Friday, April 07, 2006

T#21: Honda Jazz 1.4 Sport CVT-7

Here's a little something different for you: an actual car review! Enjoy...

Super Shopping Trolley

There’s no such thing as a complete all round car. An out and out performance car will be expensive on fuel and won’t have space for the shopping. It’s all very well luxuriating in a grand tourer, but you’ll never be able to park it in the city. Go for a small car and even if it seats four people easily, it’ll never have room for the holiday luggage. So you’ve got to choose – you’ve got to compromise.

But in an ideal world, we’d always have the right tool for the task. For me that sadly means a car for every occasion – and if I was after a city car, then one of these would definitely be on my short list:

The Honda Jazz. A funky little five door, with quirky looks and an impressively versatile interior. First came to my attention when new mostly because of the weirdly acidic pink hue available – the freshness of which appealed to me as much as the ludicrousness. Here though, it’s in Sport guise, gaining a bodykit, gunmetal faux-multipart alloys, and a few extra electrical bits and bobs over its lesser siblings. This one also has the CVT gearbox, which means not only a full-auto option, but also an artificially stepped seven speed option complete with the ubiquitous flappy-paddles (thank you, Mr Clarkson), and a sport setting. Woo.

Whoa. No. Hold on – I like this car. Rather a lot, actually.

First off, the looks. Now the Jazz is a funny looking thing, but it’s purposeful and the utilitarian nature of car only adds to its charm. The bodykit seems to garner a mixed ranged of reactions from the pros, but I like that, too. It goes with the honest appeal of its boxiness, making no pretences it’s exactly what it appears to be – a shopping trolley to which someone’s given a little love. The smiley face of the front end design seems to laugh with you, like it’s in on the joke. No-one’s going to take this seriously as a performance car, but you could never feel brutal enough towards it to deny it the fun of getting dressed up a little.

And as far as joe public was concerned, they either didn’t notice it at all or favoured it with an admiring glance. I guess the red helped – a good solid colour, a good solid Honda colour, come to think of it, and nicely offsetting the darkened alloy rims. Amusingly, it’s also the only colour choice you get as standard on the Sport; everything else is a cost option (and if you think that’s funny, check out the new Fiat Grande Punto Sporting – you don’t get any paint free with that, all the shades are additional extras…).

I say they didn’t notice…the single most outstanding aspect of driving this particular Jazz is the gearbox. I mean outstanding in the original “stand out” sense; I do not mean to heap lavish amounts of praise upon it, nor deride it for the difference, merely to say that such a difference exists. If you haven’t experienced a Continuously Variable Transmission before – as I hadn’t – it’s this you’d probably notice first.

I am a manual man myself, but as far as I’m concerned automatics of any kind have one inherent advantage – we have two feet, they have two pedals. The potential to safely left-foot brake without getting your tootsies in a tangle has a certain amount of appeal, and I look forward to any opportunity to try a decent clutchless manual, such as the DSG system used by Volkswagen and Audi.

Now that’s not to say the Honda gearbox isn’t decent, but it is another kind of proposition entirely. A CVT allows the engine to rev continually in its sweet spot while a drive belt moves about altering the road speed. So, when you put your foot down to race off at the lights, say, the 1.4 litre engine in this Jazz shoots straight to just over 5,000rpm and sits there until you’ve reached your desired velocity and back off. To all the world around you it must sound like you’re slipping the clutch like mad, and this takes a bit of getting used to. The end result is pretty good though, making the most of a meagre 82bhp and 88lb.ft of torque. The Jazz is easily nippy enough around town – I got lost for about an hour and a half in rush-hour London, and found myself well able to avoid being a mobile chicane for the Mercs and BMWs – and more than capable on the motorway.

