With a brand-new model due early next year, the current Honda Jazz extols a simpler, more practical life
For almost 18 years, the entire Honda UK range offering has been supported by one of the best superminis available, writes Iain Robertson, as he recalls some aspects that made it a world-beater, before the all-new hybrid model arrives in 2020.
A prime opportunity was offered to me just prior to the official launch of the original Honda Jazz; I was given an exclusive 2.5-days drive-back to the UK from the Madrid launch venue, through Northern Spain, then up through central France. It was an opportunity to be relished and provided the fullest understanding of Jazz as the consummate city car that was also a surprisingly effective continental mile-eater. It could just about top 130mph (indicated), while returning around 40mpg.
Typical of media launch exercises, spending much of the Madrid overnighter in a raucous and smoky jazz club seemed highly appropriate in that magnificent city centre. This was the car known globally as either Fit, or Jazz. It had been introduced a year earlier in Japan and was already regarded as its market leader. Once sales commenced in the UK, restricted imports meant that a waiting-list grew quickly but it was in huge demand, one that I could fully comprehend.
The cute, in-demand Mark One was replaced by a marginally bigger Mark Two version in 2007, which was revised in 2013. Yet, no single model from any carmaker has fitted so competently in the ‘urban runabout’ classification as Jazz. In fact, it was more MPV than conventional hatchback. Its light controls, convenient dimensions and thoughtfully designed and Tardis-like interior, epitomised by its unique ‘Magic Seating’, have remained unchallenged through three generations. In mid-range 1.3-litre SE guise (the 100cc smaller capacity engine was an efficiency measure), driving through a 7-speed (stepless) CVT, the Jazz is the ideal, fuss-free, dependable family car.
Its standout feature is the seating arrangement. For a start, there is space in the rear for me, a two-metres tall driver, to sit comfortably behind myself as driver. A relatively flat floor means that a third back seat passenger is not compromised by a lack of foot room. However, the 60:40-split rear seat bases can be flipped upwards readily to reveal a fully carpeted, floor-to-ceiling cabin load space, ideal for transporting large house-plants, works of art, or folding pushchairs. Flip them the other way and crack open the hatchback and the resultant space (1,314-litres) is cavernous and class-leading, further enhanced by folding the front passenger seat-back onto its base for lengthier through-loads, such as a stepladder. Never has a sub-4.0m (length) city car been more practical, for private, or business use.
Powered by a 99bhp, 1.3-litre, normally aspirated petrol engine, it turns in a competitive 0-60mph acceleration time of 11.0s and a top speed of 113mph. It has the potential to attain 57.6mpg, while emitting a modest 106g/km CO2 (WLTP figures). However, in typical Honda form, its maximum power figures are developed at high engine speeds, which dictates greater use of the accelerator than in some of the Jazz’s turbocharged rivals. Unfortunately, this promotes a constant need to change gear…fine in a manual, not so useful with a CVT.
Its constantly variable automatic transmission (with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters) has been roundly criticised but it would still be my preference for reasons beyond its lower CO2 and fuel consumption ratings (compared with the manual 6-speed unit). Progress is easy and relaxed and, thanks to good cabin refinement, when you need to access its performance, engine noise intrusion is minimal. Its typical CVT characteristics can be managed by judicious use of the throttle but, when you need a blast of acceleration, the Jazz can feel ‘wrong-footed’. It is not the case but it can ‘feel’ like it.
While the original Jazz could be described as a ‘puddle-jumper’, with its taut construction and very sporty suspension set-up, the current model benefits from more compliant ride and handling behaviour. Bump absorption is good and the electric power steering is surgically crisp in its responses, which helps when threading bends together. Recalling my drive in the original Jazz, while it was fine on smooth Spanish motorways, when tackling mountain roads around Andorra, it tended to bounce from one bump to the next, which was fun but tiring.
The dashboard design is interesting, the thoughtful, view-enhancing profile of the front screen pillars being much-welcomed, although the resilient plastic mouldings could benefit from a few softer touch surfaces. We know already that next year’s newcomer will feature a configurable digital instrument display but there is no criticism of the clarity provided by analogue dials in this run-out test car. Stowage space for personal items is abundant and includes a ‘drinks-holder’ at the right-hand extreme of the dash that is perfectly placed for a mobile, or a roll of mints (a can of pop, or hot coffee, is not recommended).
Honda can never be accused of following trends. In some respects, especially if you own an Apple device, that means its in-built software will hook-up neither your phone, nor music collection. Fortunately, it has a CD slot, which I wish more cars would feature. Yet, its driver assist package includes high beam support, a speed limiter, lane discipline, traffic sign recognition and safe distance cruise control. The touchscreen suffers from a lack of operational intuitiveness. It is achingly slow to react to input and its menu is highly confusing.
In many ways, a new Jazz is long overdue. In testing this example, finished in the deepest Midnight Blue metallic paint (+£500) on which I have ever focused (it looks black!), I wanted to re-experience the vibrancy and energy I did with the first version at the turn of the New Millennium. It is there, in abundance, albeit with some pertinent refettling of its suspension, while the original charm of its cabin packaging has not been squandered a bit. The Jazz has never been ‘cheap transport’ and priced from £17,180, while you should be able to negotiate a good deal, it is at the upper end of the class.
Conclusion: The Honda Jazz puts a warm smile on the faces of its users. Its connectivity will be upgraded significantly with the forthcoming new model, although its safety addenda (Honda Sensing package) is on the money. I hope that the 2020 Jazz will not lose too much of the current model’s character.