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Is an economical hybrid powertrain enough to make the latest Jazz hit the high notes?

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They say it’s lonely at the top but, for the subject of this week’s road test, the Honda Jazz, the same can equally be true towards the other end of the scale.

Indeed, the hybrid superminis of the world is a group that counts this new Honda Jazz, the latest Toyota Yaris and the recently released Renault Clio E-Tech as its only members.

Remains a car that many a motoring journalist will recommend to others but very few would own. Its packaging and efficiency really are marvels; but these are the things that sell white goods, not cars

Conceptually, the Jazz has always been defined by its ‘functionality first’ ethos and ingenious interior packaging. Since its 2001 launch, the relatively compact Honda’s exceptional practicality and versatility have helped it to win favour with more than five million buyers around the globe. Historically, Europe hasn’t been Honda’s largest market, but the third-generation Jazz was nonetheless a strong performer for the brand. Between 2015 and 2019, it typically accounted for about 25% of Honda Europe’s total sales.

With greater future success in mind and in a bid to keep pace with ever-tightening emissions regulations, a crucial change has been made for this fourth-generation car. Where the Jazz was once offered with a choice of busy small-capacity petrol and diesel engines, Honda will now sell it across Europe exclusively with a newly developed petrol-electric powertrain. With so few hybrid competitors, Honda will hope that such a move makes the car stand out from the crowd that bit better.

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But a niche approach is no guarantee of success in the wider market, or in the Autocar road test. And with the Yaris’s new-found form enabling it to put on a very good showing on these pages only a couple of weeks ago, any slip-ups from the Honda should be readily apparent.

The Jazz line-up at a glance

Just like the latest Toyota Yaris, the new Honda Jazz is offered exclusively as a hybrid in the UK.

The standard Jazz is available in three trim levels, with SE representing the entry level, SR the mid-range and the EX specification of our test car the range-topping grade. Honda will also sell you a Honda Jazz Crosstar, which comes with a raised ride height and some additional body cladding that’s intended to make it look a bit more off-road friendly.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Honda Jazz 2020 road test review - hero side

The Jazz (which is known as the Fit in other global markets) has a keen following with younger buyers in Honda’s home market of Japan. In Europe, though – and the UK in particular – it has always had something of an image problem.

Try as Honda might, the Jazz’s supermini-cum-MPV profile has never really caught on with the younger, more image-conscious members of the car-buying public, having instead earned itself the reputation of a car for the retired garden centre set.

Sickle-like LED running light motif in the headlight cluster is a neat design cue on a relatively clean, featureless exterior. The blue border on the Honda badge, sited between the headlights, denotes this as an electrified model.

Looking at this latest version, you might conclude that Honda has come to accept that fact. In its design, the new car seems to have much more in common with the relatively plain second-generation version than its showier third-generation predecessor. Its surface treatments are cleaner and simpler, its grille design isn’t as fussy.

Generally, there just seems to be less going on – and also less to catch the eye. This is likely the result of Honda’s new ‘Yoo no bi’ design philosophy, which supposedly focuses on the beauty of everyday usability. But while the car might not pack the same level of visual punch as the latest Toyota Yaris or Renault Clio, most testers agreed that calling the Jazz unattractive would be unjust. It’s a relatively handsome car, but it certainly isn’t one that will turn many heads on the high street.

In as much as it champions function over form, the Jazz is as impressive as ever. From a packaging perspective, it’s quite the engineering showcase. The fuel tank is housed beneath the front seats to maximise second-row load space and to allow Honda to equip its versatile upwards-folding ‘Magic’ rear seat cushions.

The car prioritises space efficiency elsewhere, too. In the engine bay, the air intake system for the Jazz’s four-cylinder motor is mounted on top of the block, which frees up room for the electric drive motor and the integrated starter-generator that make up the hybrid system. Honda’s engineers have therefore been able to squeeze the car’s 12V auxiliary battery in under the bonnet, too, which frees up boot space.

