A RUNNER-UP in the Top 12 Best Buys 2014 category for budget cars (March 2014), the Honda Brio Sedan has consistently impressed us since we first drove it in July 2013. After subjecting it to the rigours of performance testing two months thereafter, we had sufficient evidence to label it one of the best budget cars in the South African market.

The Brio’s set of attributes is strongly attuned to the needs of buyers (including rental companies) in this segment: it has a large boot (360 dm3 bests some larger competitors’), ample rear leg- and headroom, the ride is as comfortable as you can reasonably expect, and it comes with the considerable peace of mind engendered by the Honda badge. It seems a no-brainer, right?

We thought so, too… until each of use got behind the wheel of the newest contender in this segment, the clumsily (but, as we’ll find out, somewhat aptly) named Suzuki Swift DZire.

Hailing from the Maruti (a subsidiary of Suzuki) plant in Manesar, India, the DZire uses the excellent small-platform that underpins the much-admired hatchback version. The wheelbase remains as is but boasts a softened rear suspension for enhanced passenger comfort over Indian (and South Africa’s) pockmarked roads.

It’s sensibly offered with just a single engine option – a 63 kW/113 N.m 1,2-litre engine – across two trim levels and with the option of a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. We’re testing the GL model with the former gearbox choice and it costs R138 900, or R4 900 less than the Brio Sedan Comfort. If you’re willing to forgo a few luxuries (but surprisingly not the air-conditioner, a costly item that’s usually the first to go when a manufacturer slashes a price), there’s a GA-spec DZire for R10 000 less. It doesn’t have ABS, though, so choose wisely.

Exteriors

Don’t know what to make of the DZire’s visually challenging truncated bum? Neither do we. At the front, it retains the Swift hatchback’s large, swept-back headlamps, sculpted bumper and blackened A-pillars. The sides feature the same unadorned metal and substantial side mirrors with indicator repeaters. The GL model even has generous 15-inch alloys wheels enveloped by 185/65 rubber. But move to the back and, where you would expect to find a large proboscis of a boot, the notch ends early and bluntly. The deck is high – reaching to the same level as the shoulders of rear-sear passengers – and the lower point of the bumper sits far from the tarmac (as does the rest of the car, in fact; ground clearance of 165 mm is knocking on soft-roader territory).

It simply doesn’t look balanced, but there is method to the madness: India has a punishing car excise-duty scale. Vehicles shorter than four metres are subject to a duty value of just 8%; anything longer and a carmaker pays 20%. The Dzire measures a cheeky 3 995 mm, the Brio a slightly shorter 3 985 mm. But there is a penalty to pay for this spot of clever development.

Make what you will of the Brio Sedan’s overwrought swage lines, door handles that are set at different levels and extensive brightwork – its boot gels better with the design. The smaller tyres should prove cheaper to replace, too.

Interiors

Pop the DZire’s bootlid with a lever on the floor in the driver’s footwell or by inserting the key into the fob and, when compared with the Brio’s luggage room, the reduction in size is all too evident. Measuring just 264 dm3, it lags behind the Honda’s by 96 dm3, the VW Polo Vivo by 128 dm3 and the Toyota Etios by a cave-like 240 dm3. The opening itself is tighter than the Honda’s, but at least the shape of the boot is rectangular without too much ancillary intrusion, while the carpeting feels of better quality.

The Suzuki extends this impression of superiority into the cabin. Except for some roughly cut edges round the armrests in the doors of our test unit, its perceived quality bests that of the Honda (this was our second Brio with an ill-fitting glovebox lid, and this test unit also had a loud rattle emanating from the driver’s A-pillar that no amount of thumping or squeezing could cure). The fact that the Swift is a B-segment vehicle, and the Brio more comfortably nestled in the A-segment, somewhat explains the disparity in the quality of their finish.

Both vehicles have questionable trim, however. The CAR test team universally disliked the dark-brown trim on the facia and doors of the Honda, while the Suzuki counters with obviously plastic wood inlays above the glovebox and along the doors. We’ve been here before; cars that emanate from India, Thailand and other eastern markets tend to feature beige/brown cabins because that’s what buyers in those markets prefer. And that’s fine. But we’d like to see carmakers choose more subtle (i.e. grey and black) options when specifying vehicles for the South African market and its more Eurocentric tastes (as an aside, the newly launched Swift 1,2 hatchback has a dark-grey cabin). We do feel that the DZire’s cloth will better withstand the rigours of family life than the Honda’s cheap-feeling, shiny material.

