I really was prepared to dislike the new generation Brio.
That prejudice of mine hinged on one, unavoidable fact: the engine. I won't mince words with you. They really did downgrade it because where the old and smaller Brio had a 100 horsepower 1.3-liter, this new and bigger Brio has a 90 horsepower 1.2-liter.
Yet somehow, after driving and riding in one for two days, the Brio has won me over. It wasn't because of the engine; far from it, in fact. The reason for that 180 is because of everything else that makes it a car. It's the overall package, the sum of all the components that makes it a car.
For starters, the look easily won me over. I wasn't able to join the local launch of the Brio, so walking up to it in a parking lot prior to our drive was really the first time I saw the production model.
Clearly the Brio is a handsome little thing. It's not cutesy or quirky, not something that would make you want to park as far away from the entrance of the mall, your school, or favorite club in shame. Proper is how I would describe it, reminding us of a shrunken Mobilio but with the proportions similar to a first generation Jazz. And the rear no longer looks chopped like someone played Fruit Ninja with it.
And I'm still talking about the standard model without the external accessories and tiny 14 inch wheels.
The RS, however, is more to my liking, especially in white. Actually, that was a bit more unanimous amongst our group. The Brio RS variant comes with a nicer kit, sportier details and bigger wheels. You can even get the version with a black roof for an extra PhP 5k if you want; it's not a panoramic moonroof, but the visual effect is there. Mechanically, the RS version is identical to the non-RS versions so it's really just the extra goodies which allows this Brio RS CVT to be priced at PhP 727,000... or PhP 81,000 more than the standard Brio CVT for PhP 646,000. Take note: those are introductory prices.
If you’re familiar with the previous vehicle, you’ll notice right away that this new Brio is bigger. Or at least, it looks bulkier with the shape of the body panels.
Height and width may remain the same at 1485mm and 1680mm respectively, but Honda stretched the vehicle by 190mm to an even 3800mm. The wheelbase was also stretched by 60mm to accommodate that extra length and not affect the handling or balance too much.
Perhaps the biggest improvement that stems from the upsize is the space. There is remarkably more room inside the new Brio, particularly for the rear passengers. It’s not just a clever bit of re-arranging that got the Brio hatch to this level. The 60mm extension of the wheelbase directly translated to a 60mm improvement in rear legroom and 42mm in rear knee room to the front seats. You can reasonably cross your legs for comfort in the back, unless you’re quite tall and long-legged.
That’s impressive, but another key enhancement is luggage space. The original Brio had about 174 liters of cargo space. Not much, but acceptable given the class, the dimensions, and the intended purpose as a city car. But the new Brio’s 258 liters of space behind the rear seat is almost a 50% improvement over the predecessor. We were able to fit backpacks and duffel bags for 4 people along with a small cooler in the back. Not bad.
Once inside, Honda fans will notice right away that the designers maximized their existing parts bin from past models, particularly with the interior panels. The dashboard, for instance, is almost exactly the same as the one in the BR-V; modern and conventional. The shifter, the inner door levers, the switches, the steering wheel and even the front seats (with the one piece backrest) are the same as the previous model, which in turn are shared with the older generation Jazz and BR-V among others. Even the touchscreen audio unit is the same as some BR-V models, and it comes with Bluetooth and USB input too.
Some may see this as cheapening out, but its a clear act by Honda to be as parts efficient as possible; the more panels and pieces they use from their existing parts chain, the more they can save, and the more savings they can pass on to us. If you spend the extra for the RS, you’re in for a treat: you get different front seats, as well as the RS-badged gauge cluster.
Once on the road, I really started to like the Brio right off the bat. The little Honda was quite smooth and moved fairly well; not a common trait of very affordable entry-level cars. The till is light, as expected of a small car with an electric power steering system. And the refinement isn’t too bad as we can easily carry a conversation inside even when driving on concrete at 60km/h and on asphalt at 100 km/h. Wind noise at speed isn't anywhere near what we would call unpleasant.
The Brio's 1.2-liter, single overhead cam i-VTEC motor may have just 90 metric horsepower, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s underpowered. Case in point: the Suzuki Swift we drove earlier had a 1.2 with even less power, yet we enjoyed that very much with the manual gearbox. Also, even when compared to the original first gen Jazz with the 1.3-liter engine, the Brio's 1.2-liter is actually more powerful.
The CVT was the perfect partner to maximize whatever power and torque came from the engine. I still wish it had more, but there are important reasons why Honda went for the 1200 rather than the older 1300. The first is fuel economy: from our set off point in BGC up to La Union, the Brio 1.2 CVT returned 14.2 kilometers per liter. The figure, while only indicative, is admirable considering we were 4 in the car (plus gear), factoring in urban traffic and a fairly fast pace on the expressway.
I know the Brio's true fuel efficiency will show itself in a proper and reasonable test that we'll do later on both on the highway, and in the city. Mind you, the Brio is a city car through and through, and in an urban environment, the Brio does feel right at home. As for the other reason, well, we’ll cycle back to that later.
