The Honda City Hybrid has a soft spot in my heart. Not because I own one, but it was actually my maiden assignment upon joining the paultan.org crew a little over four years back. Full circle moment right here.

At the time, the City Sport Hybrid i-DCD was priced at RM89,200, which was big on value, especially considering the heightened performance and driver engagement it offered over the non-hybrid models. It also sat below the City V in the model range, so it wasn’t quite decked out, even though it should have been.

FURTHER READING: Looking for Honda City 1.5 V review?

Malaysia was the only market outside of Japan to get the Jazz and City i-DCD hybrids, so it stands to reason that Honda Malaysia was simply testing the waters back then. Just how eager are Malaysians to jump on the hybrid bandwagon? Do the majority of motorists care about fuel economy, or are they more obsessed with outright performance? Those must have been pressing concerns.

While the answer to those questions may never be public knowledge, the arrival of the i-MMD hybrid heralds the unequivocal – an electric future. Remember, the City RS e:HEV made its global debut here in Malaysia, and Honda has invested millions to upgrade its production facilities in Pegoh, Melaka. The plant, which apparently matches the same levels of sophistication as Honda’s Japanese factories, can now produce i-MMD vehicles, so you best bet there will be more of those to come.

You see, i-MMD is a completely different kind of hybrid. Its inherent design aligns much closer with a fully electric vehicle than a conventional series/parallel hybrid. But what on God’s green earth is Honda smoking to dare ask you for a six-figure cheque? For a B-segment sedan? Well, there’s plenty to unpack, so let’s talk.

i-MMD explained

Short for intelligent Multi-Mode Drive, i-MMD comprises the engine, an inverter, a small lithium-ion battery pack, and two electric motors. One is called the motor generator unit (MGU), and it’s directly connected to the engine. MGU acts as a starter and generates electrical energy to charge the battery. It can also provide additional juice to the larger electric motor when needed.

The larger motor, known as the Traction Motor, is the car’s primary propulsion unit. It is quite a bit bigger than the i-DCD motor, producing the headlining output of 109 PS and 253 Nm. This is the actual output of the Traction Motor, and not a combined figure of the hybrid system.

Like an electric car, a single-speed transmission regulates the Traction Motor, which is capable of spinning up to 13,300 rpm. There’s no transmission in the traditional sense, not even the belt and pulley CVT that is found on most Honda cars. The main byproduct of a typical multi-ratio gearbox is parasitic loss, something the i-MMD system aims to minimise. This means you don’t get to change gears, and the paddle shifters don’t work the way you expect them to.

A very cursory understanding of i-MMD goes something like this – it’s basically an electric car, but with a 1.5 litre engine that acts as a generator to recharge the battery. The system is similar to Nissan’s e-Power range extender system, but the key difference between e-Power and i-MMD is that the combustion engine in the latter configuration can provide direct mechanical drive to the front wheels. Whereas with e-Power, the electric motor powers the car 100% of the time, and the engine’s sole purpose is to charge the battery.

Still with us? Good. Here’s how it works

Multi-Mode Drive refers to three drive modes – EV Drive, Hybrid Drive and Engine Drive. These are non driver selectable and are instead engaged automatically by the Power Control Unit (a computer, basically).

EV Drive is the dominant mode by default, handling the majority of uses cases up to 80 km/h. Here, the engine switches on and off fairly regularly, but its function during low to moderate speeds is primarily to charge the battery.

The battery itself is a fairly small unit, perhaps no more than 1 or 2 kWh in density. You’ll get between two to three kilometres of pure silent driving when it’s fully charged, but this is only achievable when you’re decelerating over a longer distance, such as when approaching a toll booth.

At motorway speeds (between 80 km/h to 120 km/h), a clutch will completely disengage the electric part of the powertrain and run solely in Engine Drive mode. The engine – a lean burning 1.5 litre Atkinson-cycle with 98 PS and 127 Nm – also operates at a fixed ratio, much like the sixth gear of an automatic transmission. This keeps the engine running within its most efficient range, and the direct transfer of mechanical energy minimises frictional losses that would occur in a multi-ratio gearbox.

That leaves the third mode, Hybrid Drive. This occurs when the Traction Motor draws electrical power directly from the motor generator unit, providing a slight accelerative boost for climbing steep ascents or overtaking, as well as when driving above 120 km/h.