In terms of interior comfort, the contenders trade blows depending on which areas you judge: the Suzuki has more headroom front to rear, while the Honda counters with more legroom in the second row. Both vehicles have comfy benches – the Honda’s because there’s more space in which to stretch; the Suzuki’s for its more reclined backrest and superior shoulder room.

Up front, the Brio has a height-adjustable steering column and driver’s seat, while the Swift allows an occupant to adjust only its tiller (the set position of the seat is a touch too high, but this aids visibility on various side of the rather wide pillars). Both have simple-to-operate facias (though we’d prefer preset radio-station buttons for the Honda’s audio system instead of having to scroll through a menu), strong air-conditioning systems (no doubt to deal with extremely humid conditions in some parts of India) and USB and aux-in capability. The Suzuki maintains its lead in perceived quality with classier instrument backlighting and design.

Powertrains

Both vehicles are driven by 1,2-litre naturally aspirated engines that develop similar power and torque, relayed to the front wheels through quick-shifting five-speed manual gearboxes. On that note, we’ve previously been disappointment with the shift quality of the Brio’s ‘box, but it seems Honda has listened to the criticism – we weren’t the only ones – and revised the five-speeder. It’s now more fluent, although the annoying tendency to flare the revs when shifting remains.

In terms of ultimate performance, there’s very little difference between the two cars. The Swift reached 100 km/h 0,14 seconds quicker, while the Honda proved marginally, ahem, swifter through the gears. Considering they weigh within 17 kg of one another, that is unsurprising.

What we did not expect was the difference in the quality of the delivery. Don’t be fooled into moments of nostalgia when you discover the Brio uses i-VTEC technology. Its 1,2-litre is a coarse powertrain that requires lots of revs to deliver worthwhile performance, in turn filling the cabin with noise. The Honda’s engine isn’t horrible by any stretch, but the DZire’s 1,2-litre has shown that, with considered gearing (low enough for a feeling of briskness in town; a fifth gear that allows the engine to rev at just 3 520 r/min at 120 km/h) and clever application of sound-deadening material, an engine of this displacement can be pleasant to use in commuting. Both vehicles feel a touch out of their depth at highway speeds, where there’s very little power left for overtaking. Take your whole family along when you test drive one, especially if you reside at higher altitudes.

Dynamics

The Swift delivers the final blow on-road. Where the Honda has a compliant suspension setup that does an acceptable job in filtering road imperfections, it takes a smidge too long to recover from such actions. The Suzuki, on the other hand, is slightly firmer, but displays far more resolute damping; a road scar is dealt with in one quick motion. Fewer, smaller body movements mean children getting carsick less often. Coupled with its slick gearbox and direct, well-weighted steering (slightly heavier than the Honda’s, but less vague), it manages the comfort/enjoyment balance excellently.

Safety and convenience

There’s very little to choose between these vehicles in terms of how they protect their occupants. Both have ABS with EBD (the Suzuki adds emergency-brake assist) and dual front airbags. Sadly, neither has Isofix child-seat coupling points.

In our 10-stop emergency-braking programme, the Brio achieved a fair average of 3,29 seconds, while the Swift returned a marginally poorer 3,52 seconds.

Each has a standard two-year/30 000 km service plan and three-year/100 000 km warranty.

Test summary

Have we fallen out of love with the Honda Brio? Not quite. We still like its ability to comfortably house four occupants and their luggage in such a petite body, while we appreciate the improvement in the quality of the transmission. But its been shown to fall short in a number of areas by the Swift.

The Suzuki has its flaws, yes, most notably of which is the compact boot and inferior braking performance. But, in every other aspect, it has the measure of the Honda and then some. Factor in that it’s R5 000-odd cheaper than its countryman and we’d hedge our bets that, come voting for the Top 12 Best Buys 2015, it might just steal the Best Budget Car crown.



TEST SUMMARY

Two budget sedans from Japan square off in a battle for the hearts of the rationally minded. We pit the Suzuki Swift DZire against the Honda Brio Sedan.