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Road test: Honda Jazz VTi

< Page 1 | Page 2 >

By Feann Torr

Sometimes called a supermini or subcompact, the smallest class of car sold in Australia also makes up one of the biggest markets, and Honda's Jazz falls smack-bang in the middle of the lucrative genre.

It was created jointly by Honda's Japanese and European designers, in a bid to appeal to a wide range of markets, and the end result scooped awards in both Japan and the UK, from Japanese Research and Automotive Journalists and Auto Express magazine respectively.

It also won accolades in the Courier Mail as Queensland Car of the Year, New Zealand’s National Business Review Small Car of the Year, was a finalist in Wheels Magazine Car of the Year and runner up in News Limited Star Car Awards.

It's also the most cost effective vehicle Honda's ever released in Australia, but don't think that that equates to 'cheap' - far from it. With a number of intriguing interior design features and a clever engine/transmission combination, the Jazz is off to a very smart start.

Make: Honda
Model: Jazz VTi
Price: $22,290
Transmission: CVT (quasi 7-speed)
Engine: 1.5-litre, inline four-cylinder, electronically fuel injected, SOHC with VTEC
Fuel Consumption: City cycle - 6.0-litres/100km, Highway cycle - 5.2-litres/100km
Seats: 5
Safety: Driver and passenger SRS airbags, ABS, seat-belt pre-tensioners

Drive

Honda Jazz

Honda's new Jazz is a joy to drive

Despite the Jazz falling firmly into the subcompact category of cars, it's quite a tall-bodied car and shifting oneself in and out of it was a lot easier than I expected.

The first thing most people will pick up on when settling into the rather comfy sports-styled seats of the mid-range Jazz VTi will be the buttons on the steering wheel, immediately suggesting that this is no ordinary runabout.

Indeed, the VTi model's 1.5-litre engine is coupled to a CVT, or continuously variable transmission, and you instantly get the feeling that this is the new gearbox to own - it's far smoother than a conventional auto transmission and the performance is impressive, to boot.

This intriguing new technology is fast becoming the new catch-cry of manufacturers everywhere, though at present only smaller engined vehicles can be outfitted, due to the CVT's inability to handle high torque at this stage.

The steering in the Jazz felt somewhat vague a few degrees either way of centre, but in general, the electrically-assisted power steering (also used on NSX and S2000) offers a very linear and progressive feel, and coupled to what would best be described as 'taut' suspension, it sets the Jazz apart from other light cars by creating a much sportier feel.

While most subcompacts err on the side of a 'softer' setup, the Jazz VTi's suspension rig (MacPherson struts up front, and torsion beams at the rear) has been tuned to reduce body roll, and hence a flatter ride while cornering. While not all buyers will appreciate the short-travel suspension, it works brilliantly with the crisp 1.5-litre VTEC engine, offering class-leading performance.

Weighing 1050kg, the Jazz VTi is a little heavier than most in the segment, yet driving around town and parking the Honda proved all too easy, together with a righteous turning cirlce (9.4 metres), short front overhangs, impressive visibility front and rearward, plus a solid brake package (ventilated discs up front, drums aft).

Driving the Jazz VTi on less-travelled roads was quite an experience too, as the car's tiny dimensions belie its potential on the twisty stuff. To be perfectly honest - and we'll look at this in more detail on page 2 - the CVT gearbox offered the best acceleration when left in 'low' gear on the column shifter.

While the seven-speed, steering-wheel mounted gearchanges are fun, they don't exactly make for practical driving when at the limit. Speaking of which, the VTi model would have benefitted from from fatter, lower-profiled rubber, as the 14-inch 175/65 wheels would squeal all-too easily when carrying too much forward momentum, and rolling onto their sidewalls.

At the same token, the Jazz VTi provided good levels of feedback through the wheel, and when cruising along damp and windy coastal roads, this communicative steering was very much appreciated (as was the ABS). Driving in the wet posed no problems for the Jazz and, in general, the car retains a fairly composed posture in all situations, which is more than welcome when you want to drive, as opposed to commute.

Honda Jazz

Euro-Nihon styling is hard fault

In one word, the gearbox is effective. And while it does take a little getting used to, the benefits in terms of both power delivery and fuel efficiency are impressive, and it comes as no surprise to see the likes of Audi and others forging ahead with the technology.

