There’s a certain irony to the fact that Honda’s passenger car fortunes in South Africa were established with the assistance of Mercedes-Benz. But it also says a lot that the then-upstart Japanese brand could persuade a discerning, premium-orientated audience it was up to the job. All of which bodes well for the new-generation Honda Ballade. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
Turn back the automotive clock in South Africa almost three decades, to 1982, and you’ll come across an unusual nameplate: the Honda Ballade.
At the time, the Honda marque was more motorcycle than car as far as SA motorists were concerned. Then the Ballade made its appearance. And not any old appearance: it was sold out of Mercedes-Benz dealerships – a product regarded as good enough for the discerning clients of the Three-Pointed Star. And its price tag reflected strong value for money.
That fact alone virtually guaranteed success, even though the very first Ballades were not particularly handsome, nor powerful. But they were superbly built, and soon became the vehicle of choice for those seeking a premium motoring experience in a more compact, affordable package.
The uniquely South African relationship between Honda and Mercedes-Benz lasted into the new millennium, but recognising the growing potential of the SA market, the Japanese auto maker decided to become an autonomous player here. With products like the Civic coming on stream, the Ballade was retired.
But for those with fond memories of the car, the good news is the Ballade is back. The compact four-door sedan in many ways relives the core attributes of its legendary ancestor, albeit in a more contemporary package.
The styling is at its most attractive from the front, where the big headlights, angled grille and steeply raked windscreen combine to create a striking visage that’s also unmistakably Honda. The rear deck is high, indicating a decent boot.
Produced in Thailand, and sold as the Honda City in other regions, the Ballade is offered with a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes and in two specification levels: Comfort and Elegance. In all instances, power is provided by a 1,5-litre four-cylinder engine equipped with Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing technology.
It’s an enthusiastic little mill, producing 88kW of maximum power at 6,600r/min, together with a 145Nm torque peak, reached at 4,800r/min. The latter figure suggests a peaky delivery, but the reality is a lot more linear, thanks to the variable valve timing.
Given the upwardly mobile trend of our fuel prices at present, the engine’s inherent frugality is also a plus point: Honda claims a combined cycle fuel consumption figure of just 6,3-litres/100km, with associated CO? exhaust emissions of 148g/km.
On the move, the car feels frisky and eager, with a cohesion and solidity familiar to current Honda owners. Any doubts about the build quality of a car not sourced from Japan are soon dispelled. There’s decent heft to the way the switches and buttons operate and even our testing road surfaces couldn’t extract any creaks or rattles.
Performance is brisk, with decent get-up-and-go from rest and ample cruising talent. The Ballade covers the 0-to-100km/h dash in 9.8 seconds, which won’t win it any trophies, but will still translate into sufficient pep for most users. Top speed is 185km/h – but, as was pointed out to me recently, not too many of us get to drive at those speeds, or want to.
More important is the car’s tractability, which is decent enough to allow incisive overtaking – an attribute far more vital than outright top-end speed.
The Ballade’s straight-line talents are backed up by a chassis tuned for both comfort and control. It copes well with rutted surfaces and undulations, and manages to absorb a fair portion of the bumps and dips one regularly encounters.
At the same time, it doesn’t feel soggy or unsettled, and will cut through corners cleanly while displaying admirable composure. The driving position is quite elevated, and the steering feels over-assisted when driving with vigour. But then, the Ballade is a family car and not a sports sedan.
In other words, it gets the motive job done with competent aplomb and has sufficient composure not to land the more enthusiastic driver in any deep water.
Should things go wrong, the comprehensive safety kit on offer includes front, side and curtain airbags, as well as ABS-controlled brakes with electronic brake force distribution and brake force assistance.
Those accustomed to Honda’s current models may find the Ballade’s interior a little bland. It’s not that there are any quality issues: The trim is decent and fit and finish impeccable. But the space lacks the class and the innovation of the admittedly dearer Civic, with a plainer, more conventional approach.
Accommodation is good, with ample space up front and seats that feel more comfortable than they look – although they could do with more lateral support. The rear bench seat is good for another two passengers, although taller individuals may find the legroom wanting.
For families, the 500-litre-plus luggage compartment will be a definite boon, while the presence of a full-size spare wheel adds peace of mind in this Age of the Pothole.
Standard equipment is comprehensive across all four models. Buyers get front and rear electric windows, electrically adjustable mirrors, air-conditioning, power steering, a trip computer and four-speaker sound with a USB interface and MP3/WMA capability.
The flagship Elegance version adds a leather-trimmed steering wheel, a Bluetooth hands-free kit and additional storage binnacles to the package.
In many ways, the Ballade mimics its famous predecessor. It’s a compact, user-friendly car with enough urge for urban driving and open-road cruising, all the important luxury and safety features and a drivetrain that scores in the fuel efficiency rankings.
It’s also priced to reflect decent value: The entry-level 1.5 Comfort carries a R184,900 price tag, while the dearest version is the 1.5 Elegance Auto, at R205,900. These prices include a four-year/60,000km service plan, in addition to a three-year/100,000 km warranty.
Will the new Ballade be able to repeat the original’s success here? After all, the SA motoring landscape has changed dramatically and the new Honda finds itself in a highly competitive market segment.
Well, the Ballade nameplate still carries some weight, and Honda’s reputation for quality and technology will also augment a package that pleases on most fronts. With the buying-down trend continuing, we expect to see a lot of Ballades on our roads. DM
Honda Ballade 1.5
In-line four-cylinder, 1,497 cc
88kW at 6,600rpm
145Nm @ 4,800rpm
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