When the imports were halted and local assembling of automobiles started in the early 90s, manufacturers started assembling the cars which were already available in the market back then & already had a good reputation among customers here. Suzuki started with Mehran, Khyber, Margalla, Ravi & Bolan all of which were available in our market since 70s & 80s. Toyota started with the Corolla which was available in Pakistan since early 70s while Honda took off with Civic which was available since late 70s.
It was obvious that auto assemblers wanted to avoid any risk in the early years by starting with a totally unfamiliar model. Competition however lacked since then, Suzuki Khyber was the only 1000cc hatchback, Mehran was the only 800cc economy hatchback. Suzuki Margalla was the only option available in the entry level 1.3l sedan market. Toyota Corolla though was available with 1.3 & 1.6 liter engines but was priced way above the Margalla hence was in a different league altogether. Honda Civic was only available in 1.5 liter engines & above, contrary to the Civics of the 80s which were available in 1200cc & 1300cc engines.
The City Era Began
In January 1997 Honda decided to tap the entry level sedan market by launching the City sedan, which was something totally new for our market thus offering an added option in the sedan segment. For a car buyer in Pakistan it was a name never heard before. The ‘City’ name was first used by Honda to sell small hatchbacks globally that rivaled Nissan March in the 1980s; however that car was retired by year 1993.
The ‘City’ was resurrected in 1996 under the code name SX8 specifically designed for the ASEAN markets. Instead of spending more resources on developing a completely new car, Honda grabbed their previous EF-series Civic chassis, their proven D-series engine and restyled the interior & exterior to give the car a fresh look. The bumpers were constructed in three separate pieces to allow for easier shipping from Japan. It was offered with a 1.3 liter carburetor engine and a 1.5 liter EFi version called as the ‘Neo’ & was considered as one of the fastest car locally produced. The good thing about the City was that even the base 1.3 EX version was fully powered.
Honda ran massive campaigns to launch the City using billboards, large press ads and TV commercials. The response was overwhelming; City quickly became a popular car in the Pakistani market. Suzuki Margalla which had sales well above 6000 units a year before 1997 was dented so badly that it managed to sell just around 3000 units a year in 1997 & 1998 and was eventually replaced by Baleno. It is quite interesting to know that the City was priced well above the Margalla, but lower than the base Corolla XE (which came with manual windows & black bumpers), still it caused a major blow to Margalla, while not affecting much to the Corolla.
The City was miles ahead in terms of what it offered as an entry level sedan of that time. Be it space, comfort or performance. Honda is generally known for the sharp aggressive designs but the first City SX8 was stylistically one of the simplest & decent looking Hondas to be produced. Though the rear end seemed a bit dull, it was well synergized with the existing Honda lineup of that time.
The engines were powerful enough for daily commutes and comparatively smoother than the existing 1300cc carburetor rivals of that era. The cabin was quiet and well insulated, 5 air-conditioning ducts provide better and quick cooling, it offered a class leading luggage volume; the low hood height provided excellent visibility for the driver, the power steering response was good and the handling was probably the best feature of the SX8 City. While it lacked electric assisting gizmos, the mechanical setup from the all-round McPherson struts provides sufficient amount of grip and composure in the corners.
The interior was probably one of the weakest areas of the car, although it offered easy to access & straight forward controls, some useful storage compartments but lack cup holders & center arm rest for the driver. The interior was all too grey and dull, although the door locks, handbrake & steering had some chrome accents, still the interior left a lot to be desired. The door panels and power window switch came from the 88 Civic and with its vertical orientation was too odd to operate. Nevertheless the City created a stir in the market and went on to become quite a successful car. Since the City SX8 was largely based on the EF Civic, most of the parts including suspension, wheel bearings, clutch cables, brakes etc came from the Civic and thus were frequently available in the market.
The City Facelift Arrived
3 years later the popularity of the SX8 City was taken to next level when in January 2000, Honda brought the facelift here. The launch of the facelift City also included a promotional song featuring the then supermodel Amna Haq which was aired on local TV channels by Honda back in those days. The short comings of the first SX8 were very well addressed. Exterior wise the car was transformed from a sober looking sedan into a typical aggressive Honda now featuring bold crystal headlamps, different rear combination lamps while the 3-piece bumpers were replaced with a single unit bumper design. Stylistically the facelift SX8 is undoubtedly one of the best looking Hondas ever to appear in our market. The interior was now offered with a 4 spoke steering wheel, slightly different instrument cluster & upgraded door panels and power window switches.
This time though, there was no 1.5l engine but the 1.3 liter engine was now available with Programmed Fuel Injection (PGM Fi) and was available in manual as well as automatic transmission. Although a 1.5 liter Vtec engine was available in other markets, which wasn’t offered here, still the 1.3 liter PGM-Fi unit was nimbler than its carburetor predecessor and more fun to drive. A stripped down version without power windows was also introduced, and that was probably the only locally produced Honda without electric windows. The City weighed just under 1000 kg thus offered a great balance and impressive fuel consumption. Despite being out of production for about 14 years now, the City SX8 still holds quite a decent resale value. With its low-slung body, light weight, responsive engine, excellent suspension setup and striking looks the car was a complete package within itself.
I am humbly thankful to my ex-colleague Amin Shallwani for providing me this video as he was part of the production team that made this music video some 20 years ago.
The Honda City has evolved over the period of time, and has become a concrete choice in the entry level sedan market, not just in Pakistan but everywhere else it’s offered. Being an established brand name, people buy the car in large numbers and wait desperately for its new model to arrive. But at the time when no one even knew about it, the SX8 was the one which actually created the name ‘City’. It was a game changer, a car that redefined the entry level sedan market here. The City SX8 without any doubt is one of the best cars ever to grace our roads.
This article written by Usman Ansari was originally published on Pakwheels Blog
A computer animation professional with over 23 years of industry experience having served in leading organizations, TV channels & production facilities in Pakistan. An avid car enthusiast and petrolhead with an affection to deliver quality content to help shape opinions. Formerly written for PakWheels as well as major publications including Dawn. Founder of CarSpiritPK.com