Business, Sci-Tech

Honda Jazz Hybrid: Driving tomorrow today

By Deon Schoeman 2 June 2011

Not that long ago, hybrid cars were an oddity – interesting to talk about, but not particularly appealing to own. However, thanks to spiralling fuel prices, and a growing awareness of green issues, that’s all changing. Besides, hybrid technology is becoming more user-friendly and sexier. Meet Honda’s Jazz Hybrid. By DEON SCHOEMAN.

While Toyota may have pioneered hybrid cars in South Africa with the launch of the Prius some years back, Honda has now become the leading force in hybrid technology on our shores, with no less than three passenger car models from which to choose. The most recent arrival is the Honda Jazz Hybrid.

The release of the Jazz Hybrid coincides with a mid-life update to the range as a whole. The changes include some technical improvements and a smartened-up interior with extra storage options. But the main focus is on an exterior nip and tuck that, Honda says, even benefits the hatchback’s aerodynamics.

That said, only Jazz aficionados will readily spot the differences between old and new: The chiselled silhouette remains instantly recognisable and essentially unchanged. The shape still links the visual characteristics of a sporty hatchback and a small wagon in a mono-space design that somehow manages to convince in both aesthetic and utilitarian terms.

However, if you’re an existing Jazz owner, or just a fundi of the nameplate, you’ll soon spot what sets the Hybrid (and the MY2011 range as a whole) apart from the previous version. Perhaps most obvious are the front-end changes, which house new, projector-style headlights with shiny surrounds in newly chiselled fenders.

The grille has been redesigned, and in the case of this hybrid model, has been aerodynamically optimised in the interests of efficient airflow and reduced resistance. It figures that the front bumper is also new.

The pattern is repeated at the rear, where a reshaped bumper is home to redesigned, brightwork-adorned tail lights. And let’s not forget the fat strip of chrome that now rests just below the rear screen.

None of this is particularly earth-shattering, and some might even consider all that shiny stuff a blingy step backwards, compared to the former, somewhat more sober design. Be that as it may, the overall effect is clean and contemporary.

The Jazz IMA hybrid’s specific identity is confirmed by subtle badging to that effect, and if you look closely, you’ll see that it runs on low rolling resistance, energy-saving rubber.

Honda says the chrome finishes of the hybrid version have a blue tinge – but heck, when a crisp Highveld’s winter morning paints the sky in vivid cobalt, every surface with some reflective qualities has a propensity for blue!

Under the Honda’s skin, the chassis and suspension have also been updated. Revised spring rates and damper settings promise improved road feel, while the steering action has been given more weight in the centre position. The hybrid version also gets a beefed up rear suspension to cope with the car’s additional 70kg.

But the real distinguishing factor here is the unusual heart that beats under the bonnet of this hybrid-drive Jazz. It’s the same powerplant employed in the larger Honda Insight: A low-friction 1.3-litre petrol unit, assisted by a compact electric motor that lives between the engine and the hatchback’s new CVT gearbox. Honda calls the system Integrated Motor Assist, or IMA.

Without IMA, the four-cylinder engine delivers 65kW of maximum power, together with 121Nm of torque – modest output stats by current compact car standards. But wait, there’s more – the IMA system adds a further 10kW and 78Nm on demand – at least until the system’s battery is depleted.

And that happens sooner than you think. To keep weight and space requirements down (remember, the Jazz is still a B-segment compact car), Honda has had to keep the battery pack relatively small, which means its capacity is limited.

It doesn’t take much to charge that battery pack though. Even mild braking or a slightly trailing throttle will store energy in the battery for later use. The IMA system is identical to that employed in the Insight and the sporty CR-Z, which we reported on in a previous Daily Maverick Motoring missive.

While the introduction of IMA in the Jazz will please many, the return of the constantly variable transmission (CVT) gearbox will be considered something of a mixed blessing.

The CVT box is standard on the Jazz Hybrid and can either be run in full auto mode, or in seven virtual steps, selected by F1-style shift paddles behind the steering wheel. 

Like all constantly variable transmissions, this one suffers from the rubber-band effect in auto mode – it sounds like a car with a slipping clutch, because the engine revs are kept within the ideal power band, while the effective drive ratio is constantly varied.

