Honda Brio variants with automatic transmissions don’t have those familiar Eco or Sport modes, nor that semi-auto Manual mode for selecting a particular gear on the 5-speed gearbox. Even so, fine throttle control to put it in particular RPM ranges and working the electronic shifter for timely downshifts can put the Brio in those different performance modes without flipping a switch or pushing an E, S or M button.DSC_6348

When it was launched at the Philippine International Motor Show last year, the Brio was portrayed as something more than an economy model. Honda emphasized that the new line’s primary distinction would be the marque’s trademark performance, with efficiency as a close second. Said Honda Cars Philippines President Toshio Kuwahara, “it’s small, but it’s a Honda.”

IMG20150711121604The Brio is the smallest Honda currently on offer, the smallest vehicle you can get with the carmaker’s much vaunted VTEC variable valve lift and timing technology that turns efficient, low-emission powerplants into high-performance engines, and vice-versa. And here, all Brio variants feature the larger 98hp 1.3liter engine that was introduced in the RS variant for Indonesia back in 2013.

The smallest Honda with a VTEC, the biggest VTEC engine available on it–that the Brio is sporty is a forgone conclusion.  But, since it is a city car, you’d think there must be a way to turn the Brio into a full-on economy model when you need it to be.  And you’d be right.

Packaged performance

” this micro-hatch feels like a go-kart going through turns … hence the impulse to pull G’s … all the time “

IMG20150712113900The Brio is small but it’s a micro on a mission. With its mass packed into a rigid shape atop a squat wheelbase, the Brio corners like it’s on rails. No mincing words here: this micro-hatch feels like a go-kart going through turns … hence the impulse to pull G’s, going all Sport, all the time.

The unibody feels rigid, period. Though the stylized strakes are nice eye-candy, the underlying metallurgy isn’t exceptional. But scan the body lines from the bottom up and you’ll spot how these run from a squat base to a tapered top, hinting at strength that is structural. The whole thing suggests a chopped-off pyramid. Instead of a conventional cube with angular corner supports, the coachwork’s geometry turns the whole thing into a rigid structure of angled columns and beams.

Just 3.61m long with 65% or 2.34m of that astride a relatively long wheelbase, and spread out laterally into a wide 1.68m of breadth, the Brio rides low on a wide platform with virtually no overhang in front or back, it’s width impressively at 71.6% of its wheelbase. That’s even better than on the 4.1m long Jazz, the bigger sub-compact Honda hatchback that handles excellently on a width-to-wheelbase ratio of just 67.8%.IMG20150711131156

Twin peaks

” the i-VTEC’s real distinction is how the … valvetrain creates two torque profiles “

A next generation VTEC for Honda’s “global small platform” vehicles, the Brio’s L-series 1.3 liter i-VTEC engine features a novel SOHC cylinder head design combining the axles of the intake and exhaust rocker arms of the valvetrain. The head layout’s cross-section arc has been trimmed from 46° down to 30° and the entire engine has been made 118mm narrower and 69mm shorter. And, with the trim-down, the current L-series weighs around 10% less than the preceding D-series.

IMG20150713083419The new engine design is so compact that, quite predictably, they thought of putting the 1.3 liter engine that had been an option on bigger past-generation Jazz and City sub-compacts, into the engine compartment of the micro Brio. So, instead of the 87hp 1198cc L12B i-VTEC with CVT automatic that came out on the Brio when it was first launched in 2011, we get the 98hp 1339cc L13Z1 i-VTEC engine (a plus 1.3 liter that sometimes gets tagged as a 1.4 lin other markets) with a conventional, and sturdier, torque converter AT.

The L13Z1 delivers 98hp at 6000rpm, 94lb-ft at 4800. Impressive as these numbers are, the i-VTEC’s real distinction is how the variable lift and timing package on the valvetrain creates two torque profiles, the top profile peaking at 4800rpm complimented with a secondary “pre-peak” at the lower-end. From idle to 2400rpm, the torque climbs steeply to 90% of peak torque, then plateaus until 4000rpm where it goes up sharply again to reach 100% at 4800rpm.

