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New models - Honda - Jazz

First drive: Jazz plays its own tune

Distinctive: Jazz has goggle-eyes, a short, steep bonnet and a tall body.

Honda is hoping for big things from its new small hatchback

15 Oct 2002

REMEMBER the original Honda Civic, the 1970s bumblebee packed full of good engineering, clothed in cheeky looks and wrapped up with an affordable price?It was one of the small car revelations of the era, a car that has since gone on through seven generations, sold in the millions and established itself as a cornerstone of the Honda range here and overseas.

But like many cars before it, Civic has followed its audience towards middle age, adding weight, accruing consumer desirables and become more expensive to own and run.

Enter the Jazz, which goes on sale in Australia on November 1. Like the original Civic of the 1970s, the Jazz is an original and innovative car, wrapped up in a distinctive shape and finished off with what appears, on the surface at least, to be an enticing price.

In fact, it is the first sub-$20,000 Honda since the old Honda CXi three-door bid adieu in late 2000.

The Jazz is sold in a single five-door "tall boy" bodyshape reminiscent of the current Civic VTi, with the choice of two engines and three specification grades - the 1.3-litre four-cylinder GLi and the 1.5-litre VTi and VTi-S.

The GLi kicks things off at a dishy sounding $16,990, but you have to add $2000 for air-conditioning to that price. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) option - rather than traditional automatic - adds a further $2000. The standard gearbox across the range is a five-speed manual.

The VTi is $19,990 with its version of CVT - called CVT-7 - which allows the driver to manually shift through seven ratios via buttons on the steering wheel. The VTi-S starts at $22,490 and both models add $2300 for CVT-7.

Safety equipment includes ABS with EBD works on disc brakes up front and drum brakes at the rear, dual airbags, lap-sash belts, front seatbelt pretensioners and Honda's industry-leading pedestrian safety measures.

Baseline creature comforts include power windows and mirrors, central locking and single in-dash CD stereo. The VTi adds remote central locking and a sportier interior trim, while the VTi-S adds a full bodykit, foglights and 15-inch alloy wheels.

Its price, equipment and size mean the Jazz does not quite fit into the traditional light car category, instead tending more toward the new "premium light" niche, which already includes the Renault Clio, Peugeot 206 and Volkswagen Polo.

But Honda would also have us believe the Jazz can take on the likes of the Toyota Corolla, Holden Astra, Ford Focus and Nissan Pulsar in the small car class.

It is basing much of this claim on the Jazz's innovative engineering, which liberates impressive space from a car only 3.83m long, and the new four-cylinder engines that power it.

Honda started from the ground up with the Jazz. It sits on an all-new platform from which a variety of small cars will eventually spring, including a sedan to be built in China that may eventually come to Australia.

Innovative ideas include positioning the fuel tank under the front seats to maximise cabin space, a wide-span H-shaped torsion beam rear suspension for a lower floor and a short-nose bonnet deign aided by compact engine size and MacPherson strut front suspension.

Inside the cabin there's a whole heap of ways to flip, fold and tumble the "magic" seats - as Honda calls them - liberating as much as 1320 litres of cargo space (380 litres normally), 1.28m of cargo height and even the ability to carry a 26-inch mountain bike without taking the wheels off. There's also a plethora of storage spaces including dual gloveboxes and four cupholders.

Some of these features are new, some of them learned from the last generation Civic and the Odyssey people-mover, some of it from studying small car rivals in Europe.

The engines are both ultra-compact and light weight. The 1.3 introduces a new acronym to Australia, i-DSI, which stands for dual and sequential ignition, referring to its twin spark plug per cylinder design. The plugs are activated according to engine rpm and load, resulting in optimised combustion of the fuel-air mixture throughout the rev range for maximum performance and fuel economy.

The 1.3 is otherwise straightforward and a little under-exciting in spec terms by Honda standards. Sure, it's all-aluminium, but also only has a single overhead camshaft and eight valves per cylinder.

Nevertheless, it pumps out 61kW at 5700rpm from its 1339cc capacity, and 119Nm of torque at 2800rpm.

That puts it in the ballpark against its light car rivals, but it gains extra credits due to its low emission rating and excellent claimed fuel economy, which is actually slighter better for the CVT than the manual on the city cycle - 5.6L/100km versus 5.8, and equal on the highway at 4.8L/100km.

