Honda’s stellar image in India was first affected by the miscalculated positioning for Jazz. The lacklustre initial market performance of the premium hatch made it seem like Honda had made its first wrong call after having made years of error-free judgements about what suits the Indian market.

Then, last year, the tsunami in Japan and the floods in Thailand dealt a double whammy to Honda’s Indian operations, dependent as it is for sourcing key parts that go into its cars here. So, last year was tough for Honda Cars India and its performance showed in the number of customers that walked away frustrated because they couldn’t wait for the many months before the promised delivery could be made by the local dealer.

But, the company’s operations have returned back to normal and production has limped back up since. However, there has been one other deficiency in Honda’s portfolio in India – a very key ingredient for success in today’s skewed market scenario. And, that is a diesel engine in its most vital models.

Honda has always meant petrol for Indian car buyers and that hasn’t stopped them from buying cars such as the CR-V or the Accord. But with the overwhelming majority of small car buyers now choosing diesel over petrol and Honda increasingly relying on its hatches for volumes, a diesel engine in its grasp is being sorely missed.

Honda has had large diesel engines in its European line-up and its i-CTDi and i-DTEC engines have been around for sometime. With a plan of catering to markets like India, Honda had earlier this year showcased a small 1.6-litre diesel engine. Finally, a slightly smaller (1.5-litre) version of this diesel engine will make it to the Indian market shoehorned into the bonnet of the ‘Amaze’ – the sedan version of the Brio hatch.

Design

This latest addition to the Honda India family will hit the roads here by the middle of next year. And in addition to the new one-and-half litre, i-DTEC diesel engine, it should also sport a slightly retuned version of the 1.2-litre petrol engine that is currently being offered in the Brio.

The Amaze, is already new, though it is based on the Brio or is rather a clone with a big boot. But when Honda took a bunch of Indian journalists to test drive the Amaze at its test facility in Motegi Japan, the focus was more on the fact that it will be the new diesel engine version. Rightfully so, after all Honda will finally crack the sub-four-metre and sub-1.5-litre diesel engine category, taking on competitors like the Maruti Suzuki Swift DZire and the Tata Indigo CS.

The Brio sedan, recently christened Amaze, and launched last week in Thailand, is a look-alike from the front. However, I am certain that the final version of the Amaze that will be launched will sport some differentiators. The prototype that I drove at the Twin Ring Motegi facility had fat chrome bonnet grille slats and could be the one that finally makes it here too.

The real story of the Amaze’s design starts once you walk past the B-pillar. The rest of the front is identical to the Brio. The rear half of the Amaze is all new. Unlike the Brio’s near parallel to the road roof, the Amaze’s roof slopes gradually down where it meets the rear glass and then slopes sharply down to the boot lid. The boot lid itself is typically stubby and ends abruptly, a characteristic of most sub-four-metre sedans.

But the best part of the Amaze is that the design doesn’t give it an ungainly stance. There still seems to be a certain planned, purposeful flourish to the design. Aiding this visual perception is the addition of a second belt-line that starts where the first fades and then merges neatly into the tail lamp. At the rear, the tail-lamps are adequately large to abet the healthy sedan look. There are a few obvious design cues that have been taken from the current City and its Arrow Shot form.

The rear door design has changed in the Amaze compared to the Brio, due to the new roof and rear design. There is also the addition of a quarter glass at the rear. The stubby lid hides a massive boot for a sub-four-metre sedan and my guess is it could be nearly 400-litres capacity.

Cabin

Overall, the Amaze’s cab-forward design is still very hatch-like from the front, but some clever lines at the sides and some key design elements at the rear manage to make it much less cumbersome than the Suzuki Swift DZire. But much of its dimensions and design have been chosen to eventually benefit in improving the practicality of the car for the user.

Take, for example, the fact that the wheelbase has been enhanced by 60mm to 2,405mm compared to the Brio’s 2,345mm. The Amaze’s total length is 3,990mm, width is 1,680mm and overall height is 1,500mm. The increased dimensions go on to improve the space inside the Amaze’s cabin.

It is difficult to fully appreciate the amount of legroom and kneeroom that Honda engineers have managed to liberate from the increased wheelbase until you sit at the rear bench of the new car. With a six-footer at the wheel, there was still room for the rear passenger of average build to sit more than comfortably, without his knees scrapping the front bucket seat’s back rest.

