T here are few brands in India that enjoy the kind of brand equity that Honda does. The mere utterance of the name brings certain words to mind – reliability, efficiency and dependability. You would also believe that having been in the car business for 14 years in our country, they would have an astute sense of what’s right and wrong for us, especially since they have done no wrong with their two-wheeler business. Belief and reality, strangely, aren’t bedfellows here.
Despite notching in some success, Honda for the most part, has failed to put its ear to the ground when it mattered most. Diesel technology, for instance, is just missing from its portfolio and as our scoop story on its diesel plans revealed last month, it is still a good two years away from that. From my early days in auto journalism over six years ago, Honda had been advised, forewarned and reminded by our ilk that it needed a diesel motor, which, for the longest time, fell to deaf ears. Then when its first hatchback, the Jazz, was launched, the pricing went awry and silently the brilliant hatch suffered for two years. Apart from the City, every other model was taking a pounding in the market and briefly, the City too found its fortunes floundering.
But while Honda was licking its wounds, it didn’t just leave it at that. It started, in earnest, a plan to stage a comeback. First, it increased localisation, slashed the prices of the City and then the Jazz. Its fortunes have started to turn and now, by the time you read this story, Honda will have launched the Brio, its cheapest and probably most important car since the City itself. At first glance, the Brio comes across as a ’90s Civic, what with its glass hatch, overall stance and a general sense of airiness. Some, especially women, will find the Brio appealing to the visual senses, purely because it doesn’t look like a run-of-the-mill hatch. A short footprint, wide track and rising waistline are part of the appeal.
To price the Brio under Rs 5 lakh, Honda has done some clever engineering and the cost-cutting, if any, isn’t painfully evident. For one, the car will most probably come in four trims; we ended up with the ‘S’ and ‘V’ variants that will form the creamy end of the Brio range. These are loaded with airbags, ABS, an audio system with steering wheel-mounted controls and multi-trip meter as standard. The ‘V’ gains from the addition of fog lamps and alloy wheels, the ‘S’ making do with plastic wheel caps. What you don’t get is a rear de-mister and wash/wipe on any of the variants, which we feel is taking cost-cutting a tad too far. There are other nifty features like vanity mirrors for both driver and passenger, while the driver gets an intelligent airbag that detects impact, loads and other factors and inflates the airbag accordingly.
Overall build quality, fit and finish is quite decent and nearly comparable to a Hyundai i10. The front seats are of the single piece variety, while the rear gets fixed headrests and a near flat floor. Space on this 3.61 metre long commuter is good for four, though five would turn out to be a bit of a squeeze. We wish the front seats had better cushioning and the rear had better head room, though getting in and out of the wide doors is quite a breeze. Overall visibility is great, what with the glass hatch and lower mirrors helping matters.
The Brio’s biggest trump card, though, is the motor. Not only does it borrow from the Jazz, outputs remain identical, making it the most powerful among its competition. The 1.2-litre i-VTEC motor in the 930-odd kg Brio makes for a spicy combination. Wind it up and the 88 bhp motor feels most happy at the upper reaches of the rev-band. The lower kerb weight also helps the torque-to-weight ratio and makes the Brio more driveable than its other Honda cousins. It’s only when you attack some really tight hairpins that a shift to first gear is required.
Speaking of which, the gearbox is so easy to shift, just like in the Jazz, and the familar golf-ball knob is always a pleasure to use. Honda claims an ARAI certified figure of 18.4 kpl, which should translate to about 11-12 kpl in Mumbai or Bengaluru’s traffic chaos with the air-con running.
Because it’s dimensions are so tight, the Brio works as a perfect point-and-shoot vehicle in the crowded confines of a city. Apart from the zingy motor, there’s also a rather light steering setup that is effortless in the city, though it could weigh up better once on the highways. The controls are light and easy too, while the clutch is as good as stepping on butter. The handling is quite good, given its wide track and a centre of gravity that isn’t as high as it looks. The ride setup is rather soft, which is fine when you are generally puttering around town, but not so good once you are out on state highways. Which is strange, given the general sporty pretensions of the Brio.
With the base Brio, without the bells and whistles, starting just under Rs 4 lakh, and the top-end V trim going to about Rs 5.1 lakh, ex-showroom, Delhi, Honda is dead serious about getting it right with the Brio and our first impressions are, it just might have.