In manual mode, the effect is more contained, but still noticeable. There is a delay between actuating the shift paddle and the gearbox “engaging” the virtual ratio, and the effect can make the Jazz feel lethargic, especially since the i-VTEC petrol engine has a certain appetite for revs.

Personally, I find it difficult to get used to a CVT gearbox, as much as I acknowledge that it’s an efficient transmission option perfectly suited to its application in the Jazz Hybrid. I would opt for a manual gearbox any day – and as the CR-Z proves, old-style stick shifts can co-exist with hybrid drivetrains quite happily.

But to the credit of the CVT technology employed in the Jazz, it’s a latest-generation design, equipped with a torque converter that allows smoother operation, especially at crawling speeds.

Like the rest of the revised Jazz range, the Hybrid gets a spruced up cabin with smarter, darker finishes, chrome accents, and a further expanded array of storage spaces and binnacles. Not that the previous Jazz was found lacking in this department, the new generation simply ups the ante by a further couple of cup holders, binnacles and spaces.

Distinguishing the Jazz Hybrid from the more conventionally motivated models in the range is a  special instrument pack that includes a charge indicator, blue backlighting and the same comprehensive information display employed in the Insight and the CR-Z.

That display offers a series of screens that can be scrolled through using dedicated buttons on the multifunction steering wheel. For instance, drivers can monitor their driving style, monitor how much energy is being transferred to the battery, and even “earn” tree symbols by driving frugally.

Not that there’s anything frugal about the interior execution of the Jazz Hybrid. In line with its flagship status, the hatchback offers creature comforts such as air-con, central locking and a dual-level, refrigerated glove compartment.

Also included is an excellent sound system with MP3 capability and both analogue and USB connectors for use with iPods and other media players.

The Honda Jazz is five-star rated in the stringent Euro NCAP safety ratings, and as a result is equipped with a full-house array of active and passive safety measures. These include four airbags, inertia reel seat belts, ISOFIX child seat tethers, and ABS brakes with EBD and EBA .

In dynamic terms, the Jazz IMA fits in somewhere between the larger and more lethargic Insight, and the nippier, sportier CR-Z. It feels responsive in town and on the open road, but making full use of the CVT gearbox in manual mode is definitely the preferred approach.

Honda’s factory stats claim a 12.2 second zero-to-100km/h sprint time, and a 174km/h top speed, but the hybrid always feels friskier than those figures suggest. It’s not a sports car, but it enjoys being driven with vigour.

Vitally, steering response is much improved. The previous Jazz suffered the vagaries of too much power assistance, which made it perfect for parking lot applications, but did it no justice on the open road.

This new model’s steering feels meatier and more responsive, and seems to load up more convincingly when pressing on than before. That said, there is still too much assistance, which blunts outright precision. Ride refinement is excellent for a small car, though, while still retaining ample chassis feedback.

Of course, economy is a key issue in this context, and Honda claims a combined-cycle consumption figure of just 4.4 litres/100km. Even with my heavy right foot, the Jazz returned a sub-6 litres/100km figure. With a full 40-litre fuel tank, you can expect a range of between 800km and 1,000 km, without having to drive economy run-style.

IMA hybrid cars like the Jazz, the Insight and the CR-Z prove just how feasible hybrid drivetrains have become. In fact, given their compact size, clever integration and seamless operation, there is no reason why all cars could not be equipped with a similar assistance system.

In that sense, Honda already leads the way, and the Jazz IMA Hybrid is the perfect expression of a technology which is likely to improve exponentially in years to come. Add the car’s space, style, ride and practicality, and it’s likely to convert many more people to the hybrid cause. DM


VITAL STATS
Honda Jazz Hybrid

Engine
Hybrid: 1,339cc four-cylinder petrol with IMA

Gearbox
Five-speed manual

Power
65kW at 5,800rpm + 10kW (IMA)

Torque
174Nm @ 1,500rpm + 78Nm (IMA)

0-100 km/h
12.2 sec

Top speed
174km/h

Fuel consumption
4.4 litres/100km (combined)

CO2 emissions
105g/km

Retail price
R239,900

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