Honda started building cars in the early 1960s, and the company’s motor-cycling roots were obvious. The cars were characterised by beautifully engineered high-revving engines, installed first in tiny sports and micro-cars, and then during the 1970s, a growing range of ever larger cars, starting with the first Civic of 1972 and the Accord of 1976. At a time when other Japanese brands were impressing, and gaining sales momentum for their levels of reliability and long list of standard equipment, virtues which were strong enough to enable many to overlook the rather indifferent driving dynamics and styling which varied from dull to a slightly quirky mix of an oriental interpretation of what they thought Americans would like, Honda shone above the larger Toyota and Nissan-Datsun for making cars that had some enthusiast appeal. And by the 1990s, this was all the more true, with the first truly reliable, affordable supercar, the NS-X sitting at the top of the range which contained Type R and Mugen versions of family cars such as the Civic, Integra and Accord. But in the early twenty-first century, the company seemed to head off in a different direction. The enthusiast cars were largely car, replaced by product which seemed to be a sort of “wannabe Toyota”, capable enough but just dull. And sales in Europe dived. The strength of the Japanese Yen after the 2007/2008 credit crunch is often held up as the reason, but the reality is that Honda had built a plant in Swindon which was producing cars for sale in Europe at the rate that Europeans wanted to buy them. And, faced with plenty of choice from other brands, unlike in the US, where Honda remains a major market player with its big selling cars rivalling Toyota for market supremacy, that simply was not as many people has it once had been. With the range having shifted to more practical cars, like the CR-V crossover, and hybrid models like the Insight, the demographic of the average Honda buyer had changed it seemed, something which the latest wacky-looking Civic and its fire-breathing Type R variant may change, but the rest of the range, is, well, rather unmemorable. Honda have typically made most of the European sales to the private retail customer, so you know that things were looking difficult when I started to see their cars in the Hertz fleet in the UK. That happened about 2 years ago, and there were only a handful of them evident at Heathrow, but this was not a one-off designed to clear a glut of supply, as there have been various models on offer for rental ever since. Despite asking, I never managed to source one of those early rental cars, and missed out on the previous generation Civic Type R when they had those on fleet in early 2017. However, when I arrived early afternoon on a Monday, to find a fairly sparsely populated Heathrow facility, and asked if I could change the 1 year old black Vauxhall Mokka X that had been allocated to me, I was offered a Jazz. I took it, curious to see what it would be like.
We’re now on the third generation of Jazz. The first one debuted in Japan in June 2001 and was an immediate hit. It scooped the Japanese “Car of the Year” award, and it shot right to the top of the best sellers list in its home country, the first time a Honda had ever achieved this. European sales started in early 2002, Australian ones later that year, and gradually Honda added more and more global markets. What made the car so appealing was that it offered previously unimaginable levels of versatility in a car of this size, thanks to the fact that the fuel tank was located under the front seats, and the use of a compact rear suspension design made this more like a Mini-Van than a regular supermini hatchback. It looked quite interesting, was well built, decent to drive, and had all the elements of reliability and build quality which have made Honda models good to own for many years. A second generation model was launched in Japan in October 2007, following much the same formula, though it was a little larger in every dimension, and with updated technology. It was also much lauded and also won the Japanese “Car of the Year” award. By 2012, the car was being produced in 12 countries around the world. The latest car was first seen in Japan in September 2013. The US version – called the Fit, as the car is in most markets apart from Europe – was launched a few months later at the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. UK sales did not start until the end of 2015. With an array of bright colours offered, it is quite a distinctive sight on our roads, among a sea of cars that are seemingly painted in 50 shades of grey, though I think you would struggle to call it “good looking”. Mind you, compared to the products Honda has released since, notably the latest Civic, it has at least been spared the Ugly Stick which afflicts even the most basic versions of the Jazz’ big brother, and which seems to have been applied to the latest CR-V as well. The Jazz was never about being the best-looking car on the road, though. It scored by combining class-leading levels of versatility and practicality with its mini-SUV stance making it particularly popular among older drivers who also valued the fact that it was easy to drive and painless to own.
