First drive: Is the new Honda Jazz a Yaris killer?

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Words: Matthew Hansen
30 Apr 2021

The Honda Jazz is interesting for a few reasons. Not only is it a hatchback existing in the face of a dominant SUV segment that’s wiping out its peers one by one, it’s long boasted practicality capable of trouncing a surprisingly large array of these aforementioned SUVs.

Now, a new one is out. But rather than harp on about rational points like practicality, Honda would rather I talk about the model’s emotional side.

Honda says that the new Jazz is the biggest leap in the nameplate’s four-generation history (five if you include the Logo) predominantly because it’s the first time Honda has prioritised making the car feel ... homely.

Honda cites the Japanese phrase ‘yoo no bi’, roughly translating to ‘pleasant perception’. In this case, Honda says the phrase epitomises the process of weaving emotional values into a rational product. It’s a process you can see on plenty of compact hatchbacks, but rarely in a subcompact like the Jazz.

To quote a phrase from the launch; “this is not a Billy basic rental car.”

​The diminutive all-new hatch was launched yesterday in Nelson, with NZ Autocar among the press to be able to sample the full line-up. We have already had a steer in Honda’s flagship e:HEV Luxe hybrid, with the full write-up covered in the latest May issue of the magazine (out now). But, this was our first time behind the wheel of the pure petrol variants.

Three models are set to be offered locally; the Life, the Crosstar, and the aforementioned e:HEV. The Life is now the only traditional, honest-to-goodness petrol hatchback in the mix, with the Crosstar adding a series of SUV-like credentials. Honda NZ says the Crosstar’s hybrid cousin is a model that could be added to the mix over time.

It’s a relatively simple line-up, but all the ingredients are there for it to challenge the award-winning Toyota Yaris range and its 11 variants. Jazz pricing remains a critical factor, although it’s yet to be formally announced.


It’s testament to Honda’s faith in the Jazz’s handling abilities that the curveball was thrown, and thankfully all models are strong performers. Honda has a reputation for strong handling chops, particularly in their small cars, and the outgoing Jazz was no different.

This one is another step up, however, feeling more planted and flat than ever before. The front end feels more positive, but not to the point of sacrificing the car’s general grown-up demeanor. It successfully does what the folks at Toyota managed to do with the Yaris. It feels more substantial from behind the wheel than a subcompact ought to feel.

The Crosstar does lag a tiny bit behind the other two dynamically, namely because of the differences that see it edge towards the murky world of lifted-hatchback SUV-dom. It gets a mild suspension lift and higher-profile rubber that results in a 25mm ride height increase, and its own steering tune. These complement the Crosstar’s bespoke honey-I-shrunk-the-off-roader looks, punctuated by new bumpers front and rear, cladding over each wheel, fog lights, and roof rails.

The tweaks are mild, and perhaps a little token. But as more brands rush to produce SUV-ified versions of their hatchbacks, one has to be a little impressed that effort was paid here to make the Crosstar a little more capable than the Life and e:HEV. Even if the result isn’t exactly going to tackle Moab any time soon.

The Life and Crosstar share the same 1.5-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol VTEC engine — “one of the most efficient combustion engines in the world” according to Honda. It’s a partial carry-over from the last-gen Jazz with the same block as the engine from the hybrid, but a different head set-up. It produces 88kW/145Nm, peak power landing at 6000rpm and peak twist at 4300rpm. 

Honda has beavered away at the little engine, making it a little quieter while also making the CVT’s calibration more predictable and smooth. The CVT is more clever now, too, logging your g-forces on the run — improving its chances of finding the right ‘gear’ for the driver based on their driving habits in the moment. No paddles in any of the trim levels may grate with some, however.

Complementing this is the seemingly never-ending amount of work Honda has done to eliminate noise from the engine and other mechanicals leaking into the cabin. This includes a friction reduction mission across all moving parts (including bushings and dampers), optimised glass seals, and liberal use of spray foam in hollow elements of the architecture. The engine still bellows a little much when in higher rpms, but it’s not nearly as in your face as before.

Equipment levels are mostly good news across the full line-up. The Jazz has traditionally been neck-and-neck with the Suzuki Swift for private sales; the Swift often edging it at the lower end of the price bracket with the Jazz performing better with its more heavy specced models. Honda’s response has been to hack and slash the line-up’s bottom end. The new ‘base model’ Life is really just a condensed version of all the different last-gen Jazz models combined, positioning itself as a rival for mid-spec Swifts and Yari’.

It gets a commendable amount of gear standard, including the same standardised 9-inch infotainment system (easily the best seen yet in a Honda sold in New Zealand), a 7-inch digital cluster, LED headlights front and rear, smart entry with walk-away locking, and parking sensors — many of these being firsts for the Jazz.

The Crosstar adds all of its aforementioned SUV-flavoured bits, plus water resistant upholstery (a la Subaru Outback), and more soft-touch bits in the cabin. As referenced in our separate drive of the e:HEV Luxe, it gets full leather, chrome tinsel on the body, heated front seats for front passengers, and more.

A slight disappointment is Honda’s allocation of its Honda Sensing safety kit. Only the e:HEV Luxe gets the full Sensing set-up. This includes adaptive cruise control, a standard feature on all Yaris’ and most Swifts but only available on the Jazz hybrid. Nevertheless, Honda boasts that the safety suite has improved across the board. The cameras, for instance, are wider and more high definition.

Most commendable is how it recognises the edges of roads without road markings, meaning its Low Speed Departure tech — a feature designed to prevent the car from waltzing off the road if the driver has fallen asleep or is otherwise unable to turn for a corner — can keep the car on the road even if lanes aren’t marked.

Lastly, there’s the cabin — the prime target of Honda’s ‘yoo no bi’ ‘pleasant perception’ stuff. This has always been the Jazz’ secret weapon, and that’s only become even more true. It’s huge inside, as you’d expect, with acres of headroom front and rear, a tiny transmission tunnel, and a big SUV-eating boot.

The hybrid’s boot is capable of holding 304 litres of capacity with the back seats up and 1199 litres with them down. The petrol variants can hold more, although the exact figures weren’t available at the time of writing. The seats in the back are Honda’s proprietary ‘Magic Seats’ too, which means they can fold flat and low, and fold ‘upwards’ to enable carrying tall items with ease.

The cabin isn’t just a numbers wonder. Honda has worked to make it far more welcoming than that of the outgoing model. The dash layout is simpler, more logical. It’s comfier, thanks to new anti-fatigue seats up front and outer rear seats that come neatly bolstered. The real jewel in the comfy crown, though, is the panoramic windscreen.

It features a 90.2-degree field of vision (21-degrees more than the last model) thanks to some clever engineering — Honda swapping the main and sub pillars and adding in a unique steel plate system under the bodywork. The dashboard’s flat profile is deliberate, as is the way the windscreen wipers are neatly tucked away out of sight. The result is frontal visibility that can only really be appreciated in person. This is the Jazz’s new secret weapon in the showroom for would-be buyers.

Honda expects the little Jazz to be its best-selling model once launched, overtaking both the CR-V and HR-V — at least on a temporary basis. In the battle for hatch supremacy, the Yaris and Swift could be in trouble. Hmmm. Maybe a comparison is in order?

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