the City does heel over on its tires like a seasick Citroen 2CV. The R-type’s 165/70SR- 12 rubber (with stunning aluminum wheels) stays on the ground, but too much stunt driving makes you wish you’d stored some Dramamine in one of those twenty pockets. In our brake tests, the stopping distance from 70 mph was a surprisingly short 187 feet.

Photo credit: George Lipp – Car and Driver

Minicar or not, the Honda gives you a tremendous feeling of well-being no matter what kind of driving environment you plunge into. In town, it slashes through traffic with the responsiveness of a sports car and the instincts of a New York taxicab. Only the drivetrain’s tendency to buck in its soft rubber mounts under a less than sensitive throttle foot (a characteristic shared with the Civic and Accord) undercuts its wonderfulness. On the freeway, you’re high enough to see and be seen, so you never feel threatened by oil-truck claustrophobia. The City lacks a little straight-line stability, but that’s its only serious freeway fault.

When you come right down to it, the only thing that restricts this car to metropolitan use is its name. It’s as well suited to the wide-open spaces as an Escort. You just have to get used to the way it looks, that’s all. Even people at the wheel of French cars were poleaxed by the City’s appearance. But once we told them it was made in Remulac (that’s in France, you know), they seemed reassured. After a while the City managed to look loony and sensible at the same time, like a VW Beetle.

Photo credit: George Lipp – Car and Driver

If minicars are this good, you have to wonder why more manufacturers aren’t rushing them to market. It’s a matter of dollars and sense, as a Ford spokesman told the L.A. Times last year: “The sales potential for minicars is there, but no one knows how great it is. It would cost $3 billion to find out, and we don’t have the money to gamble. We just can’t throw that kind of money into a gap in the market that hasn’t been tested.”

Most of the protests seem to be simple posturing, however. A 1981 survey by J.D. Power & Associates, the noted research firm, suggested that 200,000 people would buy minicars right now if they could. Minicars seem to appeal to younger drivers who are no longer interested in trading up to larger and larger automotive emblems of status. They seek utilitarian automobiles that can adapt to the varied requirements of their lifestyles—that is, they care more about what a car does and what it costs than what it represents.

Photo credit: George Lipp – Car and Driver

Detroit is already on the way with new cars to meet this market. General Motors’ S-car, designed by Opel and scheduled to be built by Isuzu and Suzuki, should replace the Chevette in 1985. Ford hopes to beat GM into the minicar market in 1984 with a car code­named Minx that is smaller than a Fiesta and has an engine built by Toyo Kogyo (the design bogey is the three-cylinder Daihatsu Charade). Volkswagen, Fiat, Suzuki, and Honda all are interested in bringing their minicars ashore, but they seem to be waiting to see what happens with import restrictions and, more important, with the DOT’s standards for crash tests.

Photo credit: George Lipp – Car and Driver

The Honda City certainly proves that minicars need not be thought of as a retrograde step in automotive evolution, no matter how much some of them might resemble the lower forms of animal life. The City ranks with any automobile anywhere in value, utility, and driving enjoyment. Honda might indeed have doubts about the City’s future in America, but we have none. It is precisely the inexpensive, unpretentious, efficient, and fun-to-drive car that we need to put America on wheels again. Just as the Model T was the right car for the first twenty years of this century, the Honda City could well be the right car for the last twenty years.

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