Honda have previously offered the Jazz with a choice of different engines, but when the third generation model arrived in the UK, it came solely with the 1.3 litre 4 cylinder petrol unit which puts out 102 bhp at 6000 rpm. A larger capacity 1.5 litre unit has been added to the range in early 2018, but there is no sign in Europe of the Hybrid technology that was available from early 2011 in the last version, and nor is there a diesel, or even an electric one (there were a small number of Fit EV versions offered in America and Japan from 2012). So the only choice is whether to take the 6 speed manual gearbox or the CVT automatic. The test car was a manual. A review of the new 1.5 litre version that I read a few days before sampling this test car used the word “racket” to describe the noise that emanated from under the bonnet of the car, and that would not be unfair for this one, either. Pottering about, which is how most Jazz will probably be used, it is acceptable, but at a steady 70 mph on the motorway, this is a noisy car. The engine is spinning at around 3000 rpm at this speed, in sixth gear, so maybe it needs another ratio or two. Though that would mean you would have to use the gears even more than you already do if you want any acceleration. The gearchange was not brilliant. The most abiding memory is of the very clickety sound it made as you slotted the lever between the ratios, but it was also quite stiff in going into bottom gear. The biting point on the clutch was mid travel, meaning that it took a while to get used to it and to make un-jerky starts from rest. There’s not much go in that first of gears, so you need to change up almost immediately. Things get better as you gain speed, but there is very limited acceleration from the upper ratios, so if you lose any momentum from a steady speed, you will probably need to drop down one, two or maybe even three gears to build it back up again. The Jazz did cope with the longer steeper inclines on the M4 without needing to come out of sixth but that was one-up. Laden, I would not be so sure it would not need a lower gear to keep going at motorway speed. There did not seem to be much of a penalty at the fuel pump for having to work the Honda quite hard. I covered 367 miles in my couple of days with the Jazz, mostly back and forth along the M4, and needed to put 35.69 litres in to fill it up, which computes to 46.68 mpg, not a bad figure for a petrol-engined car, and all covered one three-quarters of a tank, meaning that there is a decent range available. As you might expect from a car that is aimed at the buyer who values practicality over thrills, the steering is on the light side. Not completely devoid of feel, but certainly headed that way. I noticed that the car seemed particularly susceptible to the wind, feeling that it was buffeted rather more than you get with most modern vehicles, and whilst it was a bit gusty at times, it was not so blowy for this to have been something you would put down to extreme weather. There’s a fair amount of roll, and understeer is evident if you do try to tackle the bends with any enthusiasm, but overall grip seemed quite good, and the Jazz does ride well, on its standard high profile tyres. There were no issues with the brakes, and I was pleased to find a conventional pull-up handbrake between the seats. The boxy styling and decent amount of glass made seeing out of the Jazz quite easy and it was not hard to manoeuvre it. A rear-view camera was fitted to the test car so you have a clear view of exactly what was behind.
Opening the door, and more importantly, closing it, gives you the feeling that this a cheap and rather tinny car, and certainly the interior will not trouble the likes of Audi for its quality feel. Not that it is badly put together, as it is not, but there are all manner of materials used, including leather in places, but the overall combination of this, a lot of reasonably soft-feeling plastic with faux stitching in it, a gloss black inlay around the infotainment screen and some metal-effect highlights around the air vents and steering wheel spokes is one of the fact that an effort has been made, rather than any elegant simplicity or luxury feel to it. The instruments sit under a curved binnacle. A large speedometer is flanked to the left by a smaller rev counter, and on the right by a dial with a bar chart fuel gauge and the odometer functions. Water temperature is indicated simply by a blue warning light which goes out once the car is up to temperature. The dials were not that easy to read, with reflections around the perimeter of the speedo, and the absence of a digital repeater meant that I had to look at it carefully to ensure I was not heading into ticket territory. There is a “change up” light in the rev counter, and as well as a bar chart showing current average fuel consumption above the fuel gauge, there are coloured rings around the speedo, which go from green to blue as you work the engine harder There are two column stalks, with the left hand one operating the lights and indicators, and the right hand one the front and rear wipers. The centre of the dash is dominated by the colour display screen, which is used for audio and information purposes. There are no knobs and buttons, just touch pads to the side of it, though there are some repeaters on the steering wheel spokes and it is touch sensitive. I found it quite fiddly to use, taking several minutes to figure out how to get to a chosen radio station on a channel that was not the one showing when I started the car up. There was an optional navigation system in the test car. I did not actually program it, but I did bring up the map, and thought that the graphics were a bit clunky looking. You can click on the main screen to get traffic updates, useful when you are headed to the airport and the matrix signs on the M4 warn of a 2 hour delay, and there is a traffic sign recognition, which picks up speed limit signs. Below this unit is the single zone climate control, and this also lacks buttons, using touch sensitive pads for its operation. This Jazz had keyless starting, with a button on the dash to the left of the wheel. It also featured Stop/Start, which you can switch off using a button above the driver’s right knee where you also find a couple of others for functions you would rarely use. There was also a warning sensor that buzzed if traffic in front of you stopped and it thought you needed to take action.