The hybrid system itself develops an effective total output of 107bhp, which is directed to the front wheels via an innovative fixed-gear e-CVT. The motor/generators, meanwhile, draw their energy from a lithium ion drive battery carried under the boot floor and, when working in tandem with the combustion engine, can provide as much as 187lb ft of torque.

The Jazz shares its platform with the Honda City – the sub-compact saloon sold in developing Asian markets. Its suspension configuration is typical of the supermini class in that it uses MacPherson struts at the front axle, while a torsion beam links up the rear.

INTERIOR

Honda Jazz 2020 road test review - cabin

The Jazz doesn’t score many points here for visual appeal. By the standards of bolder, more colourful supermini interiors, this cabin is a pretty plain, slightly dull place to be.

Dark, soft-touch surface treatments lend it a lifeless monochrome ambience, as does the grey cloth on the seats and the contrasting white panelling around the gear selector, on the steering wheel and around the dash-top cupholders.

Physical dials for the air-con are within easy reach of the driver. Honda probably could have integrated them into the touchscreen if it wanted but we’re glad it didn’t.

However, as pedestrian as the Jazz’s interior might be from a visual point of view, it does at least feel very well built and the focus on ease of use is readily apparent. All of your primary points of contact – be they the drive selector, the controls for the air-con system, or even the buttons on the 9.0in dashboard-mounted infotainment screen – are within close reach and they all convey a satisfying sense of solidity and sturdiness to the touch.

Where the Jazz really comes into its own is with the flexibility of its interior. With the second-row ‘Magic seats’ in place, rear passengers will find they’re treated to generous leg room (we recorded a typical figure of 760mm, which some executive saloons couldn’t equal) and 910mm of head room isn’t too bad for the class, either.

Boot space comes in at a respectable if not quite class-leading 304 litres. But as far as storage goes, that’s just the beginning of the story. The Jazz’s back seats can be collapsed completely flat – effectively right down to the floor – to open up 844 litres of storage space to the window line, or 1205 litres to the roof. You can also fold the rear seat cushions upwards independently from one another, which allows you to make use of the Jazz’s flat rear cabin floor and turn the second row into a secondary boot of sorts that’s handy for taller or bulky items, be they pot plants or kids’ bicycles.

For those reasons and others, it would be hard to argue that the Jazz deserves to be recognised as anything other than the most practical car in its class.

Honda Jazz infotainment & sat-nav

Honda has really come a long way in its approach to in-car infotainment. Our Jazz test car has a new 9.0in touchscreen that runs a similar operating system to that found in the high-tech Honda E electric car and it features Garmin-powered satellite navigation in range-topping EX models.

Admittedly, that sat-nav set-up is relatively basic, but with wireless Apple CarPlay connectivity and Android Auto as standard in SR models and above, it’s unlikely that many owners will rely on the Garmin system anyway.

The rest of the operating system is impressively slick. There’s minimal latency and the general design of the interface works well. Handy shortcut buttons are sited conveniently for the driver and there are numerous USB charge ports. However, it’s a bit odd that Honda hasn’t included a wireless smartphone charging pad. Given that you can connect to Apple CarPlay wirelessly, this seems like an oversight.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Honda Jazz 2020 road test review - engine

The hybrid version of the third-generation Jazz struggled, rather unvirtuously and in both curved and straight lines, for performance, drivability and mechanical refinement. However, the new hybrid powertrain of this one gets things off to a more promising start.

Whereas the old one’s wheezy, normally aspirated 1.5-litre four-pot made it sound under load a little like a blender chock full of angry metallic bees, this new model is far quieter.

The e:HEV badge is set to appear on a number of new Honda products in the coming years. By 2022, the firm will have a total of six electrified models on sale in Europe, of which the Jazz and the E are two.

