I ’m in an impromptu drag race against a 19-year-old Honda City and I’m losing. A hint of smoke from that car’s tailpipe tells me the engine has crossed 5,500rpm and found its second wind. I can almost see the grin on Hormazd’s face as that happens.
A short run and a couple of gears later, we slow down and resume adult behaviour. This is only the customary four generations of Honda City photo shoot in Noida – the cars have a 6,000km road trip ahead of them.
Why are we going on a 6,000km road trip? Well, it has been 20 years since the Honda City first showed up on Indian roads. 20 years since a sea change happened to how we look at cars and what we expect from them. In these 20 years, we also started getting the roads to drive these cars on; and the first one of those roads was the Golden Quadrilateral.
The planning for this mother road, which links the four big metropolitan cities in India, was completed in 1999 – a year after the Honda City came to India. Construction of the road started in 2001, but then it took another eleven years to complete. In that time, Honda reinvented the City many times. From starting out as a simple, low-slung family car powered by the first 100hp motor in the country, the City went from first-generation swan to second-generation ugly duckling, and back to swan for the third generation. All of this happened while the government was still looking for funds and facing problems with land acquisition to complete a six-year project that ended up taking many more. Oh well, nothing new there.
To celebrate two decades of Citys, we are going to drive four generations of the Honda City along the length of the Golden Quadrilateral. For us, this is both, a documentary and a trip down memory lane. It is a documentary of the state the Golden Quadrilateral is in all its time of existence. The trip down memory lane? That’s just an excuse for a road trip.
Capital to financial capital
You forget how low old cars are; and so, when I drop into generation one’s seats, I let myself drop a couple of milliseconds early. The seat is lower than where I expect it to be. So a clumsy fall and a small wince later, I swing my legs in, slide the analogue, ‘browned-from-wear’ key into the starter and give it a twist. This 80,000km-run, 1999 City EXi has no trouble starting. MH-01-Y-9111 is Parsi-owned and according to its owner, is used twice a week to get his aged relatives to Bombay Gymkhana and back home. Asking it to do a cross-country run at this age seems absurd, until you actually drive it. It runs like it left the showroom recently – the dampers have spring in them, the engine still has the energy of a teenager and in no way does it feel like it left the production line nearly two decades ago.
Anyway, you realise how much a modern car pampers you only when you step back a couple of decades. I have no clue how anyone ever reversed a car without a reverse camera or, at the very least, parking sensors. I also soon realise that all the connectivity I have is through the steering wheel, the pedals and the seat of my pants. There are no distractions in here – the simple dials light up in the same shade of tungsten yellow as the analogue dials of a 1990’s hi-fis (remember those?), voice commands come in the form of you singing ‘Another day in Paradise’, and you actually have to rotate a dial to vaguely set the air conditioning somewhere between red, blue and comfortable. This lack of distraction is good because this bit of GQ that runs through Haryana demands you pay attention.
Through the many villages that line the road are oblivious bikers, lazy cattle and swerving multi-axle trucks. In fact, the absolute lack of in-built safety is the one consistent thing we will see all through the rest of the drive. I will blow a gasket about this, later.
Anyway, the oldest City is still such a hoot. Because you sit so low to the ground, the sense of speed is enhanced and 100kph feels like 150! The engine snarls when you’re in low gear and high revs, the linear throttle response – it is all there!
Take the rose-tinted glasses off for a second, though. This is a family car that we considered sporty because when it came to India, the competition was still fighting about leaf spring settings! You also feel a bit unprotected. Two decades ago, you probably had to buy an S-class to get ABS and airbags as standard; and two decades ago, A-pillars were slimmer than a Victoria’s Secret model and the tyres were narrower than her waist. Out on a six-lane unpoliced highway, all of this leaves you feeling rather naked.
But you forget all that the minute you cross over into Rajasthan. Here, there’s ample space to wind out that 16-valve engine. The wide, open corners remind you why a low centre of gravity is so important in carrying big cornering speeds and the new MRF rubber we’ve fitted on the car keeps it secure.
Also helping our cause are the roads through Rajasthan and Gujarat – wide open stretches, six-lanes, and that odd blithering idiot on a motorcycle to keep you on your toes. The old City runs beautifully all the way and we arrive in Mumbai to swap into the second-generation car.
Financial capital to traffic jam central
Blasphemy. The fans were up in arms. Honda had forced the Fonz to return as a college professor for season two. The second-generation City lost 23hp to the old car, looked almost as proportional as a Picasso painting and was about as exciting to drive as a white refrigerator – but Honda knew that the mid-sized customer’s needs had changed. He now had two kids, parents who were getting on in age and a wife who no longer enjoyed bouncing off the 7,000rpm limiter on the way to the supermarket.
The second-generation City brought in practicality and (at a later stage) ABS and airbags. The old parents could now slide into the higher seats easily, three weeks of toys and diapers would fit in the big boot and the wife stuck it in fourth gear and smiled all the way to the kitty party.
I will agree with how practical it is. Leaving Mumbai during packed traffic, I appreciate the light clutch, the utterly light steering and the easy gearshift. For the 40-odd kilometres to Panvel, I am entirely happy to be ensconced in the ungainly proportions because it feels like I’m driving a toy.
Then we hit the six-lane Mumbai-Pune Expressway leg of the Golden Quadrilateral. I wind out the engine (it doesn’t complain), I lean on the skinny tyres (they protest loudly), I look for some excitement (there’s none). My pulse rate slows and I ask my colleague to take over the wheel. The back seat, I find, is the best place to be in this car. It is really comfortable and as different as night and day from the low-slung dungeon that the first-generation car’s rear seat is.
