Honda’s diesel counter attack: Amaze

For over 2 years, Honda Cars India has been at the receiving end of the unprecedented diesel rush that has enveloped the consumer mindset across the country. It is this, that has led to the diminishing halo of a company that had at one point of time led every segment it participated in. Be it the Sports Utility Vehicle segment, where its CR-V ruled the roost, the premium sedan segment where Accord reigned, the executive segment –a Civic domain, or the long standing bastion–entry level sedan where the City was always the last word.

Those were good times though and like all good things they have gradually ebbed away. Honda’s complacency that at times bordered on arrogance, is at least partly to be blamed for this. The perfect example of this was in 2009 when it launched the Jazz, its first small car in India at a whopping Rs 7 lakh. It also refused to read the signals and concentrated on its domain expertise in petrol engines without bothering to diversify its armory.

At the heart of this lay the fact that Honda never gave priority to the Indian market, a fact that was candidly admitted by its new India CEO H Kanayama san. This led to a situation where while other car makers were sharpening their knives, dipping them generously in diesel, the engineers at its R&D centre so used to reading the signs in bigger markets like US and China, could not care less. The onslaught began slowly, almost silently. As Honda dithered and dithered, the rivals chipped away.

Diesel power saw CR-V lose the battle, first to an archaic and burly Ford Endeavour, and then to a more familiar demon–Toyota Fortuner. Next to go was Civic. At one time, it sold as many units in a month as the entire competition put together. The first blow came in the form of Skoda Laura that notwithstanding its perverse nomenclature, exploited the Honda’s weakness of single fuel option to the hilt. Others learnt the ropes soon enough. The Cruze came along from a rejuvenated General Motors in 2010 and then a pithy 1.4 diesel motor in the long standing rival Toyota Corolla, saw Civic being consigned to the dust bin.

The Accord held its own for a little longer. Only a little. Having learnt the trick in the Civic gambit, Skoda pitted the Superb aggressively against the Accord. Eventually, more features, European technology and the elusive diesel powertrain helped Superb score over the Samurai.

The City was the last to fall and it held on for much much longer. It has been Honda’s ace in South Asia for eternity and its tremendous package coupled with an enviable reputation as a car that does not fail nor falter meant it was always comfortably ahead. Until, a certain namesake of a company– Hyundai — decided to take the battle seriously and changed the name of the game. From the day it was launched the Fluidic Verna became the benchmark and for once, City was as helpless as most of its rivals had been for over a decade.

Four battles lost and a fifth –the Jazz– conceded without a fight and Honda was in dire straits. It needed a diesel engine and needed it fast. Japan finally took note of how exponentially India was growing and how rapidly Honda was shrinking. And it decided to act.

The result is 3 years of painstaking, back breaking work in an unknown area, a terrain engineers in Tochigi never dreamt of prodding in. And out came a 1.5 litre diesel powertrain, only the second that Honda had ever produced and the smallest by far.

No shortcuts were taken. Honda did not re-engineer any of the numerous diesel powertrains available in the world. It did not collaborate with Fiat, Nissan or Volkswagen to lease their own engines to plonk on their cars. Doing that would have saved time and cost but as Kanayama san so rightly pointed out, it would have given the keys to Honda’s destiny to a rival. That would have been very “un Honda like.”

This is also an engine built squarely for India. The respect that was lacking is finally being paid.

And the car that gets this engine first, breaks barriers too. The Honda Amaze, that will become the company’s entry level sedan next year, will also be the cheapest sedan from a company that is renowned for making three box cars.

The Amaze will first be launched in Thailand on Friday and that is why we cannot show the pictures here before 12 noon. Log in again then and voila, you will see the car in flesh and blood. But since I have seen the car both closely and from far, I can give you a pseudo connoisseur’s view of what it is all about.

In essence it is just a sedan based on its small car Brio. Incorrect. Yes it is based on the Brio. Yes there are similarities. But this is not like a Swift and a Dzire, an Indica and a Indigo, a Etios and a Liva. The Amaze is a different entity and that is not only because it gets a diesel engine while the Brio continues to struggle with the expensive petrol.

So how do you differentiate an Amaze from a Brio? The headlamps are just the same but the grille is different. Almost. Amaze being the bigger sibling gets more chrome on the grille and a different bumper too. The difference in the grille is fairly noticeable but you will have to keep the two cars next to each other next to each other to understand the changes in the bumper.

From the side, Amaze being the larger car, has a bigger better profile. The glass area is more and so are the rear doors. There are sharp lines all around the cars giving it a chiseled no nonsense look. And the rear is the best you will find in this segment. It isnt disjointed like the Dzire or Indigo and feels part of the package. Almost as if it is an original design and not a boot added to a hatchback.

From the inside there is little that has changed as far as the steering, instrument panel or dashboard is concerned. I expect minimal changes in the feature list as well. What has improved however is the rear legroom and ample boot. Moving over from the Etios, Amaze has ample legroom at the back and from what I saw in Japan, one of the biggest boot in the business. All this for a sub 4 metre car. I would say not bad.

Before I had even started the diesel motor or floored the pedal, a senior Honda executive had promised that it is better than the ones in VW, Toyota and Fiat but only the Swift is better off in some aspects. Thats Japanese humility at its best but I did notice that even while doing so he only paid obeisance to another Japanese manufacturer. For the same Swift diesel motor is actually a Fiat trademark.

I barely got three rounds in the car on a wet windy late afternoon on a track that is not longer than a kilometer and a half. That works out to be less than 5 kilometers. As such, I can hardly be a judge of how good or bad the car is. Still, here are my first impressions of the car.

A few things that I liked about the engine. It is fairly torquey and power kicks in at a low 1200 rpm. This is the best in the business. On the flip side, it is noisy which is strange for a Honda and even more surprisingly the car has significant body roll. An aspect that still beats me. Maybe it was the prototype and the car will go through some more rigorous testing and some more craftsmanship before it gets to the customers in India. But the level of refinement that we are so used to in a petrol Honda car, is obviously missing in a diesel engine.

And then for the pricing. To begin with, the diesel engine will be offered only in India. And it will be only made in its unused factory at Tapukara in Rajasthan. Which is good because that means the localisation level would be fairly high from the word go. However, I have a feeling that Honda wants to command a premium over the Dzire with this. If I were a customer, I would be willing to pay Rs. 50,000 more for the Amaze. It is well built, looks good, offers more space than the Dzire both inside the cabin as well as in the boot, and is at the end of the day a Honda, a name that is more dzireable than a Maruti. All puns intended.

But Honda has often stumped us with its pricing. If it decides to be more adventurous and keeps Amaze at a mantle higher than that, then safely Dzire’s crown would be as secure as ever.

In the end, it is a fabulous diesel debut for a company that is not known to make diesel engines. And now that they have got a hang of it, I hope there are more in the offing. Yet, the expectation with a Honda is such, that something somewhere feels amiss. And I still cant put a finger to it. Maybe a few more rounds with the car and I would be able to. But that is for later.

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