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Car reviews - Honda - Jazz - GLi 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Design, cabin layout and presentation, economy, low emissions, performance, practicality, vision out, sharp handling, manual gearbox, classless image
Room for improvement
No ESC availability, limited front knee room, wet weather tyre grip, conflicting dash illumination, noisy and fiddly parcel shelf

Honda logo28 Jan 2009

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space.

Dr Who tragics and regular readers of road tests the world over know this term as describing a vehicle with interior dimensions that somehow far exceed its exterior ones.

But, of all the TARDIS-like cars in history, few have come as close as the original (GD series) Honda Jazz.

Launched in Japan in late 2001 – and a year later in Australia – the little Japanese light car proved to be a big hit.

Cleverly, Honda pushed interior space frontiers by relocating the fuel tank from under its usual back seat home to under the front seats, resulting in an extra-deep load space.

The rear bench could be folded easily into this cavity, or folded up like an old theatre seat so tall objects like a pot plant could nestle in behind a front seat.

Furthermore, the Jazz marked a return to the truly compact Honda passenger car – the first in Australia since the brilliant first-generation Civic from 1972 to 1979.

Mix in exquisite build quality, an appealingly practical-yet-grown-up dashboard, light and easy controls, outstanding fuel economy from either a sweet little 1.3-litre or rorty 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, excellent reliability and unparalleled resale value, and the Jazz quickly established itself among the light-car class leaders.

Yet it was flawed in a few key areas, particularly for driving enjoyment, with a choppy ride, vague steering and pallid dynamic character.

Now, after 2.5 million sales worldwide, the Jazz has been reinvented with palpable strides in refinement, body strength, driveability, safety, and noise suppression, as Honda gives its one-time Japan-only light car much more international appeal.

The design is larger, the specification longer and the overall safety rating higher, with standard rear disc brakes and optional side and curtain airbags just two examples of progress.

Virtually nothing has been carried over bar the front-wheel drive configuration, tallboy five-door hatchback design and an improved version of the old Jazz’s rear seat arrangement.

Here are some key dimensional changes from old to new. Length: 3900mm (+55mm) width: 1695mm (+20mm) wheelbase: 2500mm (+50mm) front track: 1492mm (+35mm) and rear track: 1475mm (+30mm). Only the 1525mm height is shared.

Plus there is 44mm more front shoulder room, 43mm more rear shoulder room, 40mm more rear knee room and 10mm more rear head clearance.

Curiously, the old car’s Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) has been dropped for a more conventional five-speeder in automatic models.

While Honda may argue that the new torque-converter auto is more responsive and that the Jazz is leading its segment in providing a fifth forward auto gear when most others have only four, there has been a marked rise in fuel consumption and carbon-dioxide emissions to accompany this less-efficient gearbox.

Another disappointment is that the safety item de jour – electronic stability control (ESC) – won’t be available until sometime in 2010 as a suitable system has not yet been devised for Australia.

Honda may live to rue the latter omission, particularly when the Jazz must face-off fierce foes in the form of the ESC-available Ford Fiesta and Mazda2.

So, to find out if the Jazz can still strike a chord in a fast-evolving class of light cars, we lived, worked, played and holidayed with the basic Jazz GLi manual for an extended period of time.

Physically, the Honda has a longer, stronger stance, augmented by its one-box silhouette that results in an unusually long roofline.

A number of pleasing upshots arise from this: the Jazz breaks with the annoying fad of severely rising window lines (as perpetuated by the Fiesta), which results in darker, dingier interiors vision out is vastly improved by the larger glass areas and the Honda’s proportions are practically spot on, filling out into a mature and distinctive design.

Nose-on, the Jazz has a cartoonishly friendly face (Hello Kitty!) while the car’s backside has a smart (if overtly Mercedes A-class) style about it. We never grew sick of admiring the Honda’s lines, and commend the company’s artists’ fresh and distinctive approach.

But who really cares what we think of the outside? It is inside that counts in the TARDIS, and the Honda ain’t no exception.

Doors that open nice and wide to nearly 90 degrees, and then shut again with a quality-inducing airtight thud is a rarity in this class that cannot be underestimated. Older and mobility impaired people need look no further than the Jazz – especially if rear-seat comfort is a priority.

We can’t help but think that Honda did too, because even when the front seats are at their rearmost position, there is still enough knee room for most people out back.

