There’s a lot of decent small cars around on the second hand market these days, leaving buyers with plenty of choice if they want a small, economical and practical car for their daily commute. Cars like the Volkswagen Polo and Mazda 2 are the cream of the crop, but even these two vehicles can’t compete with one other vehicle in particular when it comes to practicality – the Honda Jazz. In this regard they’re not even close, the Jazz smashes them for a six.
The Jazz was introduced here locally in 2002 with the release of the GD – and the one we’re looking at here is a late 2006 or “GD3” model. The Jazz GD was offered in 3 different levels of trim – the entry level GLi, range-topping VTi-S and mid-range VTi which we’ve got here. When compared to the GLi, the mid-range VTi adds a larger, more powerful 1.5L VTEC engine, “sports” trim, and side mirror-mounted turning indicators. The Jazz could also be optioned with a “7-speed” version of Honda’s CVT automatic transmission (which this car has) and comes standard with “Formula 1 inspired” paddle shifters that turn with the steering wheel.
First impressions with the Jazz is that its a very well designed car with some seriously clever packaging. The inside is quite spacious for a small car, with comfortable seating for 4 or 5 at a squeeze, due to large amounts of leg room in the back even with the front seats rolled back for larger drivers. How Honda has been able to achieve this is due to a number of reasons, but most of them can be traced back to the location of the fuel tank. Instead of being located underneath or behind the rear seat, or beneath the boot floor, the fuel tank is actually located directly below the front seats, with the only evidence of this being the floor is slightly raised in that area. The benefits this brings about are huge – it means the floor level beneath the rear seats can sit much lower, with the same being true for the rear boot area.
Cleverly, Honda used this extra space to their advantage, allowing the front and rear seats to fold into different configurations. Do you have some long items to transport? The rear seats fold forward to create a perfectly flat load area, plus the front seat can recline back to give you more usable length. Something tall perhaps? Flip the rear seat bases up and you now have a floor to ceiling load height of 1.2m. Perfect for Nan when she’s bringing plants home from the garden centre, I guess. There’s even a “refresh” configuration which lets you lay the front seats down flat, which sees them join together with the rear seat to create one big surface which you can lay down on. I tried this out one night as I slept in the car after a long night out, and I can confirm it does indeed work very well – and I haven’t even gotten to the good part yet.
The best by-product from all this clever packaging is all the weight from the Jazz’s heavy fuel tank is now centrally located within the vehicle, as low as possible. This means the Jazz is very well balanced and takes corners quite well for a small car of this type. The suspension is fairly softly sprung, but not overly so – a sort of “all-rounder” type of configuration would be the best way to describe it. It deals with bumps and corrugations well enough, while showing minimal lean in the turns. I’ve heard rumours of an American motoring publication clocking a Jazz as being faster through a slalom test than a Ferrari 360, and I’d almost believe that, due in part to the car’s excellent handling and narrow body.
As I mentioned earlier, this particular Jazz was optioned with a CVT automatic transmission – a gearbox type I’ve personally never been a fan of. But you know what? In the Jazz it works well and I think for this particular type of vehicle it makes a lot of sense. The Honda 1.5L engine may produce a decent 81kW of power, but it isn’t the torquiest thing in the world. The CVT helps a lot here, working seamlessly so that you get all the power you need exactly when you need it, without waiting for a conventional automatic gearbox to kick down a gear or two. Put your foot to the floor and you’ll accelerate away from the lights in a shower of noise, as the CVT allows the engine to spin straight to higher revs (where peak power is created) and then holds it it there until you back off. This allows the car to accelerate quite quickly but it doesn’t look or sound very good in the process. But how many Jazz drivers will drive it like that? For normal everyday driving the revs remain under 2000rpm most of the time and the engine itself reasonably quiet, with minimal rev flaring. Funnily enough there’s also a “Sport” mode too, which lets the gearbox hold the engine at higher revs so you can get on the power faster, if you’re feeling frisky… but you’ll be driving a Jazz, so you probably won’t.
For those who can’t get used to the feeling of a CVT, there’s also a “7-speed” mode, which sees the CVT move between 7 pre-determined gear ratios (rather than one constantly changing gear) which makes it sound and feel like a conventional automatic gearbox, complete with paddle shifters if you’d prefer to change ratios yourself. It performs well and mimics a conventional automatic perfectly, but from the seat of my pants I felt like this setting dulled performance slightly, accelerating not quite as quickly and also cutting engine power momentarily while “changing” between the gear ratios. As a result, the absolute quickest way I found off the line was to switch to 7-speed mode with manual shifting enabled, which gives you a nice short first gear to accelerate away from the lights with, then switch back to CVT mode before you hit the redline in first. This gives the Jazz a hilarious “burp” of speed as the revs drop back down to their pre-determined levels at around 5000rpm.
The Jazz was clearly designed as a city runabout and performs flawlessly on urban 60 to 80km/h roads. There’s reasonable power available when you need it for changing lanes navigating hilly streets, and for those who drive the car well you can certainly use the car’s strengths to your advantage. The Jazz is the king of the rat running thanks to the narrow body, tidy handling and healthy levels of power. No matter how hard I pushed it through Brisbane streets, I could never get the fuel usage to go above 7.8L/100km, which I thought was quite impressive. Out on the highway the Jazz still performs well, but is slightly less composed and feels a little out of its comfort zone. The light kerb weight means it can be knocked around a bit by crosswinds and the engine itself feels a little strained, returning fuel economy which isn’t much better than some mid-sized sedans. It’s still a good choice if you’re only spending an hour or two on the highway, but any further and I think it’d get on your nerves a little. The Jazz is a car designed for the city, so don’t buy it unless you plan to be spend the majority of your time there.
Before concluding this review I must first admit something – I actually don’t like small cars. I tend to prefer cars which feel more solid and weighty, such as mid to large sized sedans or SUVs – and in comparison small cars like the Jazz simply don’t feel substantial enough, let alone offer same feeling of quality and safety. Their lighter bodies are generally noisier and they ride harder on their suspension. They’re also no fun when you leave the city limits, where their smaller engines make highway driving not as relaxing as it should be. I guess they generally feel like they’ve been built down to a price, and there’s nothing to love about that.
I certainly don’t love the Jazz. I feel indifferent as I look at it sitting on the street, out in the elements with all the road grime and bird droppings collecting on the paintwork. But while I might not love the Jazz, I do respect it for the way it has been designed and the way it performs in city environments. I think it also deserves a high praise for the level of practicality it offers, with smart use of the interior space and the flexibility offered in the multiple seat folding configurations. During the time I tested it, there wasn’t a single situation which flummoxed the Jazz. It really is the Swiss Army Knife of cars.
But just like a Swiss Army Knife, the Honda Jazz is not something you buy because you love it, you buy it because you need it. It’s a tool which can do almost anything you need it to – and if that sounds like what you’re after, then nothing else can compare.
Specifications: 2006 Honda Jazz VTi (CVT)
Price: from AU$7,000
Service intervals: 12 months/10,000kms
Spare tyre: Full size (steel)
Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder 81kW/143Nm
Transmission: CVT Automatic, front-wheel drive
Body: 3845mm (L), 1675mm (W), 1525mm (H)
Thirst: 7.8L/100km (as tested)