IMG20150709145648This means that a lion’s share of that impressive torque is already available even when the car is just rolling out. In fact, at its 800rpm idle, the engine already delivers around 70lb-ft or 75% of peak torque. Pop the selector into D on level ground and quickly taking your foot completely off the brake pedal will make the Brio 1.3 AT fairly lunge off its marks. There’s enough push to accelerate the Brio, foot off the gas pedal, to the 15km/h that triggers an upshift that shallows up the gear reduction on the drivetrain, increasing torque demand, and slows down the car—elegantly governing the speed of what otherwise could’ve become a runaway vehicle.

Smart ‘matic

” the abundance of torque … allowed them to go with a fairly tall set of ratios “

IMG20150714115730By all indications, Honda also kept the same automatic transmission that had been mounted on the previous generation 1.3liter Jazz. The Brio has an electronically-controlled 5-speed gearbox with lock-up clutch. And the abundance of torque as well as the reduction introduced by slippage in the torque converter allowed them to go with a fairly tall set of ratios. Gearing starts at 2.995 in first gear, 1.678 in second, a near direct drive 1.066 in third, and an overdrive 0.760 in fourth complimented by an even taller 0.551 in fifth.

As a result, though the AT’s torque converter comes with the slippage and pumping losses that are the common cost of an automatic’s convenience, the torque is well harnessed by an intelligent algorithm working off a big set of tall, close ratio gears. So well, in fact, that clutch lock-up to put a hard link between engine and transmission gears (bypassing the hydraulics of the torque converter) could be triggered even while driving in city traffic.

De-facto Eco

” be aware of that 2400rpm hump, and work in the zone under it “

Not surprisingly on the powerful VTEC engine, pegging the tachymeter at the common 3000rpm from roll out to cruise results in acceleration that’s definitely aggressive. Plus which, at 3000rpm the engine has already reached and gone past the 2400rpm low-end peak after which it levels off with 90% of maximum torque.

So, for the economy driving that the Brio is sized for, be aware of that 2400rpm hump, and work in the zone under it. If you go over it, rolling out and off at the old-school 3000rpm for small engines, you’d accelerate strongly and trigger up-shifts with typical 20km/h increments at 20, 40, 60 and finally 80km/h for that shift up to fifth, with clutch lock-up happening at around 90km/h.IMG20150713081421

But do the same at around 2000rpm (with the gas pedal pressed in just about half a centimetre) and the Brio turns into a city savvy short-shifter, triggering up-shifts in stages 15km/h apart at 15, 30, 45 and 60km/h. Keep the needle at or around 2000rpm and you’d hold slippage to a minimum, allowing clutch lock-up to happen at 65km/h, soon after you hit fifth gear. If you need additional incentive, the VTEC engine turns throaty only beyond that 2400rpm marker for its low-end peak. Staying at or below 2000rpm keeps the engine so quiet, very little of its purr will get past the road noise.

And, for feedback, you’ll find that the Eco indicator will start lighting up, giving you that LED pat on the back, when you’re cruising along at 1600 to 2000rpm—the revs ceiling gets higher as the transmission shifts up to higher gears for a faster cruise.

Sport mode, if you must

For those situations when you need to overtake–or are overtaken by a need, a need for, well, you know how that line goes—anything from 4000rpm to flooring it will get you what you want. The harder you press, the longer the automatic keeps you in each gear to milk it for all the acceleration it’s worth, staying in each relatively tall gear way beyond even the 20km/h increments for conventional shift timing.

IMG20150711134604On a full burn, you’ll notice the Brio staying in its nearly-direct-drive third gear as you zoom past 100km/h. It’ll stay in third as long as it can before hitting redline at 6500rpm when it’ll then up-shift and shallow up the reduction with a tall fourth gear overdrive.