However, while this certainly is a nod to the space efficiency on the inside, we believe that front-seat occupants suffer as a result of this attitude.

Presumably in the interest of being able to fold the rear seat down without having to slide the front seats forward, there simply is not enough front-seat rearward travel for tall people who might be attracted by the notion of a TARDIS-like light car.

This isn’t so bad in the driver’s seat, since the excellent little steering wheel tilts and telescopes, but the glove box extremity protrudes too far forward, necessitating our 200cm passenger to ride side saddle.

Perhaps Honda’s engineers should provide a two-stage sliding seat that can still accommodate the rear seat, but extend back that little bit more when long-legged folk need a lift.

It’s a shame, because the Jazz has four comfortable and supportive seating positions and a tolerable rear centre pew, complete with a full-sized head rest that – along with the others either side of it – sits low and flush in the backrest so as to not impede rear vision.

For the new model Honda says it has fitted larger medium-car seats that work significantly better than before, and we tend to agree.

The cabin ambience out back mirrors the front by being airy and inviting, if a tad austere. There are enough cupholders for every occupant as well as overhead grab handles for the outboard passengers, and the child-seat anchor points are located in the roof so as to not eat into the cargo area.

Did you know that the Honda has a couple of hidden compartments under the rear seats, and that when they are in place, there is a deep enough cavity for many items to be stored beneath the cushion?

Note, however, that things that fall on the floor have a tendency to roll underneath and then be lost for ages, as people don’t expect to lose items beneath the back seat and that the front passenger seat’s map pocket is prone to tearing.

The driving position is first class, aided by that adjustable steering column, seat height options, and high hip point that adds to this car’s effortless entry and exit.

We already mentioned how thinner pillars help with vision, and this translates to one of the easiest cars to park in a tight space. Short overhangs, a tight turning circle, lightweight power steering and exterior mirrors that do their best impression of Dumbo’s ears are further accomplices here.

And even while the dash is quite unrelentingly plasticky, it never looks or feels cheap in build quality or execution, and ranks as one of the most functional and easy to use in any vehicle you are likely to come across.

The instrumentation, nicely set back in an attractive three-ringed binnacle, is brilliantly clear and sufficiently informative.

Our test car included a trip computer screen as part of a $1000 Safety Pack on the GLi (adding side and curtain airbags), and this function is both useful and entertaining, particularly when trying to work out how many more kilometres can be eked out.

Honda has angled the ventilation controls on large, Fisher Price-style knobs close to the driver, while the decent-sounding MP3/CD/radio audio buttons (complete with an iPod cable connector) are high up in the centre, on a more gentle curve towards the driver.

Some passengers found the layout a little too messy to be attractive, but drivers will quickly learn to appreciate the advantages of using controls without the need to avert eyes from the road.

A pair of reasonably sized gloveboxes and pockets on all doors are obviously useful, as are the armrest cavities that can hold most mobile phones, and a cupholder on each end of the dash that is in the direct line of the ventilation eyelets, to chill or heat beverages, is just plain clever.

The boot is not especially long with all the rear pews erect, but it is deep enough, and is boosted by the existence of both a split-fold rear seat function, a handy little storage tray on the side, and a low loading lip (just 605mm off the ground). Under the floor lurks a full-sized spare wheel too.

For the record, the Jazz offers 43 litres less luggage capacity than before, at 337 litres, extending to 848L to the window line when the rear seats are folded. Recline the front passenger seat, and a 2400mm-long object such as a surfboard, will fit, while a 1280mm-long object can be transported with the rear cushions folded vertically.

Besides the lack of front-seat travel, another irritation is the press-studs in the parcel shelf that jingle like a million tiny cow’s bells caught up in a cyclone.

Further sensory torture comes in the unlikely form of clashing dash illumination, with half the fascia spot-lit in white while the driver’s side has white lighting.

We are not too fond, either, of the sloppy carpet fit under the back seat area or low-fi plastic finish in the less conspicuous areas of the lower centre console.

But the Jazz cabin, on a whole, is a pleasant enough place to spend time in.

We especially like the soft cloth seat and door trim, as well as the lovely roof lining that looks smart and doesn’t at all feel entry-level.

In fact, with not too much road noise intrusion and little mechanical sound infiltration, the Jazz feels grown-up for a light car – and if you disagree with this statement after taking one for a test drive then insist on your friendly Honda dealer throwing in the heavy sound-deadening car mats like our test-car wore to help change your mind and seal the deal.

