A tour of the lakeshore towns of Laguna de Bay must be one of the oldest tourist routes for generations of Luzon's islanders. Known by several generations for the Lenten season's "Visita Iglesia", pilgrims visit the many old churches along the lakeshore to pray and take a restorative plunge into the medicinal waters of hot springs from the nearby mountains.
Last year, when Honda launched the City, it introduced a new dimension to the City image. Honda took the City out of its namesake environment and has been sending us to the less hectic provinces. Honda seems to imply that with the City, one is assured that when one ventures out of town, one does not leave the urban comforts of the "City" home.
Last year's history
This aspect was the unavoidable and unorchestrated focus of last year's City tour of history. Besides inhaling the clean Bohol air and imbibing its green and chocolate scenery, the ravages of hurried haphazard development are absent, allowing one to appreciate the patina of history of little known poblacions and ancestral houses. Naturally, the City, with its Euro IV emissions standards, refused to be a polluting inter-island interloper. In harmony with Bohol's natural calm, long lunches on floating barges slowly sailing through meandering rivers are better appreciated. Even if Bohol's highways are single carriageway, the absence of traffic makes the scenery a constant and pretty companion, far preferable to a bus's smoky tail pipe.
Inhaling for Art's sake
This year, the City was to take us to a tour of Laguna de Bay. But instead of religious inspiration, our mission was to explore artistic expression hidden in the enclaves around the mountains shielding Laguna de Bay. Being on Luzon means a more irritating highway routine, i.e. overtaking hell on the urbanized national roads of the province of Rizal and the CaLaBarZon region. Even if such overtaking is effortless in both the 1.3 vtec and 1.5 vtec Cities, its still annoying to be punching the gas only to brake hard for the next sluggard. All this congestion only conceals the more remote parts of the region, which inspire residing artists to greater highs. If its not what they smoke or inhale [clean mountain air] or the weird "natural" stuff that they eat, then it must be the seclusion from the helter-skelter of the cities.
Fourteen years ago, Honda Cars Philippines did not have it that easy with the first gen Honda City. Made in Thailand, cobbled together form X-Y-Z generations of elder Civics and Honda Ballades, it was entry level family car expressly built for sensible and monsoon afflicted ASEAN. Ever so slightly cheaper than the established Japan sourced compacts, the City's assets were not easy to appreciate. So sales slumbered, until Honda Cars decided to hype the City's sporty attributes. Not by marketing sleight of hand special editions with spoilers, rorty exhaust and "sports" badges, but by creating and running a motorsports rallye program combined with safety driving instructionals for media [Honda Media Challenge] and "civilians" [Honda Executive Challenge] alike. Fleet sales of Cities packaged driver training for all, in keeping with Honda's corporate mission to teach responsible but fun driving. Hands on experience with the toughness of the Cities in grueling amateur racing conditions, showed that sports and durability go hand in hand. In time, the City shot up to top the sales charts, leading Toyota to introduce a riposte; the Vios.
The succeeding 2nd generation City, went all out in a different direction; pursuing ecology and high technology with acronyms like CVT, idsi and i-Vtec. It was an unconventional category smasher as its volumetric efficiency out-spaced many compact cars. Clothed in a high tech shape, the City abandoned its sporty cues. As the novelty wore out, the 2009 3rd generation City went back to a more conventional form, regaining the sporty market by adopting a sleek "arrowhead" shape. In keeping with its return to sports appeal, 5-speed automatics and v-tec 16-valve engines returned to City engine bays.
But its competition stayed awake concocting new appeals to sway customers their way. Toyota, with keen pricing on a broad range of price points and variants, now has 1.3 automatic versions and VVTi valve head gear. The avant garde shape of the latest Vios shows Toyota wants to lead in style appeal. Then there are new interlopers like the ultra-light Mazda2, the coming twin clutch Ford Fiesta and the Hyundai Accent crdi.
City as marketing tool
In the current sales battle of the Vios-City in the sub-compact category, the Honda City holds its own because of the appeal of the said V-tec, 5-speed autos, its slightly sharper steering feel and the more conventional looking arrowhead silhouette. At this point, car enthusiasts can tune out, as we explore the aspects of the City, not as a car, but as a marketing tool, more than the sum of its parts.