There is still a characterless background buzz during extended periods of hard acceleration, but the persistent droning that’s so common to cars fitted with CVTs is mostly absent. Instead, the Jazz’s new e-CVT seems to cleverly manage the speeds at which it keeps the engine’s crankshaft spinning, accelerating in what sound and feel like stepped in-gear bursts punctuated by perceptible upshifts even when you keep the throttle flat to the floor. It’s a welcome trait, for sure, and you could almost mistake its behaviour as belonging to a more conventional dual-clutch set-up.

Measured objectively, though, straight-line performance is nothing to write home about. The car’s 0-60mph time of 9.6sec isn’t so far off the class pace as to warrant heavy criticism, but its 10.0sec 30-70mph time is less competitive, especially when the new Yaris only needed 8.8sec.

The Jazz does feel quite laboured in its accelerative efforts at times, particularly when you’re joining a motorway or pulling out to overtake. Still, in the urban environments where the Jazz is intended to thrive, it behaves amicably. Its electric drive motor provides strong initial punch and sharp throttle response, and the manner in which it juggles its various petrol and electric drive modes is smartly calibrated. It also seems entirely reasonable to expect that you could complete plenty of short-distance, inner-city hops powered mostly by electricity and reap the financial benefits that come with reduced fuel consumption as a result.

Braking performance isn’t so hot, though – quite possibly as a result of Honda’s decision to equip the Jazz with low-resistance Yokohama BluEarth tyres in order to drive up fuel economy. The manner in which the car’s brake pedal blends regenerative and friction braking is pretty slick, but outright stopping power is limited.

On a damp, 20deg C track, the car needed fully 65 metres to come to a standstill from 70mph, whereas plenty of cars in this class with bigger wheels and grippier tyres might have managed it in something much closer to 50 metres. That’s not a deficiency to be alarmed about or that qualifies as anything like a safety issue in our view. Still, owners might one day be glad to have been made aware of it.

RIDE & HANDLING

Honda Jazz 2020 road test review - on the road front

Even with the inclusion of torque vectoring by braking, and the improvements that Honda has made to the new Jazz’s chassis and structural rigidity, this is still no athlete. Unlike a Ford Fiesta or, to a lesser extent, the new Toyota Yaris, it offers little in the way of driver engagement or satisfaction, placing simplicity of operation, ease of use and outright handling security at the forefront of its dynamic repertoire.

There’s plenty of room for small cars with those dynamic priorities in today’s car market, of course, and this one does at least change direction in an accurate but laid-back fashion, with steering that’s medium-paced and reassuringly hefty feeling. Any heavier and it would detract from the Jazz’s easy-going nature; any lighter and it might not instil quite the same levels of assured-feeling solidity.

Stable, predictable handling is the Jazz’s approach to cornering, with ease of driving prioritised over engagement. Its body can lean a bit under load but balance is neutral.

The car’s chassis balance at speed is neutral enough and it deals with faster corners without much in the way of fuss, although this is a softly sprung car for the supermini class, and one given to a bit of lateral body roll when leant on. The Yokohama tyres conjure a grip level that’s adequate but doesn’t advance much further than that. Even allowing for the underlying sense of predictability that its steering instils, the Jazz clearly isn’t a car intended to be thrown down a road with any feeling, but rather to reassure its driver at all speeds and in all environments with its pervasive sense of calm.

Such a mature, reserved philosophy does complement the car’s wider pragmatic streak rather nicely. It might not do much to win over the enthusiast, but for those buyers who don’t place an alert, engaging driving experience at the top of their priority list – nor indeed even at the bottom of it – such a positioning should serve the car well.

The Jazz is one of those rare cars that allows you to effectively drive the entire length of Millbrook’s challenging Hill Route with the throttle pinned to the floor. Its incredibly modest power reserves become readily apparent over the course’s various elevation changes, but that’s not entirely a bad thing.

