There is one universal trend in the car market that has proven right every time since the first round of reforms in the nineties. And that is, more choice expands the market, thus finding new buyers where we thought none existed.

And yet, there are brands that seem to need the crutches of an additional model or a variant of an existing car to really rope in the buyer. There are others, though, whose additions seem perfectly conceived and executed to fit a need.

On the face of it, the new Honda Brio Automatic will seem like it is part of the former category, but given its inherent strengths, combined with its new prowess, it’s clear that the car is firmly in the latter.

With less than 5 per cent of the market being automatics, and with much of them bunched together in the executive and luxury segments, it did look rather like an exercise in futility to launch automatic variants of hatches and entry sedans. That was a couple of years ago but it’s not the case anymore. More and more buyers in our crowded cities are choosing hatches with automatic transmissions. But the choice has been limited and the ones that come to mind more often are the Hyundai i10 and i20, and the Maruti Suzuki A-Star.

Automatics can potentially fill the need of an easy-to-drive hatch for buyers who are new to driving. They can be a quick, smart runabout for those looking to buy a second car and a relaxing, clutch-free driving experience for buyers tired of shifting gears manually and constantly. But price and, very importantly, the lower fuel efficiency of automatics have always weighed heavily against them.

But clearly, automatics have been on a roll during the last year and more Indian buyers have been willing to make a bit of those compromises in cost-versus-value for the sake of convenience.

The Brio Automatic actually has a lot going for it already. The benefits of a very practical and attractive design and the very city-focused 1.2-litre petrol engine haven’t been changed at all. So, inside out the Brio Automatic is an exact replica of the manual transmission variant. In fact, there is not even a badge or sticker that differentiates or identifies it as an automatic - not that it needs to be identified for the sake of onlookers.

Now, that is still good news, because the Brio is one of the most practical small hatches there is. For a car with a small exterior footprint, the Brio offers considerable space inside both in terms of width and in terms of legroom. Build quality is good and material quality better than most in the segment. The engine is tuned to perfection for drivers looking to squeeze the most mileage they can, though it is not a roaring performer when set next to a couple of the other hatches. What more can a buyer who is largely going be driving in the city ask for?

The only complaint that buyers will be making is about the relatively small boot. I think some of the initial hesitation and mistaken notions about the frameless tail-gate glass will have died down by now. Then, the other observation that one can make is a very Honda trait of the Brio being light, just like the City.

But, the point is many of these characteristics combine to make the Brio a true Honda, giving it focused traits like practicality, reliability and long term value. The automatic manages to find that same balance and focuses.

Performance

In the AT, married to the 1,198cc petrol, four-cylinder engine is a five-speed automatic gearbox, instead of the five-speed manual transmission. As an example for inimitable Honda ways of thinking up urban mobility solutions in their cars, you only need to look at this new automatic transmission in the Brio.

For some it might look like Honda is trying to dumb down the driver’s abilities by over-simplifying the automatic gearbox. Others might think that by almost offering gear selection instead of modes, has Honda attempted to give shift-happy drivers something to do with their hands. But the fact is that Honda has attempted to make the process of driving in auto mode more intuitive and productive while considering that driving conditions in most Asian cities have now become pretty homogenous.

Unlike some of the fancy auto gearboxes we have seen in luxury cars, which have dual clutches and many different driving modes like sport, comfort, hill-climb, low-gear, sport+ etc., the transmission in the Brio AT is a simple torque converter. Keeping the tech simple helps keep costs low, but it also translates into a slight drop in performance, even compared to the Brio’s manual transmission variant.

Essentially, the engine produces the same 88PS of peak power at 6,000 rpm and the maximum torque delivered is also 109Nm at 4,500 rpm. But, the torque converter gearbox is tuned more for retaining efficiencies. But, before we get to on-road performance, let me clarify about the modes.

Keeping almost as simplistic as some electric/hybrid car, the Brio Automatic has four drive modes – a regular five speed auto mode (D), a three-speed mode (D3), a stay in second gear mode (2) and a stay in first gear mode (1). The last two modes are rather upfront and initially confusing. Why will someone want to stay in the first gear alone? But, I am guessing that the powertrain tuning is set to be more fuel-efficient in gear one mode if the traffic is crawling than if you were to be driving in the fully automatic D-mode.

Faced with slightly faster moving traffic, then you can switch to stay in second gear mode or to D3 mode. In the fully-automatic mode, is otherwise good enough for most conditions and is clearly less fuel-efficient than the manual variant, though not by much. Honda says that the rated mileage is 16.5 kmpl for the AT, compared to 19.4 kmpl for the manual. With my kind of driving and with slightly higher proportion of highway driving I got about 14 kmpl.

But, when I step in, slip the auto stick into D mode and step on throttle, I am expecting to hear the transmission and am also expecting a delay in response. That is what I get, with noise levels being much lower than I expected and the delay being quite a bit on the lines of what I had expected. Once I am on the move though throttle response is quicker and even downshifts happen just that bit faster if I stomp the pedal while cruising.

But, there is no mistaking that the Brio AT is focused on practicality and frugality. So, the gearbox is not really eager to shift down, neither is the engine tuned for putting doughnuts on tarmac. Honda engineers have integrated into the instrument cluster a gear stick mode indicator and an ECO mode indicator for promoting even more efficient driving habits. While it is easy to keep the car going in ECO mode in relatively free flowing city traffic, highway cruising just couldn’t get me to stay in ECO mode.

Verdict

Overall, the new Brio AT is unlikely to perform in a manner that might appease an enthusiast. But it is extremely practical, focused on delivering efficiencies, within the limitations that automatics tend to impose on cars in this segment. And importantly, the Brio AT will not burn a hole in your pocket. The price differential between the manual and the auto variants are about Rs 75,000 and the mileage is not that much lower either.

The Brio AT is offered in two trim levels – S (O) and V and the prices are Rs 5.74 lakh and Rs 5.99 lakh respectively.

muralidhar.s@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on November 6, 2012)
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