Honda Amaze review: Honda's diminutive samurai returns with more ammunition

In its two decade long existence in India, the Honda Amaze has a special significance for the Japanese car major. It was the first car that was developed specifically for this market. At the same time this was also the first mass market car from Honda to get a diesel engine. Beyond the City, its longstanding bestseller, Amaze is also its most successful product till date. The outgoing version was loved for its space, ride quality and the peppy and fuel efficient diesel engine. But above all it did well as Indian consumers could finally own a Honda, a badge that continues to have aspirational overtones, for an affordable price. The last couple of years however, have been rather subdued for Amaze as consumers in this compact sedan segment have been lured by compact sports utility vehicles like Brezza, Nexon and EcoSport. At the same time last year's lifecycle change of segment leader Dzire further hampered its prospects. It was time for the next generation Amaze to come in our midst. Is it worth looking at?

A compromised car?

A bit of context first before we tackle the tricky subject of what is a compromise and what isn't. The compact sedan segment came about in India after the government introduced differential rate of taxation on cars basis their length and engine capacity. Typically that was to reward small cars and disincentivise sedans, utility vehicles and luxury cars. Thanks to some homegrown jugaad, segments like compact sedans and SUVs have come about and are a roaring success. But in effect these are still compromised products. In the case of a compact sedan, that compromise is on space and performance at least on the petrol engine.

Given the handicap of inches though, Honda has done a good job in maximising space on the new Amaze. Unlike the earlier version which was based on the diminutive Brio hatchback, the new car now sits on a brand new platform. Further, given how small Honda's engines normally are, the wheelbase of the Amaze is the largest in the segment. So while all cars in this segment remain largely fit for four people and an unwelcome fifth passenger, in the Amaze the punishment is a bit milder than the other cars. All this while, you also get the roomiest boot in the segment, significantly more spacious than Dzire, so full marks on that.

Talking of the styling of the car itself, the looks of the new Amaze will polarize opinion. The car has been given a complete overhaul and be it the flat, almost vertical nose at the front, or the split tail lamps at the rear, there are no similarities with the outgoing model. The front is what will get talked about most and has a retro element to it reminiscent of the American muscle cars of the 80s and 90s. From close quarters it does look a bit quirky but it manages to look smart from a distance.

The changes are not limited to the outside world either. The interiors of the old Amaze were one of its biggest weaknesses and Honda has paid attention to that. They had to as competition has also upped the notch in this aspect. With a new chunky steering wheel, beige and black color combination and a simplistic yet modern dashboard and instrument console, the cabin looks much more upmarket. Do note the indent on the dash area above the glove-box which is quite eye catching. The lack of rear air condition vents is a miss but vents at the front have been perched on top of the central panel for better air flow to the rear. Honda also claims it has used a bigger compressor in both petrol and diesel variants for better cooling but we did not get enough time to confirm or challenge its efficacy.

For the price that Amaze comes in at, the list of features is also quite impressive. All the variants get safety features like dual airbags, ABS with EBD as standard while the top two variants get automatic climate control, push start ignition, keyless remote and 7" digipad multi information display. The top variants also get Android Auto and Apple car play connectivity that was missing in the old Amaze. We also noticed a few oddities in the feature list--the cruise control feature has been offered in top end manual transmission but not in the gearless variants.

Not so noisy

There are no changes in the engine line up of the Amaze, which continues to be powered by the same 1.2 petrol 4 cylinder petrol and 1.5 litre diesel engines. Power and torque outputs have also remained unchanged. But Honda has worked hard elsewhere, particularly in trying to refine its diesel engine and make it less noisy and coarse. The re-engineering includes a new engine block and mount with increased stiffness and a new layer of damping on top of the head cover.

On paper, Honda has the most powerful petrol engine in class but thanks to the work done by competitors, this edge has softened a bit now. While supremely refined and quiet, the petrol version can be a slouch at lower speeds and the gearbox needs to be worked a bit for it to get a serious move on. The Dzire in comparison now feels more sprightly. It is the diesel engine that offers a more rewarding drive courtesy its flat torque curve that kicks in early at around 1800 rpm. Amaze also continues to have the upper hand on ride quality but for all the work on NVH, we still found the manual diesel version a bit noisy.

Superlative automatic

The biggest addition to the portfolio this time is the introduction of CVT gearbox in the diesel version. This is uncharted territory for Honda and most car makers continue to dodge offering an automatic version on their diesel engines. The reason seems to be that diesel cars are often bought in bulk by fleet owners. While that maybe the case, the addition of a gearless version here is welcome not less because of the work that Honda has done to make it suitable for Indian driving cycles. With the same engine for example, Honda has reduced the peak power and torque by 20 percent. Now the company says it has been done as CVT as a technology does not like too much torque and indices belt slippage. That jargon aside, the big upside of this for the consumer is that it negates CVT's dreaded rubber band effect, the seemingly endless wait for speed when the pedal is floored as the gearbox holds the revs. This diesel automatic then is very eager even flippant and fun to drive on city speeds. Compared to the Dzire's AMT, that suffers from turbo lag as also the gearbox's jerkiness, this is an entirely different world. On the long highway ofcourse, you may miss the extra horses that have been shed but how many actually buy an automatic for racing and not convenience. For those of us who do, you have the Volkswagen Ameo DSG for you. Do mind the service bills though.

Verdict

For all the merits of any product, the true worth of a car in India is always calculated on the back of its price. On this point, Honda has priced the new Amaze impeccably, matching it close to the Dzire across variants and undercutting it significantly by upto Rs 40,000 at the top end trim. At the same time, it has pulled a rabbit out of the hat with the pricing of the automatic variants. The top end trim there, actually costs less than the AGS of the Dzire. Traditional engineer's wisdom says it ought to be the other way round and should other manufacturers, read Hyundai, try to replicate this, it would mean a serious challenge to the frugality of automatic manual transmission. Of course, you do lose out on some features in the bargain--like a high end connected infotainment system. But it is still a deal that is worth it.

This is however, only one part of the story. The success of the old Amaze also had a pitfall. Chasing volumes, the company somehow lost its eye for detail which manifested itself with the below par interiors and build quality of the car. Honda had begun to lose its premium edge. So the bigger question is, whether the new Amaze belong to the pantheon of high quality Honda cars? The answer is not quite. It is a significant and much needed step up, over the outgoing version and feels more sorted than most of its competitors. It will also hold its own very well whenever Ford and Volkswagen redesign their own products--the Aspire and Ameo, later this year. It will be as out of place next to a Brio, Mobilio or BRV that signify those lost years of Honda, as an Accord or CRV that still carry the company's original DNA. The new Amaze falls somewhere in between.