Life in style
As a trail blazing product, the Honda City "brand" is taking a hiatus from leading edge extreme high tech stuff as Honda engineers sometimes get too ahead of popular market tastes. Instead, the latest City is projected not so much as a car but as tool for living life in the future today. What does that mean? It certainly is not as simple as the City's sports image of 1996. Neither is it as off-beat as the futuristic 2003 City. The current City is a statement of living in harmony with the environment, and enjoying every minute of it.
Put aside the givens. As a commuting tool, it is fridge reliable for the daily grind; light controls, thrifty, quiet, comfy, good stereo, interesting dash, freeze-butt air con, flood resistant, etc. etc. For Friday night boulevard cruising or all expressway point and squirt driving, it obliges, without fear or shame. But so do many other cars.
Potter Ugu Bigyan, not only manages to practice his craft in Tiaong, Quezon, but also created his own Nirvana to tropical living. Spotting the Lusacan National High School sign, past the Tiaong Elementary School, we turn left, follow the road, then turn left again into the Alvarez village. A red clay house fronts for a microcosm of cool thatched huts, well spaced for the winds to circulate between the rest of the terra cotta structures. Ugu's place also has a restaurant that serves a multi-course meal the whets the appetite and cools one on a hot day. Highlights are the "Kulawo" banana heart coconut milk stew and "Pako" fern salad. Clay pottery sculpture exhibitions are frequent, but "Unchained Melody" was not on the sound track.
West then North
Clearing the crowded highways north of tourist charming Pagsanjan and Sta. Cruz Laguna, we get to climb the twisting roads that will take us past Caliraya with glistening Laguna de Bay on my left. Almost all the roads here are well paved tarmac with newish concrete shoulders and hundreds of shiny guard rails. Here the City gets to stretch its legs as the twists and turns present more opportunity to savor the handling harmony of the City's suspension and steering. Every hillock and incline gave us the excuse to open up the Vtec's smooth but quiet high revving potential. Not all subcompact cars can duplicate this with typical City ease. If one gets to glimpse between the curio shops that crowd the shoulder, the view of the mountains jutting from the flat lands is pretty. From here, we graze the watershed of Pililia on eastern Rizal Province, where deer once roam. Its winding all the way to Teresa and Antipolo, so overtaking trucks or trikes climbing at 30km/h is an annoying must. Then finally the descent to the lake shore Thunderbird Rizal resort, just above the East Ridge Golf Club. From my room's balcony, the horizon is festooned by the twinkling lights of coastal Muntinglupa and Taguig, on the far side of the lake.
Thunderbird Rizal, in between the coastal towns of Binangonan and Angono, houses a Casino, like its version in Poro Point. This would indeed be a good attraction for high rollers who want a bit more discretion than the Gaming centers within the Metro. It would be far more accessible, time wise, if only plans for a Laguna de Bay Lakeshore Expressway and the Manila East Expressway go beyond just plans. The better to get away from the haze shrouded cities barely 12 kms. away on the other side of the lake.
Art by any other name
The next day we explored the enclaves of artists ranging from the renowned prehistoric stone etchings [Petroglyphs] of Angono dating from 3000BC to YAB Design's life size figurines made of resin, established in 1990. YAB's designs have even catered to Donatella Versace. The celebrated Jose "Pitok" Blanco's, a friend of National artist "Botong" Francisco, and his family have opened up their home as a museum tribute to this family of 3 generations of master painters. Lunch was in the Crescent Moon Cafe in Antipolo, owned by the grandson of National Artist Napoleon Abueva. One imagines Rizal province's numerous artists must regularly dine on local produce to provide sustenance for inspiration.
Ten thousand Sta. Rosa, Laguna made units in a little over one year from its Glorietta launch in 2009 is no mean feat, considering that 5,470 Cities topped the sales charts in 1997. But then when a brand has the reputation of bullet proof reliability without the stodginess of a fridge, then it shouldn't be surprising.