The 1.5-litre engine, which is only available with Jazz in Japan and Australia, is a more familiar Honda unit. Again all-aluminium, it employs Honda's familiar VTEC variable valve timing technology and 16 valves, although again driven off a single overhead camshaft.

It produces 81kW at 6000rpm and 143Nm at 4800rpm, with fuel consumption claimed at 6.0L/100km on the city cycle for the CVT and 6.4 for the manual. The two transmissions again go lineball on the highway cycle at 5.2L/100km. This engine is also a LEV unit.

The Jazz is the most popular model Honda has ever released in Japan - where it is called the Fit - and is proving a hit in other markets around the world. That high level of demand has delayed its arrival here, Honda Australia originally hoping for an on-sale date last Autumn.

But Honda hopes the delay has only made the heart grow fonder, forecasting it will sell about 600 Jazz's per month to a combination of customers new to the brand as well as a bunch of returnees who haven't been able to afford Civic as it escalates in price.

It says the sales split will be 40 per cent GLi, 50 per cent VTi and 10 per cent VTi-S. The CVT is forecast to account for 70 per cent of sales.

PRICING:

Honda Jazz GLi 1.3 $16,990
Honda Jazz GLi 1.3 auto $19,990
Honda Jazz VTi 1.5 $19,990
Honda Jazz VTi 1.5 auto $22,290
Honda Jazz VTi-S 1.5 $22,490
Honda Jazz VTi-S 1.5 auto $24,790

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

YOU know the Jazz is going to be that little bit different just looking at it. Short, steep nose. Large, bulging headlights, tall body nearly hiding those small wheels.

Honda calls it "zenshin" - meaning new, progressive and integrated. You can make up your own mind.

Inside it is far less divisive. In fact it is rather funky, with a three-dial instrument cluster facing the driver and a pod off to the left for the radio and air-conditioning which thrusts out of the dashboard with nary a sign of parts bin pieces.

The seats are firm, the overall presentation quite dark - both European rather than Japanese traits.

The driving experience does not evoke thoughts of Europe though. On some ultra-rough Sydney northern beaches roads the Jazz was something of a handful. The compact suspension design may aid cabin utilisation but it does not seem to do anything for ride comfort.

Suspension travel simply felt too limited and the rebound settings too harsh. More than once we were wincing at the level of bump and crash coming back into the cabin, particularly while riding in the back seat.

Australia gets the firmer European suspension settings and perhaps Honda should be looking at the slightly softer Japanese set-up, particularly for chopped up roads like those in Sydney. Having said that, the underlying level of grip and chassis behaviour was good, the car hanging on tenaciously when pushed hard.

The Jazz's electric power steering was no more inspiring than the suspension set-up. First seen on the NSX and S2000 sports car where it works pretty well, the system has failed to impress on the Civic and now the Jazz.

The problem is a lack of linearity and feel. The steering does not load up as you corner and doesn't want to return to top dead centre when cornering is completed. A bit lumpy really.

Not an accusation that can be levelled at the engines. Both are ready and willing revvers, keen to give of their best without getting too raucous and not at all untidy. The 1.3 is probably the more impressive because it manages to carry the Jazz's tonne-plus weight along as efficiently as the 1.5.

And what of the CVT? It still feels odd to simply rev and rev an engine with only a rising note filling the cabin until you lift the throttle, so the seven-step button shift is a nice intermediate spot for us oldies who want to feel steps in the acceleration. In both modes the CVT works fine, while the manual is a smooth-shifter with a light action appropriate for around town.

The Jazz's interior flexibility will be an undoubted boon, as there is certainly room for two adults in the back behind another two adults - and without getting too cosy either. And there is still luggage space in the rear. The doors open very wide, the lod height is low into the rear and the seats are easy to change into different positions.

Overall, the Jazz is certainly clever without necessarily being the complete package.

We like the flexibility, space and looks delivered by the interior, we're impressed by the drivetrain and think the pricing is okay without being outstanding.

But we are less sure about the exterior and certainly not enamoured with the suspension set-up or steering.

No, it doesn't rank up there with the original Civic in Honda's history of achievement. But there's no doubt Jazz is still good enough to have plenty of buyers humming its tune.

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