For flatland twisties or hard turns on a small track, I’d consider making D3 the default drive mode since the resulting top gear, the third gear, already has that 1.033 near direct-drive ratio and you can then toggle down to D2 when entering a turn and click it back up again after powering out the back-end. Going all the way up to D, which opens up the fourth and fifth gears, would remain an option for blazing through intervening straights.

For overtaking on the open road, just keep the selector in D and do everything with throttle inputs. The automatic promptly downshifts when you stomp on the pedal, anticipating you’re need for a torque boost as you pour on the gas. But, if your overtake window is tight and you want the car already in the energy state of a lower gear before pulling out into the opposing traffic lane, go ahead and downshift on the fly.IMG20150711131803

If you’re overtaking after coming off an easy driving stretch, you’ll likely be already in fourth or fifth gear even with your speed having bled down to under 60km/h. That’s when you’d want to pop the selector down from D to D3 to trigger a quick revs boost of 40 to 90% (depending on whether you were in fourth or fifth gear, respectively). At the start of the overtake, with the engine revs bled low, click down to D3 to spike these up, putting you just a short burst below the 2400rpm low-end peak (and possibly beyond that to the 4800 main torque peak) when you step on the gas. After getting past and tucking back in, pop the selector back into D to get back to cruise conditions.

In hill country

On uphill drives, the automatic is right on the ball, anticipating when momentum is finally borderline on the selected gear and kicking things down to give the engine it’s second (or first gear) wind for continuing a steep climb. Stay in D and the automatic’s algorithm promptly decides when to downshift, and does it faster than you ever could hunting down for the proper gear while pressing the unlock button on the stick.

It’s for the downhill runs that you’ll want those quickfire downshifting skills working for you. While a quick firm tap on the brakes does seem to cause the clutches on the automatic’s planetary gears to clamp down and offer some engine-braking resistance, it doesn’t seem to trigger a shift to a lower gear for more insistent drag.

On steep downhill drives, particularly through twisting turns, you can avoid riding and overheating the brakes, while also taking care not to overspeed and wreck your transmission, by the judicious use of both. Use firm to hard braking to get your speed down to where you want it, then down-shift and apply engine drag to sustain it.

IMG20150711140615What works out well on the Brio is how much its D3, D2 and D1 drive modes are analogous to third, second and first gears on a manual transmission. If your stick instincts are good, simply watch your revs, make sure these are between 1000 and 2000rpm after your firm braking, and you’re okay to shift down a click for that turning descent.

Having your cake, and eating it

” working with the VTEC engine’s strengths … could bring out the Brio’s economy car alter-ego “

It’s predictable enough that the Honda Brio can be slotted into a Sport profile simply with a heavier foot on the gas pedal, no need for that button to put it in a spirited groove. Though sized down and lightened up for city car duty, the Brio has that phenomenal VTEC powerplant and squat wheelbase handling that make the discovery inevitable. Don’t be coy on the accelerator and it’ll quickly become apparent that the Brio can turn and burn with the best of them.

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IMG20150711204417The revelation is that working with the VTEC engine’s strengths, even while it’s paired with a conventional automatic transmission, could bring out the Brio’s economy car alter-ego. If driven right, the Brio automatic is a credibly efficient city commuter, saving on both driver and fossil fuel energy during those weekdays between out-of-town weekend drives to stretch the legs both, again, of driver and of hatchback.

During my week with the Brio, whenever I imposed my own “Eco mode” and kept revs at or around 2000rpm all the way up to city and highway cruising speeds, I racked up mileage numbers of 11km/l in weekday city traffic, 12.2km/l on a weekend, and all the way up to 20.2km/l when I took her on the highway and out of town. The fact that all these were measured with a full passenger load makes the numbers real and not just impressive, particularly on the Brio, Honda’s new pocket rocket.IMG20150711203713

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