The Honda City surprised the world when it bowed at the 1981 Tokyo Motor Show. While the Japanese brand was no stranger to small cars, the City was a particularly ingenious creation aimed primarily at young buyers. It was roomy enough to carry a small scooter in its trunk despite its tiny length of 133 inches; the scooter in question was called the Motocompo, a 50cc minibike built by Honda that could fold away neatly in the City’s trunk.
Hauling capacity aside, the City was an excellent urban car that gathered numerous international awards. It was sold in certain European countries as the Honda Jazz, since Opel already had claims on the City name. The Jazz wasn’t sold in France but it was remarkable enough that Renault engineers reportedly bought one to take apart and study.
Shortly after the City’s launch, Hirotoshi Honda, the son of Honda founder Soichiro Honda and the founder of Mugen started toying around with the idea of tuning one. The City was the ideal base for a hot hatch as it already had two attributes that a lot of its European counterparts did not have: a five-speed gearbox and electronic fuel injection.
Honda added a small turbocharger to the 1,231 four-cylinder engine and increased the City’s power output to 100 horsepower and 108 lb-ft of torque. These numbers were impressive for a car that weighed about 1,525 pounds, and they represented a huge gain over the standard City, which was good for 67 horsepower and 72 lb-ft.
The addition of the turbo propelled the pint-sized City from zero to 62 miles per hour in a very respectable 8.6 seconds. Maximum velocity was reached at 111 miles per hour.
Honda liked the idea and added it to their lineup as a regular production model in 1982. This was a surprising move from an automaker that had rarely dabbled in turbocharging before. To this day, the City Turbo is one of the very few Hondas that has come out of the factory with a turbo.
A team of designers was quickly assigned to work on the car’s aesthetics. The transformation was relatively discrete and included “turbo” stickers on the front, on the back, and on both sides, a specific grille, a bulge on the hood and fog lights. The stock 12″ steelies were the same ones found on non-turbo versions of the City; aluminum wheels were optional.
The modifications continued inside the car with cloth-upholstered bucket seats that wore a “turbo” emblem stitched into the seatbacks. The dash featured a digital speedometer and no less than ten small storage bins were spread out throughout the cabin.
In 1984 a more powerful version called the Turbo II was introduced. In many ways it was a logical evolution of the Turbo. The engine was largely unchanged but there were several minor modifications under the hood, including a bigger throttle body and the addition of an intercooler. The changes bumped the City’s ratings to 110 horsepower and 117 lb-ft of torque; they also helped increase the car’s weight to 1,640 pounds. Its top speed was 108 miles per hour, slightly less than the Turbo, but it went from zero to 62 miles per hour in roughly 7.5 seconds, faster than a Golf GTI from the same era.
On the outside the Turbo II stood apart from the crowd thanks to a full body kit that encompassed a big bulge on the hood, bigger bumpers and side skirts. The kit earned it the nickname “Bulldog”. It sat on 13″ steelies, though model-specific 13″ aluminum rims were available. It is also worth noting that Mugen made a plethora of aftermarket add-ons for both Turbos, including alloy wheels.
With the exception of the steering wheel and a few other small details, the Turbo II’s interior was the same as its predecessor’s. The instrument cluster was carried over, as was the long-throw gearshift.
The Turbo was discontinued in 1984, and the Turbo II stayed in production until 1986, when the second generation of the City arrived. Honda did not build a turbo version of this model.
As a side note, during the first City’s production run Honda launched a convertible version of it that used Turbo II’s body kit and a naturally-aspirated engine, but that’s a different story for a different time.