In fact, it serves to showcase just how stable and sure-footed the Jazz remains even when it’s being thrashed. Through tighter bends, it usually seems to generate more than enough grip to stay on track, and when understeer does arrive, it’s very easily corrected with a brief lift of your right foot.

There is some pronounced body roll through quicker directional changes but it’s mostly well controlled, and even with the outside tyres loaded up, the car doesn’t seem to struggle too greatly with mid-corner impacts.

Comfort and isolation

Although it’s largely comfortable, the Jazz isn’t without its ride-related quirks. At low speeds, there’s a tautness about its set-up that can at times bring a bit of fussy, highfrequency pitter-patter into the car’s town ride on coarser stretches of urban Tarmac. However, it generally deals with sharper edges and bumps in the road rather well.

The car can feel a little over-sprung at low speeds, yet it can also puzzle you with loose-feeling vertical body control on faster, rolling stretches of road. In such environments, the Jazz certainly likes to heave and float a bit, often using all of its suspension travel over long-wave inputs. These movements aren’t so unchecked as to be unsettling because they don’t disturb the levelness of the car’s body for too long, but they are nevertheless prominent enough to have prompted one tester to compare the Jazz – perhaps a touch brutally – to an old office chair.

‘Comfortable over distance’ would be a more charitable way to describe the car. There’s excellent adjustability in the driving position and the seats themselves are soft and cushioning but reasonably supportive, too. Visibility is excellent and cabin isolation isn’t bad, either. At motorway speeds, the engine fades away into the background, while wind and road noise aren’t intrusive.

At 70mph, our microphone recorded ambient noise at 68dB, which is considerably quieter than the 71dB reading produced in the Yaris.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Honda Jazz 2020 road test review - hero front

Although the Jazz might have a higher sticker price than many of its more traditional supermini rivals, it’s priced very competitively indeed compared with the latest Toyota Yaris and the new hybridised Clio.

Our range-topping EX model can be bought outright for £21,385, versus respective prices of £22,095 and £24,005 for the flagship versions of its Renault and Toyota counterparts. Add to that the fact that the Honda is expected to hold its value better than either, and that it comes with a generous level of equipment as standard, and it seems entirely reasonable to presume you should be able to net a very competitive PCP deal on a Jazz.

The Jazz outperforms both the latest Toyota Yaris and the new Renault Clio hybrid in predicted residual values by a considerable margin

Then there’s the running cost benefits that come from its powertrain. Regular hybrids no longer qualify for the benefit-in-kind and road tax savings they once did, but as far as fuel economy is concerned, there would certainly be advantages to Jazz ownership.

Over more than 500 test miles that incorporated longer motorway stints, plenty of inner-city driving and our track testing session, the Jazz averaged 60.1mpg. By comparison, the Yaris managed 51.0mpg while the 1.0-litre Volkswagen Polo we road tested in 2018 achieved just 43.0mpg. For those who value real-world fuel economy, figures like that speak for themselves.

 

VERDICT

Honda Jazz 2020 road test review - static

The charismatic looks, bold interior design, effortlessly agile handling and zesty performance on which so many superminis trade have barely if ever figured as constituent parts of the appeal of the Jazz. And by giving us a new version that might be even more functional, mature and flavourless than before, Honda would appear to have embraced the reputation this car has won for itself over nearly two decades. It’s a car whose qualities we can certainly applaud, but it remains hard to really like or to want.

Its hybrid powertrain affords sizeable gains on fuel economy and drivability and its highly configurable and voluminous interior brings unrivalled practicality for a car of this size. If there were a touch more sophistication about the car’s low-speed ride, the Jazz might have nabbed an additional half a star. For this jury, it would need at least some dynamic charm, kerbside allure or driver appeal to progress further.

Eminently practical, impressively frugal and pretty joyless to drive

But however dry and sensible its character may be, the Jazz deserves credit for its persistent pragmatism and utility value, and it will continue to stand out in a class dominated by cars of much less rational qualities.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Honda Jazz First drives