Let's not use all kinds of euphemisms: this is not a quick car with a fully loaded cabin. I won’t be using terms like the acceleration was inspiring or it lunges forward with gusto. It doesn’t. Not even close. And we’re not talking about acceleration for the sake of setting lap times. We’re talking about overtaking on long drives. On the expressway, it’s not an issue. There’s plenty of room to overtake and there’s no oncoming traffic to worry about. But on two-lane provincial highways with only one lane for either direction, overtaking other vehicles (especially stubborn ones that illegally speed up when being overtaken) will require a bit more patience, and a lot of momentum.
You can’t just pull out from behind a vehicle, floor the throttle, and get past it easily. Do that, and chances are you won’t actually get ahead. Timing is the name of the game with the Brio. You’ll need to leave a 5-8 car gap, floor the throttle, and then pull out when you’re already significantly faster than the vehicle you’re passing. Patience, momentum, and even a bit of bravery are required.
That’s a shame really. The older 1.3-liter, 100 horsepower Brio was quite sprightly, so much so that we actually asked Honda if we could help them build a racecar version for a local series. Too bad we weren’t able to push through. But one thing that the Brio didn’t lose is its Honda-ness in the handling department, and after a quick stop in Baguio on the next day, we’re about to find out just how good it is on the extremely challenging downhill of Asin road. And we’ll be in the sportier Brio RS.
Mechanically, the RS is identical to the standard Brio, but there is one major difference: the wheels are bigger and wider, and the tires are Bridgestone Potenza, not tires meant for fuel economy. Now that’s interesting.
Like many in our group, this drive on Asin Road is a first. The concrete road appears to be fairly new, and after a few minutes of driving it, I’m at a loss for words. Maybe we can describe it in Street Fighter terms: this road makes Kennon Road (still closed) like T. Hawk. Asin Road is M. Bison.
The downhill is absolutely brutal on tires, brakes, and the driver. The turns are mostly of the blind exit variety, and the road itself is narrow, with a long and undoubtedly painful drop down the mountain. And there are only a few straights; most of it is corners. Now we know why the guys at Honda were handing out blister packs of Bonamine like they were Skittles. Let me rephrase: this is the Akuma of roads.
On a downhill, the power of the Brio RS doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as suspension tuning, braking performance, and overall handling, and the Honda has them in exceptional degrees. Despite the longer wheelbase, this car turned well; a good part of it is the tire selection, and the rest is the car. The tightness of the corners and the frequency with which we had to change directions speak well for the engineering that went into this bite-sized Honda.
The Brio is taking the mechanical punishment very well. The brakes are still good; just give them a chance to rest by using the engine to “brake” more. The suspension settings are spot on; not much in terms of lean, but just a hint of understeer sometimes. The steering, which leaves me wanting for feel, didn’t miss a beat on this veritable slalom; I was actually worried it might suffer the same problems as some hydraulic power steering systems I’ve tried before. They tend to have a bit of lag after several quick turns in succession because the power steering pump can't keep up. No such issues with an electric steering system.
There's nothing like driving a downhill winding road fast to get the blood and adrenaline pumping through your veins. An economy city car is not supposed to be this good, yet it felt natural. Exciting, even. Granted, not many are going to drive their little Brios like that, but it's good to now that it can, especially if the opportunity presented itself. I think many of us will be back on this road, but maybe in something with more power, or maybe a Brio with a manual gearbox. Or maybe when Honda puts paddle shifters in this Brio CVT.
Back to the engine: yes, it's a 1.2-liter, but the key reason for the downsized power plant under the hood is simple: economies of scale. The previous Brio had two engine choices: one is the 1.3-liter the Philippines got, while the other is the 1.2-liter that Indonesia had. This new Brio is offered with only one engine spec and that means better economies of scale for Honda, particularly in Indonesia where it is made to meet the requirements of their people's car program known as Low Cost Green Car (LCGC).
That's probably one of the biggest reasons why they can price as low as PhP 585,000 for the 5-speed manual, up to PhP 732,000 for the RS with the black roof. Those are introductory prices, and if you're interested in getting one, better do it before June 30 of this year. We asked Honda Cars Philippines how much the Brio would cost starting July 1, but they couldn't give us a price because it will on the forex at the time.
The Brio, both in RS and standard trims, is the well-rounded entry-grade machine that the market deserves. If anything, the 2019 Brio reminds us of the the original Honda Jazz with the i-DSI engine. The Brio may not have the innovative configurable interior for cargo like the first gen Jazz does, but at least you won't have to buy 8 sparkplugs at a time.
No, the Brio won't excite you with power, that much is certain, but we have no doubts that it will perform exceptionally well where it counts most: on the everyday drive to and from the office, to and from school, and to and from the supermarket. That's what it's made for, and that's what this little Honda that could will do day in, and day out.