Plus there is a Honda ‘classlessness’ to the Jazz that really appeals.

On the road, however, the Jazz is still no class leader, despite great gains in driveability over the previous generation.

First, though, here come the bouquets.

Turn the key and Honda’s faithful old 1339cc four-cylinder petrol engine – now overhauled with the firm’s i-VTEC ‘intelligent’ variable valve timing technology in lieu of the old twin spark i-DSI system – is barely audible as it ticks over quietly just behind the other side of the toe board.

Conversely, at the 6500rpm red line, this mighty little motor is still pulling strongly and sweetly, with distinct tractability and smoothness throughout the rev range and quite instant acceleration available even when you are in a higher gear ratio than you should be.

From just 1.3 litres, Honda has squeezed out 73kW of power (at a high 6000rpm) and 127Nm of torque at 4800rpm (up 12kW and 8Nm respectively over the old banger, which was about 50kg lighter), leaving the driver to question the wisdom of spending more money for the 88kW/145Nm 1.5-litre unit.

It is a fleet fox of a box, this Jazz 1.3, whizzing up effortlessly and oh-so-smoothly towards the national speed limit and beyond, maintaining its rate of knots even in fifth gear. Only heavy loads combined with an incline necessitates a downshift or two.

Speaking of which, Honda’s short-throw five-slot gear lever is a lightweight delight, with crisp, clear and positive movements to match the equally well oiled feel of the clutch.

Now here’s the really impressive bit: with air-conditioning on almost constantly over a mix of about equal inner-city and freeway blasting, our Jazz drank 91 RON regular unleaded petrol like a kid trying to sip a thickshake through a slim straw. It was 6.2L/100km when the road was open and clear, 6.6L in heavy capital city traffic. The official combined average is 5.8L, while the CO2 rating is a terrific 138gm/km.

Intelligent gearing and a quiet engine help make the Jazz a surprisingly adept highway tourer too, but strong winds betray this car’s tallness, while some road noise intrudes into the cabin. We suspect the Goodyear tyres play some part in this racket, although the Honda is still more refined than most of the competition (bar the Fiesta).

In the wet, these tyres lose their grip suddenly rather than progressively if pushed hard through a corner, but they do recover just as quickly, while the car’s dry weather roadholding is adequate. Backing this up is a strong quartet of disc brakes that do not baulk at the challenge of hauling up the lively little light car.

With MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam rear axle, the Jazz’s suspension is utterly conventional, but Honda did revise virtually everything here to help improve the old car’s lamentable steering and ride qualities.

The good news is that the Jazz is a neat and tidy handler, with an unexpected appetite for corners, high levels of body control, and a handily tiny turning circle. Point it through a bend and it simply flows through tightly, with less lean than you might expect.

The bad news is that the new electric rack and pinion steering system – while thankfully not vague – is utterly artificial in its weight and feel, with a tendency to load up abruptly if twirled too quickly.

An exuberant U-turn can cut dead the power assistance, resulting in a couple of hairy moments of heaving, gloopy steering that could end up in disaster if the driver isn’t quick enough to apply muscles to stop the car turning wide into something … or somebody.

More work is needed here, so here’s a hint for you, Honda: Ford is showing the way with electric power steering in the latest Fiesta.

No quibbles about the ride quality though. The Jazz feels firmly set-up but never hard or unyielding in its ability to absorb bumps or traverse speed humps. The whole structure, far stronger and torsionally more rigid than before, seems to work in unison with the suspension to save your posterior from being pummelled.

The base GE Jazz GLi manual with the $1100 Safety Pack option is right up there as our new favourite cheapest best new car you can buy for the money. It is comprehensively better than the old model.

Unless you’re 200cm tall, this relatively clean-running car has it all – ample space in an exceptionally versatile and useful cabin, most of the desired safety gear (except for stability control – and that’s probably a deal breaker for many of you right there), niceties like air-con, electric windows all-round, remote central locking, an auxiliary outlet and a full-sized spare wheel, awesome economy, sprightly performance, eager handling and utter reliability.

And, like an earthbound TARDIS, there is more to this car than meets the eye.

Undeniably affordable yet somehow premium, the fact that the Jazz GLi is appealing unadorned, unassuming and big on utility helps makes it a genuinely classless conveyance that, in many ways, is beyond the sum of its parts – the sort of runabout that a Porsche owner would not think twice about being seen in ... or even The Doctor.

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