The bar keeps getting lifted. More than in any other new car segment, it's the small cars where this is the case. Take the Honda Jazz. In the as-tested VTi-S form the car has a performance/economy compromise that was simply unachievable only 12 months ago. Look at the figures - no less than 81kW from its 1.5-litre engine, a kerb mass of 1040kg, and performance which gets you to 100 klicks in a flat 10 seconds. No, this isn't a slow car! But then - and here's the killer - throw in fuel economy which is simply awesome... 6.5 litres/100 kilometres is easily achievable in normal, day-to-day use.
A short time ago that sort of fuel economy was the province only of small cars with about half the power... and with (a lack of) performance to match. Yes, the Jazz sets the benchmark - you can have your cake and eat it too. And in this top-of-the-line form, the $22,490 isn't even stratospheric - and we'd be quite happy to drop the body kit and alloys and pay the $19,990 for the plain VTi.
It's easy to kind of skim the above text and go, "Oh yeah, whatever." But a power/weight ratio of 78 kW/tonne is close to the Barina SRi - a car that on test drank 30 per cent more than the Jazz. The Barina - with its standard traction control and better handling - is really another story, but there can be no doubting that the driveline of the Jazz VTi-S is a huge jump in the class.
So what is the mechanical makeup that allows such stellar performance? The VTi and VTi-S cars are powered by a SOHC VTEC four cylinder. A very long stroke design (B&S is 73 x 89.4mm), the engine uses the 'stepless' form of Honda's variable valve timing and lift system - there's no sudden change in the power delivery as revs rise. The peak torque of 143Nm occurs at a high 4800 rpm, but very short gearing helps give the Jazz excellent response. About the only time that a real lack of bottom-end urge is noticeable is during steep hill-starts, where a definite engine rev is needed before lifting the clutch - the power and torque graph clearly shows that 2500 rpm is needed before the engine really 'comes on cam'. Maximum power occurs at 6000 rpm but the engine pulls strongly to the (soft) rev cut at an indicated 6700 revs. Even more impressive is that the Honda is a US-certified Low Emissions Vehicle and that just normal ol' unleaded is the drink of choice.
We loaded the Jazz with a large (and heavy) glass shop refrigeration unit and two people, then climbed a steep country road hill. Despite being well down on its suspension, the car coped very well, with power and response still available. In fact, apart from being a little noisy at high cruising speeds and when being worked hard, the engine is pretty well beyond reproach. Oh yes - but for the little jerk that occurs when getting on and off the throttle, especially in the higher gears.
The manual gearbox is a conventional 5-speed (a tricky seven speed CVT is used in the auto model) which is light and precise, albeit a little notchy. Heel-and-toeing comes naturally and the 'box can be hustled from gear to gear as fast as your hand can move, although the clutch needs to be fully depressed when rushing the changes.
The steering uses electric - as opposed to hydraulic - assist and has a good feel and ratio around centre. However, with no less than 3.5 turns lock to lock, the driver can get quite busy at times. Partly offsetting this is the tight 9.8 metre turning circle. The suspension is conventional small car - front struts and a torsion beam rear axle. Anti-roll bars are fitted front and rear. The ride and handling are heavily influenced by the wheel/tyre combination used - 15 x 6 alloys with 185/55 Bridgestone RE040 Potenza tyres. Quite a lot of tyre harshness gets through to the cabin, and the ride - especially at lower speeds in urban areas - is firm.
The handling is very good - power-on understeer and throttle lift oversteer. The VTi-S sits flat which promotes rapid turn-in, although the corollary is that on wet roads the car can feel a little skaty. That's all with the Jazz being driven very hard - in normal driving the handling is grippy and progressive.
The brakes are an on-paper disappointment - in such a technically sophisticated and proficient car, drums at the back are not what we expect to see. The front 240mm ventilated discs are small, and while ABS is standard and the car doesn't weigh much, with that excellent on-road performance we'd like to see an all-disc system fitted. During our week long test the front wheels became heavily coated in brake dust, perhaps indicative of their hard work.
Inside the cabin the good news story continues. A child of the 'tall car' movement, the Jazz has a huge amount of interior space. It's quite possible for a full-size adult male to get comfortable behind the height-adjustable, leather-bound wheel - and then get out and sit directly behind that seat. In the rear, knee-, head- and toe-room are all excellent. However, both the front and rear seats are very firm - too firm with this suspension and wheel/tyre combination - and the rear seat base is short, resulting in a lack of under-thigh support. The centre rear seat passenger misses out on a head restraint - while we acknowledge that with one in place rear vision would be almost non-existent, we'd at least like to see it provided so that the driver can remove it or fit it as necessary. And on the topic of visibility, there are thick A-pillars and the over-the-shoulder rear three quarter vision is near non-existent.
The split rear seat folds down and the rear cargo blind is easily removed to give a vast, useful load area of small wagon proportions. In addition, the base of each side of the rear seat can be lifted vertically, giving a tall (1280mm!) cargo space which would be perfect for getting potted plants and the like home. Under the rear hatch floor you'll find a spacesaver spare wheel - look further and you won't find any petrol tank at that end; it's in the centre of the car under the floor.
The interior equipment level is adequate, with manual (very cold) air con, a single CD radio (four door speakers; it sounds competent in this class) and an LCD display that incorporates trip, odometer and average fuel consumption readouts. Dual airbags and front seat pretensioners are also standard. The remote central locking controls not only the passenger doors but also the hatch (it has a separate unlocking handle) and the fuel tank filler flap. With the exception of the small glovebox, storage spaces around the cabin are common and practical. As is becoming more widely seen in small cars, the Jazz does without a temperature gauge - not something we like. But overall in terms of its space utilisation, equipment level and how well the Honda works in real-world use, the Jazz continues the story of its on-road excellence.
In Japan the Jazz is the fastest-selling Honda in history. We can understand why - this is a brilliant small car in a field where major and real advances are being steadily made.
Why you would:
- Breathtaking economy with this much performance
- Excellent interior practicality
- Very good handling
Why you wouldn't:
- NVH not class-leading
- Ride and seats can be overly firm
The Honda Jazz VTi-S was provided for this test by Honda Australia.