Words and photos by Ulysses Ang

PAUSE for a minute and imagine everything that a small car is. Ugly, terrible to drive, cramped — these are just some of the words used to describe what’s commonly considered as the lowest tier in motoring: the subcompact or A-segment car. Now, open your eyes and see the 2019 Honda Brio. It’s the most affordable car in Honda’s stable, yet it manages to adhere to everything the Japanese car maker stands for.

Everything starts with the styling. Compared to the startled look of the first-generation Brio, this new one looks every inch more refined. Lengthened by close to 200mm, the stance is less awkward now. It keeps the front doors from the first-generation model, necessitating the continuation of that sharp side crease, though everything else is new. There are still some angles where it looks tall and skinny, but for the most part, it looks great. The Mobilio headlights do well to visually widen the front, despite the identical width with its predecessor, while the formal steel hatch at the back removes the sourness that most complained about before.

Despite carrying on with the first-generation Brio’s platform, the wheelbase’s been stretched by 60mm. While that sounds like a miniscule number, it plays dividends in making the interior much more habitable. Jumping directly to the back, knees no longer scrape against the front seats anymore. The redesigned hatch also gives birth to more headroom, and with it, adjustable headrests. There’s a claimed capacity of three in the back, but in all honesty, fitting two regular-sized motoring journos is the most possible. Even more impressive is the larger cargo hold. Grown by 83 liters, it now allows large pieces of luggage to fit without having to reduce the passenger count to two (there’s no split-folding function here).

Improved as the Brio is from the back, it’s from the front where it truly shines. Borrowing the Mobilio’s angular dashboard, it’s straightforward to use. Compared to other subcompacts out there, the seating position is lower and sportier, aided by a well-positioned meaty three-spoke steering wheel and easy-to-read gauges. Like the first-generation Brio, the front seats have fixed headrests (except for the RS), but are comfy even for long drives. The Brio scores big for its sturdy construction, amount of storage spaces, and easy-to-use digital type air-conditioner, too.

Perhaps Honda’s gamble is their decision to swap the previous generation’s 1.3-liter engine for a 1.2-liter one. The downsized motor gives up 10hp and 17Nm of torque in a car that weighs just one kilogram lighter than before (22kgs more with the RS). On the surface, it seems Honda’s levying a performance penalty to make it more affordable, but thankfully, that’s not the case.

Getting the most out of the engine still requires wringing the accelerator, but it’s confident enough to hit the highways. It can feel taxed with three people and luggage onboard, but the engine isn’t at all vocal thanks to impressive NVH; plus, it’s smooth and refined even at high rpm. Swapping the traditional automatic for an Earth Dreams CVT should have dulled the responses, but it’s actually quite the opposite. It picks up speed pretty quickly, at least until the needle reaches 120 km/h. Fuel economy is also good, registering 14.5 km/L in a mixed city/highway route (about 10 km/L in the city).

With a carryover platform that’s, in turn, based off the first-generation Jazz, the Brio keeps its crown as the best handling A-segment car. The steering has this immediacy that the chassis could match. This tandem makes the Brio a great dance partner; the only car in this price range confident enough to tackle winding roads and sweeping corners. What’s even better is the ride hasn’t been affected at all; it’s actually softer than the previous generation while also being impervious to road cuts or potholes.

The name “Brio” means verve in Italian and with that, Honda managed to choose a very apt name. Just as the first-generation Brio presented itself as a fun-to-drive small car, this second-generation model successfully continues that trend. Honda’s penchant for making a well-engineered car continues here, and with that, enthusiast will reap the benefits by having a choice with qualities that exceed its class.