Selecting the Sport slot on the floor shifter gives you a slightly faster pick up and a few more rpm to play with – sitting at 5,500 if you flatten the pedal all the way to the floor. I found myself using this most of the time, as it gave just a bit more confidence inspiring squirt when pulling out at junctions. Both Sport and the normal D setting give you the option of seven artificial ratios, electronically programmed to allow the CVT to do an impression of an ordinary gearbox. You can access these by pressing a button on the steering wheel at any time, which is fun – providing you with a bit more engine braking and actual “in-gear” acceleration that might prove more comforting for some during overtaking manoeuvres, especially as the generous quantity of seven makes for pretty short artificial ratios and quite a pokey reaction to the right foot.

The paddles you use in this mode are perfectly adequate, and the system isn’t suicidal so will change up for you if you forget – but you’d have to be really aggressive in order for this to happen. Less impressive is the position of the gear indication light, which tells you which of the seven you’re in; where I had the wheel and seat set I couldn’t see it without leaning forward. Ultimately, most people will probably stick with the full auto mode, as this provides perfectly acceptable progress – even if you do get a few funny looks from passers by, who are presumably expecting to see the clutch expire at any moment.

Driving ergonomics are the little Honda’s biggest let down. While the wheel adjusts for reach and rake, it doesn’t quite come far forward enough and the pedals are set too close. This makes for the long-armed short-leg driving position that I’m yet to find anyone feels is comfortable. On top of which, I found that the backs of my heals were aching after prolonged periods of driving, caused by the combined leg, seat and pedal angle positioning. This is something that I have not experienced in any other car.

The rest of the interior, however, is first class. The controls are genuinely intuitive, whether that be a cliché or not. The stereo is adjusted principally by one enormous knob plus a few other easy to interpret buttons. The standard climate control has these cool rubbery flippers that are again easy to operate and work very well. The materials not only look good, but are of decent quality, too. Then there’s the super flexible seating. Being a bit of a bike guy I was hugely impressed that you could genuinely fit a mountain bike cross-ways behind the front seats as the rear squabs lift up and out of the way making for a massive load space. And all the movements you can make with the layout are so easy – one handed operation almost all the way. It’ll seat four adults in reasonable comfort, and the boot’s big enough for all but the largest weekly shop.

Driving-wise the Honda is no road rocket but it is ok fun. The steering is reasonably communicative, nicely direct and free from any unnecessary bagginess. The Jazz has a turning circle of only 9.4 meters – ideal for a city car – so perhaps this helps. The ride is firm but not too jarring – I liked this because it went well with the sporty pretensions and the nimble impression created by the steering. Some however, might find it a little harsher than they expected. Being a relatively tall car for its width, it does roll a bit through the corners – and presumably the stiffness in the ride results from measures taken to tame this wobble. But it hangs on well, and innercity hustling was without any unnerving grip related incidents, even if it does chirrup an inside wheel if you’re pressing on out of a turn. Cornering on a test track at over 90mph presented no problems for the experienced test driver I accompanied, and it behaved pretty benignly over the limit, too.

Just a couple of small niggles to round up. The creep on the gearbox is quite aggressive – just one more reason keep on covering that brake pedal with your left foot. The brakes themselves work just fine, but I did find it rather difficult to bring the Jazz smoothly to a halt without it rocking back slightly in the final stop – could be my left foot, but I’m not so sure. The only other thing was that due to some quirk of the pillar design at the rear of the car, every time I glanced over my left shoulder I thought there was a vehicle in my peripheral vision, lurking in a blind spot. Maybe me again, maybe not.

So, fun, practical, well made, and intelligently designed – the Jazz has excellent appeal for an urban activity vehicle, whether that be shopping, getting out and about with friends, or simply cutting it with thrust of the rest of the traffic. It’s also cheap to run – official combined figures claiming nearly 50mpg – and compact enough to be easy on the parking front. The idea of zipping about in such a subtle little thing really appeals to me, especially with the grin-inducing, if slightly absurd Sport-kitted body addenda.

If I was giving out stars the diminutive Honda would be staring at four out of five, no problem at all.

Honda Jazz 1.4 Sport CVT-7: OTR price £12,695


Sorry about the picture, which is from the German Honda press site. Current UK model is mildly facelifted in comparison, has darker coloured alloys and indicators in the wingmirrors.


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