Honda claims i-MMD offers up to 40% better fuel efficiency in real world driving compared to conventionally-powered vehicles. It capitalises on the most efficient ranges of an electric powertrain and petrol engine, creating a seemingly complex package that gives owners the best of both worlds. And it works surprisingly seamlessly, too.

What is it like to drive in the real world?

Based on our testing, we averaged about 3.8 litres per 100 km, or 26.3 km/l in mixed driving conditions. There’s probably some room for improvement, so long term owners can make it their mission to match or even beat Honda’s claimed average of 3.6 l/100 km.

As for performance, well, let’s just say i-MMD is not the performance hybrid that you’ve been led to believe. It will reportedly outpace the regular City in the century sprint (9.9 seconds vs 10.2 seconds), but they feel similarly powerful at the end of the day. The City’s upgraded twin-cam mill is excellent, if a bit boisterous, and actually feels just a bit more sprightly during “in-gear” acceleration.

You see, the i-MMD hybrid is a bigger tree hugger than the i-DCD Sport Hybrid, which had a seven-speed dry DCT and a “Sport” mode button. With the City RS, you get an eco switch, and the shift paddles lets you choose between three incrementally aggressive levels of regenerative braking. You won’t get the one pedal operation like on the Nissan Leaf and MINI Electric, but it’s pretty close.

Electric motors often make big torque numbers, giving automakers the convenience of marketing them as performance-oriented. Sure, 253 Nm sounds plenty healthy for a B-segment car, but you don’t get 253 Nm all the time. It’s situational (taking into account driving speed and battery charge levels), and remember, i-MMD is supposed to be an efficient system, so the PCU is obviously programmed to provide peak torque only when required.

The one caveat to this multi-mode drive is its unwavering duty to maximise propulsion efficiency. Let’s say you’re driving at 80 km/h and you want to overtake a dimwitted middle-lane hogger. You depress the throttle pedal, but the i-MMD system doesn’t give you the instantaneous response expected from a hybrid.

Instead, what the PCU has to do is release the clutch, switch from Engine Mode to Hybrid Mode, and signal the Traction Motor to get to work. This series of communication causes a near second-long delay before the powertrain begins to respond to your right foot, which is a lot like a bad turbo lag. This only happens when it’s in Engine Drive mode, though.

There’s also a bit of sensory adjustments needed to get used to i-MMD. It does away with the linearity of a conventional combustion engine, and when the engine switches on to charge the battery, it revs at a constant speed, which is audibly louder than the normal idling range. You’ll definitely hear the engine at lower speeds, but when you’re cruising, the switch is virtually imperceptible. Just smooth, refined and not intrusive.

The hybrid also handles quite competently despite weighing over 120 kg compared to the base City. It’s not quite as engaging to drive as the City Sport Hybrid i-DCD, but with a firmer suspension and wider tracks, it keeps its composure well, albeit with a slight propensity to understeer at the limit. Ride quality feels a bit more solid overall, and secondary ride feels more matured than before. Brake tuning remains impeccably calibrated for that natural feel. Shame about that tyre roar, though.

But is it worth nearly RM20k more than the City V?

Its six-figure asking price seems ridiculous for a CKD model, but whether or not it is justifiable can be debated. For RM20k more, you get i-MMD, exclusive RS exterior and interior styling, four disc brakes with electronic parking brake switch, and Honda Sensing.

It’s the closest experience you’ll get to driving a fully electric car for the money. For some people, the styling and tech alone are good enough to seal the deal, with the faultless Honda Sensing being an added bonus. But at this price range, it’s really not for everyone.

See, the City V is already a very complete B-segment sedan. For a bit more money, the Vios G and GR-S are strong contenders with slightly better kit, and every single variant of the Almera ships with autonomous emergency braking as standard. Those looking for the most engaging car to drive in this price range will likely pony up for the Mazda 2, or look past the sedans altogether and just wait in line for the Proton X50 Flagship.

Advanced though it may be, the City RS e:HEV is undeniably in a tough spot. i-MMD is a well-engineered, highly efficient hybrid system, offering benefits that few will even be wary of. But as you can clearly tell, the complexity of such a sophisticated system comes at a cost, and not one I would be willing to pay.

As we have alluded to earlier, the future will be an electric one, and all it takes for an i-MMD model to be fully electric is to put in a larger battery, install a more powerful inverter, downsize the engine and have it act solely as a range extender. Regardless of what the reception is for the City RS i-MMD in Malaysia, there’s a good chance this gamble will pay off in the coming years. So, what do you think?