It is impossible to fall asleep, however, because once we cross Pune and get on the Bengaluru stretch, this bit of the GQ deteriorates. The tarmac is lumpy and Maharashtra easily outguns all other states when it comes to the league of oblivious motorcyclists/pedestrians. Joy has to punch the brakes often, swerve to avoid the drunk ‘bhau’ heading home and, overall, it is chaos all the way to Kolhapur. Then, as we approach Karnataka, the traffic thins out, the road widens and the feeling of space increases. This directly influences everyone on the road. Since they no longer have to jostle for space, everyone is calmer.
The stretch of GQ after Kolhapur, all the way to Bengaluru is mile-munching paradise. Since there’s little traffic and the road has broad shoulders, you can maintain consistently high average speeds without breaking speed limits. We are in Bengaluru just in time for rush-hour traffic – Google Maps tells us that it will take us 45 minutes to cover the 6km to the hotel! The second-generation car reminds me why it is the way it is, again in this bumper-to-bumper jostle for inches of space. It’s been a good drive but I’m glad to jump into the more exciting generation three City.
Traffic jam central to the City of Joy
On a morning when most Honda Citys are on the school run or on their way to the office, there was one hooning around on a racetrack. See, the GQ happens to run past my favourite Indian racetrack – and what better way to prove the third-generation City’s practical and fun credentials than a flat-out run on a track with a boot full of luggage. We’ve also fitted the car with wider 195-section MRF Perfinzas which should take care of our original grouse with the car – its narrow, fuel efficiency-biased tyres. I go in for a couple of laps and discover that the engine likes being wrung out, and that the tyres allow for much higher cornering speeds than I remember.
Just as I’m getting into the groove again, the officials tell us that our time is up and we need to get a move on. I promise you, the luggage in the boot stayed ironed.
We have a long way to go in addition to the mad run we’ve had on the superb stretch from Bengaluru. We’re going up the east coast and come across the best stretch of the GQ we’ve run so far – the bit before Vijayawada. I say it is great not only because it is six-lane perfection but because it is well-marked and well-lit, as well. There still are no real safety measures in place and this has been a constant through our drive. I feel they have built this fantastic road that allows for high speeds; but have left safety in the hands of the nimbu-mirchi, and the deity on the dashboard. Every village along the way has direct access to this road. There are few barriers to prevent out-of-control vehicles from careening off the road or jumping the median into your lane. There is no one to stop people from driving down the wrong side of the road; and animals freely roam this highway. It blows your mind when you actually drive down this otherwise modern road and see the number of unnecessary accidents and roadkill. It turns what should be a relaxing drive into an on-your-guard drive.
The generation three City, however, is a great long-distance car as long as you are not pushing it. That CVT gearbox (never my favourite) is great at cruising – but when you need to power out of a situation, it simply makes the engine feel strained. That aside, I’m enjoying the ability to listen to all the songs on my iPod (this generation was one of the first cars in India to altogether delete the CD player from the options list) and the seats are great, too. We make it to the Howrah Bridge and somehow land up in a hotel that serves only vegetarian fare. Picture eyes rolling.
To the capital
That bit about the GQ being completed in 2012 is not entirely true and we discover it just as we cross the Bihar border into Uttar Pradesh. For about 100-odd kilometres, all the way past Varanasi, the road is full of diversions past yet-to-be-constructed flyovers. In fact, it reminds me of how the rest of the GQ was, a decade ago. This whole belt is dismal. All the way from Jharkhand, through Bihar and UP, is one big dustbowl, and I’m quite glad I’m in the fourth-generation City, for this one. The seats are supremely comfortable and the superb sound system helps me ignore the slightly intrusive drone from the diesel engine. Once past Varanasi though, UP’s GQ improves considerably – although to no better standard than the rest of the country; or so I thought. We cheat a bit on the way back and take a part of the new Lucknow-Agra Expressway. This is a road that you could compare to anything you would drive on in a developed country. Properly barricaded, well marked with reflective signs and lane markings, it makes the Golden Quadrilateral seem, well, a bit last-century.
The fourth-generation City is superb here. It is a fantastic cruiser and I love the way it delivers power – it is responsive and also so fuel-efficient, it easily covers the distance between Kanpur and Noida on a tankful of diesel. When Honda introduced this engine in the City back in 2014, it was way the last entrant in the segment, but it was worth the wait. What a nice engine this is! We surf along the diesel’s wave of torque on the Taj Expressway, and we are in Noida before we know it.
Ultimately, there’s so much you learn from a trip like this. One, India has done the typical thing of going ahead and making a great road; and lost interest in building the rest of what such roads need to keep them safe. Two, our driving standards need to improve – the general Indian has no idea how to use a road like this and they need to be educated in etiquette. We saw a man meditating cross-legged in the fast lane in Bihar, we saw another who thought it was ok to ride flat-out in the middle lane in the wrong direction. We had truckers veering into the fast lane for no reason, cows chewing the cud around fast, blind corners, cyclists, poorly marked diversions – and the works. It is high time we did something about this callous attitude to life.
The Honda City, on the other hand, has progressed with the times. A trip like this shows you how diverse India is and developing a car that pleases everyone, is quite the task. The first generation introduced us to what good engines should be like, the second generation showed how good thinking out of the conventional three-box sedan can be, the third generation mixed everything the first two generations had and wrapped it in a good-looking suit, and the fourth generation added a layer of finesse to the third generation’s quality. It’s also impressive that no matter what their age, all four (well-maintained cars, mind you) ran faultlessly. So, like we said, it is extremely difficult to build a car that suits everyone’s needs; but a drive like this shows that the City’s wide range of talents help it do a pretty good job of that.