If there are any negatives in terms of the way the Jazz drives, one could cite the suspension as being a tad harsh when rolling over deep pot holes, but as most subcompacts opt for ultra-plush settings (read: soft and soggy), it's a nice change at the same time.

Exterior

The Honda Jazz is very easy on the eyes and in my book, is easily the best-looking subcompact car on the Australian market. With input from both European and Japanese design studios, Honda has gone for the tall-bodied look, which also helps liberate head and shoulder room inside.

The bonnet is short and sharp, punctuated by what can only be described as 'happy' headlights: It's almost as if Honda wanted to add a little human personality with them. The overall proportions of the Jazz are quite European, with a fairly tall, elegant body, wheels pushed out to the corners and a massive, steeply raked windscreen offering excellent visibility, but also giving the car a slightly more agressive and angular front end.

All Jazz models offered in Australia (GLi, VTi and VTi-S) are only available as five door hatches, and from the rear things look pretty good. The package is rounded off nicely, or should that be chiseled? The tail lights are very Honda; farily angular and orthodox in their design, but without being too generic and boring.

The VTi model we tested doesn't get all the eye-candy addons of the VTi-S model, which includes alloy wheels, roof spoiler and ground effects, such as skirts and lower front and rear aprons. But still, the ground effects add another 15kg of weight to the VTi-S, and its aerodynamic advantage isn't likely to overcome it's larger mass.

Even so, the standard-issue Jazz does look pretty good - a big step above the likes of Hyundai's Getz and Peugeot's ageing 206 - with modern styling cues and a good dose of Honda DNA. While the Jazz isn't likely to turn heads like an Italian thoroughbred, nor have the kind of road presence of a bigger Aussie sedan, it is still one of the better looking light cars doing the rounds at present.

Interior

While on the outside, the Jazz is neither too brash nor too dull, it's the interior that most drivers will find hard not to like. To start with, let me say that even on longer drives, the Jazz VTi's height adjustable front seats were always comfortable, and together with fancy head rests and a tilt-adjustable steering wheel, finding a comfortable driving position was easy.

Honda Jazz

The 'Magic seats' are a very nifty feature

While driver and front passenger get impressive levels of leg and head room and supportive seat cushions, I did find that my right elbow would hit the door during some steering movements, but in general it's a comfortable place to be.

In the rear there are three lap-sash belts (two headrests) with room for three, and it was surprising to see how much room there was in the back - most subcompacts have minimal space, but the Jazz seats four adults fairly neatly.

Bootspace isn't massive, but that's to be expected in this type of vehicle: It has a lot of vertical space - enough for a couple of tall eskies - and a cargo cover comes in handy when you don't want to attract attention to your luggage.

The general feel inside the car is one of high quality, and it just goes to show that buying a small car today does not mean being forever stuck with tacky, low-rent cockpits.

The gear lever is your standard column shift, with low, second and drive ratios, and the steering wheel-mounted gear shifters are a nice to touch, even if their usefulness is questionable.

Honda Jazz

Sports mode button and tip-tronic shifters

The smartly-trimmed interior, finished with high-quality and well-fitting plastics, has a range of features including air/con, an accessory socket for mobile phones, central locking, two cup holders up front and one in the rear, adjustable head rests, power windows and mirrors and a brilliant modular seating system, or 'Magic seats' in Honda speak.

These Magic seats aren't really magic, but they are extremely useful in their customisation, and this feature alone elevates the Jazz to the upper echelons of the small car market.

You can raise, lower, flip and basically change the configuration of the rear seats entirely, from a fully-flat, cargo-friendly setup, to a 60/40 split. It is even possible to fold the front passenger seat flat for extra long objects and loads - up to 2.4 metres in length.

The centre console is dominated by the over-sized single-CD stereo, while controls for the air/con and heater sit below this. All the controls are well within reach and, in general, everything is laid out in a logical, straightforward manner, and the tacho and speedo look really tasty with chrome borders.

There's also a gear ratio indicator to let you know which gear you're in (handy when there's seven of them) and the three-spoke steering wheel in the VTi is really comfortable, integrating a rubber/vinyl mix with a dimpled surface for good grip.

>> Page 2: Comfort & Handling, Engine, Extras, Overall

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