The cabin of the Amaze is, however, a very familiar place. Most of the interior is borrowed from the Brio hatch. There could be a few differentiators, though I couldn’t see too many in the prototype test car that I drove. We are not able to offer any pictures of the cabin, because Honda didn’t allow interior photographs, since the India-spec trim is yet to be frozen. But you can expect differentiators like better upholstery, a different interior colour-theme combo, some chrome bits thrown in and maybe some more storage options. The rear bench squabs may also be angled differently to enable a more relaxed sitting posture.

The rest of the Amaze is likely to be shared, common parts from the Brio. That should enable Honda to save on costs and keep the price of the new sedan competitive.

New engine

The Amaze sedan that I test drove on the short looping track was only the one sporting the new sub-1.5-litre i-DTEC diesel engine. The petrol variant was not on offer. The exact specifications of the engine were also not revealed, since it is pending homologation and other approvals for the car in India.

I am guessing that the turbocharged common rail engine will generate about 70 PS to 75 PS of peak power and about 160 Nm to 180 Nm of peak torque. The engine is paired with the same five-speed gearbox from the Brio. This combination should enable Honda engineers to achieve the objective of maximising the engine’s efficiencies. Aiding the process is of course, the all-aluminium engine which is one of the lightest diesel engines with friction levels that are said to be so low that it is comparable to petrol engines.

I am guessing that the engine block is the same 1.6-litre original’s block with a smaller bore and stroke. The i-DTEC engine sports an aluminium open-deck block with high flow rate property and a high swirl head port. Its breathing is enhanced with the help of a fixed geometry turbocharger, which can be changed to accommodate a variable geometry turbo at a later date, if required.

The engine employs technologies such as cylinder management and lean burn to help improve operational efficiency, especially at slow driving speeds such as is experienced in the city driving cycle.

The first impression that I got about the new diesel engine was that it is extremely refined and noise levels are remarkably low outside even at high revs. Inside the cabin, the noise level was a bit more elevated than I had expected, but nothing too unusual for a car in this segment.

The engine also seemed to deliver power and torque in a very linear fashion. There is no loading up of a big chunk of the torque and power at the low-end leaving the car gasping at higher revs. But this also means that the Amaze may not be a signal drag-racer’s delight. The powertain has clearly been tuned to deliver the most in terms of fuel-efficiency.

Together with the finely measured ratios of the gearbox, this new 1.5-litre iDTEC engine also manages to offer a lot of low-end torque, without any knocking setting in even as low as 1,200 rpm. On fifth gear, the Amaze managed to cruise at 45 kmph without a hint of knocking.

Ride and handling

The ride quality in the Amaze is just about right. There is a bit of body roll, but the suspension is overall tuned to handle city roads. Compared to the Brio, though similar, the suspension set up at the front and the rear have been tweaked in the Amaze to handle the increased weight.

We can’t expect this entry-sedan to compete with the likes of its bigger sibling – the City – in this department. But, compared to similar sedans the Amaze manages to make the cut. The bulkier Swift DZire may just be a bit more agile than the Amaze. But that could change by the time the car makes it here. My test car came with 14-inch wheels and 175 / 65 R14 MRF radials. The final trim levels may include 15-inch rims too.

The steering felt well weighted and wasn’t unusually light or oriented towards being over-assistive. Though it was difficult to test the car at high speeds on the short track with a speed limit also being enforced, there were a few corners where the steering’s abilities could be tried out and I liked the fact that I could direct the car precisely.

Bottomline

Honda will finally be able to take the fight to the diesel club with the Amaze. I expect Honda to announce competitive prices ranging upwards approximately from Rs 5.1 lakh for the base petrol and Rs 6.2 lakh for the base diesel variant. The new Amaze diesel could also manage a mileage in the region of 14 kmpl to 20 kmpl depending on driving conditions and styles.

For now, hold on to your questions about whether there will be an automatic transmission variant of the Amaze and whether the new 1.5-litre i-DTEC diesel engine could be used in Honda’s other cars like the Jazz and the City. We will get answers to those questions soon.

muralidhar.s@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on November 26, 2012)
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