First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
When it comes to cars, it pays to cut your coat according to your cloth.
Observing on social media the ebullitions of failure and the anger-as-art of former editors of this and hosts of that raises the question: how ought one to behave towards a friend who has let you down? Those who once were the future will write something hurtful on Twitter and watch as the mob piles on. But what ought the decent do?
This occurred to me after driving two cheapish cars recently. One, a decent and honest hatchback; the other, supposedly an all-new SUV from a legendary brand that I unfortunately thought was awful.
I recently spent a week in the new Hyundai Grand i10. I drove the slightly posher model that comes with a 1.2-litre, four-cylinder engine good for 61kW and mated with a five-speed manual gearbox. This is a solid basic motoring product, designed to be affordable and, therefore, in this review, you will not read too much criticism regarding the luxury feel of the car. I will, as usual, complain that there is a lap belt in the middle rear seat and that this makes the car a four-seater. The rest is really pretty good.
Most of all, I was impressed by the freeway composure of the i10. It’s not a fast car by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s comfortable at the speed limit and its unfussy approach to cruising is a real indication of the advances made in cheap motoring. Speed reveals a great deal about a car, specifically the time, money and energy that’s been expended on balancing the car, aerodynamic qualities and tuning suspension set-ups.
The really hard stuff in car building is interventions to reduce the dreaded tacky trio of noise, vibration and harshness. That is revealed at freeway speed and is a direct output of engineering, planning, design and investment. It’s hard to get right.
Richard Parry-Jones, the Welsh engineer who shook up Ford in the 1990s to transform family motoring forever and who sadly died a couple of weeks back, understood this. His Autocar obituary said, “He was quoted as saying that it was far harder to engineer and develop a class-leading family hatchback than a mere million-pound supercar.”
How right he was. From an engineering perspective, the first-generation Ford Focus, for which he was responsible, was far more of a triumph than any Lamborghini. It utterly transformed how ordinary cars drive. You can build anything with a big budget. Building something excellent on a tight budget is a real achievement.
There’s a sense of this in the Grand i10 – that this is a reasonable car, properly built, and easy to live with. For a long drive, it would be nice to have more power, more space, more torque and more electric toys. But for the R236,000 the 1.2 i10 will set you back, it’s really a perfectly good car. It’s nippy around town, small enough for the gap but large enough for the family (of four), strong enough for the freeway and weak enough for good fuel consumption. It’s a good little car and you should certainly drive one before settling on a Toyota Starlet or a Kia Picanto.
I also recently drove the Honda W-RV. I like Hondas. My sister has driven the same CR-V for a decade and, despite the efforts of my niece and nephew, they have been unable. to break it. I also recently spent a week with the HR-V, which is a really good city car. But the R290,000, 66kW WR-V doesn’t deserve that badge, I’m afraid.
Marketed as an SUV, the WR-V is a crossover version of the third-generation Honda Jazz. Launched in 2017 in India and Brazil, it is a four-year-old car, now arriving here. For traffic-clogged Indian cities, the car could work, but in South Africa, there is a problem.
Available with a five-speed manual, the car is woefully short of shunt. Now, that’s quite a criticism, so on what authority do I say something so rude? Well, Honda is careful not to reveal its 0-100km/h sprint time, but some motoring reporters in India have tested it at significantly slower than 15 seconds. Take this to the reef, where the altitude sees you lose almost 20% of your power with a naturally aspirated motor, and you’ve got problems. Add a family and some luggage and you’re verging on what I’d call unusable on a South African freeway. It’s certainly not a family SUV.
The manual gearbox is also rubbery and stiff, requiring a real shove to find first gear, and fifth is very under-geared, resulting in towering revolutions at speed. At 120km, you’re buzzing away at 4000rpm. That’s really very 1980 and requires a good supply of Panado. As a result of having my foot in the carpet throughout my test, I also recorded poor fuel consumption of around 9l/100km.
To be fair, the Jazz platform comes with many benefits. It has five three-point seatbelts, six air bags, that legendarily configurable interior and a decent touchscreen interface. The hoiked-up ride height will give the car some abilities on a gravel road and, like all Hondas, it will no doubt be almost absurdly reliable. As a car to live with and to have an accident in, it’s pretty good. Thing is, you just wouldn’t want to drive it.
The WR-V was designed for India and Brazil, where high-speed cruising isn’t really something people do. They are, however, selling the car here, and I’m not sure they should be. It’s the right car with the wrong drivetrain and, while the quality of the Jazz platform is unimpeachable, that quality also comes with mass – and the drivetrain makes it feel cheap and unpleasant.
The lesson, therefore, is to buy what you can afford. If you’re shopping with cheap hatchback money, then that’s what you should buy, not something writing cheques its drivetrain can’t cash. You’ll get a better car and you’ll pay less. On paper, these two cars don’t compete. On paper, the Honda is the superior, more expensive product. It isn’t, and I mean that with love. DM168
Alexander Parker is a journalist, author and consultant.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.