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March 1, 2021

Out of the City and Coming Alive: Driving the 2021 Honda City 1.5 RS Through Tanay's Twisty Roads

I opened the year with a full review of the City 1.5 CVT—the entry-level variant of Honda’s sub-compact sedan. Because quarantine restrictions were (and still are) in place, I stuck to mostly the urban confines with almost no chance to see what it’s truly capable of.

Fast forward a month later, as I, along with a bunch of motoring hacks, took a bunch of Citys on a quick zip through the winding roads of Tanay. As far as group drives go, this one’s still quite short. It was barely a hundred kilometers, and lasted no more than six hours. Regardless, it was a strong indicator of what the all-new City can do, and one that made me realize that I missed this sort of thing.

The entire drive was spent in the 1.5 RS CVT. Admittedly, I’m not typically a fan of any RS variant (except for the Civic RS), because they tend to be “all show and no go.” Somehow though, the City’s design works with the RS bits—it truly uplifts the design, enabling it to escape the dreaded “fleet car” look to something I’d actually aspire to own.

Plus, the additional P 80,000 from the mid-tier 1.5 V CVT is well-spent. The 1.5 RS CVT is the only one to benefit from full LED headlights, LED fog lights, leather/suede interior, sports pedals, an 8-speaker system, and two additional airbags (six from four). Buyers seem to notice that too, making this the second best-selling variant after the 1.5 S CVT.

The all-new City is powered by a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine with 121 horsepower and 145 Nm of torque. While these figures are close to the previous-generation model, this only tells a part of the story. For 2021, Honda has fitted a new DOHC head. This may conjure up images of the Civic SiR’s B16A, but engineers say it wasn’t done for performance. Instead, it’s all about giving better low- and mid-range to the L15 engine.

True enough, the City is never lacking in straight line performance. Even better, Honda’s rev-happy nature has been maintained, while offering added grunt for quick overtakes. There’s also a newfound smoothness at full tap that wasn’t there in the previous City. That said, the first few hundred meters or so requires some re-adjustments to the City’s pedals, as both the brake and throttle pedals are a bit too sensitive for my tastes.

Interestingly, compared to other CVT-equipped variants, the 1.5 RS CVT doesn’t come with an ambient coaching light. This trademark Honda feature rewards drivers for being economical by lighting up a LED strip in the gauge cluster green. In this, the City’s sportiest guise though, the LED strip always stays red, and the only visual cue that you’re being earth-friendly is the words, “ECO” that light up.

For the duration of the drive though, I threw all notions of fuel efficiency out the window, and simply enjoyed the drive.

Now, the accompanying CVT gearbox may seem like a recipe for gloom through the winding, mountainous passes. But I’ve discovered that for as long as you master maintaining momentum, it’s actually fine. CVTs never really liked full throttle applications, and this Earth Dreams unit is no exception. But, for as long as you stick to giving it half or ¾ throttle effort, it’s fine.

Anticipation is key to maximizing the City’s performance potential. The 8-inch infotainment screen is a big help in this case. With standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, you can play your favorite tunes or Spotify, but in my case, I switched the main screen to Google Maps. I could see what’s coming up two, three, or even four corners ahead. And even during cornering, visibility is great. The large windshield, thin A-pillars, and re-positioned side mirrors make it easy to position it with precision making this a surprisingly good canyon carver.

In terms of handling, the City feels extremely confident. It does trade in a bit of its pointiness for overall stability and comfort. Regardless, give the tiller a bit more tugs, and it’s still willing to be tossed around. It understeers a bit through the tighter bends, but a slight steering correction (and some scrubbing of speed) is all that’s needed to reel it back. There are some audible tire screeches, but throughout the entire drive, you always feel in control.

As a sub-compact sedan, initially you’d think that the Honda City is destined solely for the urban confines. Yet, a quick drive through the mountains is enough reminder of what this car’s capable of. Even as car buyers increasingly downsize their new car purchase, the all-new City is a reminder that Honda knows best when it comes to delivering a car that’s the right balance between fun and practicality, comfort and performance.


  1. Interesting comments. Previously I was leaning more toward the S models. After reading your review, I now see the RS variant may be more than just a pretty face over the same mechanicals after all.

    CVT longevity is still somewhat of a concern though. It has been 15, 16 years since Honda's first crack at it with the GD-chassis City and Jazz, and I wonder if they've sorted out the clutch pack issues since then.

  2. my GM6 Honda now clocks in at 51,000kms. CVTranny still feels like brandnew. We'll see after 10 years of ownership. see you on the other side.


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