When I first got in the Jazz, I performed all the requisite adjustments of seat, wheel and mirrors. The seat has a height adjuster as well as fore/aft and backrest rake, and the steering wheel telescopes in/out as well as up/down, so I thought I was good. But the more I drove this little Honda, the more it became obvious that all is not quite so good. Not because the seat itself is not comfortable, as it seemed to be, but because the driving position itself was a bit offset. You do get used to this, but the wheel seemed to be a bit to the left of where I wanted it to be. The adverts for the Jazz major on its roominess and how many hundreds of permutations of different seat positions there are, and this is based on the fact that the third generation Jazz retains the packaging concepts of the first two, with the fuel tank located under the front seats, and the standard fitment of what Honda call “magic seats”. I am not sure where they really get the figure from, but they are not wrong about the spaciousness in what is still a small car, and although you do sit that bit higher than you would in any of the conventional rivals, you will really do not notice this, as headroom is still in plentiful supply. Rear seat occupants will find good legroom for a car of this size, and you could probably squeeze three adults in for short distances, with a flat floor meaning that the middle person would not have to sit with their legs splayed out. I was surprised to note that my head almost touched the roof, though.
There’s a decent sized boot. It is a nice regular shape, and with the floor in place, the load area is flush with the bottom of the tailgate, making it easy to slide heavy objects in and out. This is a false floor, with two parts to it, so you could store plenty of odds and ends in the quite deep wells underneath it. More space can be created by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seats down. When you do, they are flush with the main boot area, and there is a flap which covers the gap over their base, giving you a long continuous and flat luggage area that is very big for a car of this size. Inside the cabin, there is a generous drop-down glove box, bins on all four doors, a lidded cubby under the central armrest, as well as various other small stowage areas in the centre console, and there is a small area on the dash to the right of the wheel, which if you pull the front away would allow you to store perhaps a can of drink there in case the central cupholders were already in use. Rear seat passengers get map pockets in the back of the front seats.
Until the launch of the mildly-updated 2018 models, there were just three trim levels to choose from, one you had selected your transmission: S, SE and EX. The test car was an EX. Entry level S models come with 15″ steel wheels, so are easy to recognise, but the standard spec is otherwise decently generous and includes: air conditioning; all-round electric windows; a tyre deflation warning system; cruise control with speed limiter; the “Magic seats”; a DAB radio with MP3, AUX and Bluetooth® hands-free telephone (HFT) and 4 speakers; rear sensing auto wipers; dusk sensing auto lights; halogen headlights; electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, with one touch operation on the driver’s side. Pay the extra £1500 for the SE model, and you add in the Honda Connect in-car audio and information system which includes a DAB radio, single slot CD player, a 7″ colour touchscreen, AM/FM, Internet radio, Aha™ app integration and Internet browsing, and safety aids including forward collision warning, lane departure warning, an intelligent speed limiter and traffic sign recognition. You also get parking sensors front and rear, electrically retractable mirrors and 15″ alloy wheels. The EX costs a further £1500 and adds: 16″ alloys; LED headlights and DRLs; front fog lights; a rear view camera; rear privacy glass; Smart Entry and Start; and automated climate control; leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob; an upgraded audio unit with 6 speakers and steering wheel controls; a height adjuster on the front passenger seat and a second map pocket and one touch operation of the passenger side window The navigation system fitted to the test car was an option. The new Sport model costs the same as the EX. For this you get the 1.5 litre engine, some styling add-ons, which encompass a front & rear bumper with red accent, side sills and a tailgate spoiler, but otherwise you get the SE level of spec.
I have to confess to a certain disappointment with the Jazz. Whilst scoring highly on practicality, the offset driving position was regrettable but it was the noise levels that would make it hard for me to recommend. Keep the car around town on short journeys, and this might not bother you, but most of its competitors now are refined enough that you can take them on the motorway and your ears won’t suffer as a consequence. The 1.3 litre engine is only really man-enough for urban use, too, and there are more engaging competitors to drive. I think where that leaves the Jazz is exactly where it has always been: painless to own, easy to drive, and likely to appeal to the older driver who wants a small and versatile car. It is an important market, but not big enough to help Honda reverse that sales decline of recent years. With many of the Jazz’ direct rivals on the list of cars still to sample, my quest to find the “best” supermini of the moment continues.