CC Capsule: 1981-86 Honda City – They Grow Up So Fast!

The first Honda Civic was the car that got Honda well and truly noticed for its car-making abilities. With a steady diet of sales and critical acclaim, the Civic grew in every dimension with the following generation and would continue to grow. Much like a family sitcom introduces a new, cute child cast member once the youngest kid gets too big, Honda saw the need for a new, cute entry-level model that would be close to the original Civic in size.

That car was the Honda City, development on which started in 1978. It was 133 inches long, riding an 87-inch wheelbase, and measuring 62 inches wide. That meant it was 6 inches shorter than first-generation Civics without the US-market 5-MPH bumpers but 3 inches wider. Where it differed most was in height, the City presaging the rise of “tall-boy” superminis like the Mazda 121/Ford Festiva et all. In standard form, it was 5 inches taller than the first Civic. This boxy, upright design allowed for a more upright seating position and therefore a more space-efficient cabin.

Though Honda engineers considered a three-cylinder engine, the City launched with the 1.2 four-cylinder CVCC-II ER engine which possessed class-leading fuel economy and an aluminum engine block. Depending on tune, the City’s engine produced 62-67 hp and 72 ft-lbs and could be mated to either a four- or five-speed manual transmission or a three-speed automatic. All Cities had four-wheel independent suspension and were widely regarded as being exceptionally fun to toss about.

One of the key goals of the City was to attract new buyers to the brand but, much to Honda’s chagrin, they discovered a large percentage of Japanese City buyers were trading in old Civics. The City did, however, appeal to young buyers as intended thanks to a youth-oriented advertising campaign and clever touches like a ventilated dashboard bin that fit four cans. There was also the option of a foldaway 50cc scooter called the Motocompo that fit in the City’s luggage area.

Due to import quotas here in Australia, we only received a two-seat “commercial” version of the City which attracted smaller duties and rivalled the Daihatsu Handivan and Suzuki Hatch. This meant we were sadly deprived of the zesty Turbo and Turbo II models which, as their names suggested, used a turbocharged, fuel-injected version of the 1.2 four. The brainchild of Soichiro Honda’s son Hirotoshi, founder of tuning firm Mugen, the Turbo produced 100 hp and 108 ft-lbs while the Turbo II was good for another 8 horses and 9 pound-feet.

The Turbo II had flared fenders and a wider track (1.18 inches at the front, 0.8 at the rear), its squat appearance earning it the nickname Bulldog.

Other variants included a convertible, which utilized an exclusive and vibrant color palette and the Turbo II’s flared fenders.

There was also a “Manhattan-roof” version with a 4-inch taller roof.

Much as the Civic had, the City would expand with its second generation. Though it didn’t exactly become a Metropolis, the second-generation City grew by 7 inches in wheelbase but had very short overhangs.

That left a spot underneath for, you guessed it, another small Honda. The Today, introduced in 1985, returned Honda to the kei car market they’d abandoned in the early 1970s. The little tike was even smaller than the original Civic, measuring 10 inches shorter albeit with a 91.7-inch wheelbase. Its engines were also half the size of the first Civic’s per Japanese tax requirements. Like the second City, it had an almost exaggerated wheelbase-to-length ratio with very short overhangs.

You can draw a direct line from this first City to the Fit/Jazz of today. The second-generation City was replaced by the rather bland Logo, which in turn was replaced by the first Fit/Jazz. The City name continued on a line of subcompact Honda sedans for predominantly South-East Asian markets, where a three-box silhouette is preferred. The last three generations of City sedan have been mechanically related to the Fit/Jazz and, once upon a time, would’ve seemed a natural fit for Honda’s North American line-up.

The Fit/Jazz has proved to be a relatively popular subcompact and has been heralded for its packaging efficiency. Looking at the tall and boxy first-generation City, you can clearly see the lineage. The Fit may be the new cute kid on the Honda show but the City was getting adoring looks from the studio audience first.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1973-1979 Honda Civic – The Second Little Revolutionary

Curbside Classic: Honda Civic (gen2) – The Best Small Car By Unanimous Consent

Cars Of A Lifetime: 2008 Honda Fit – Urban Perfection