High note

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 May, 2009, 12:00am

Honda owes much of its success to its ability to turn its innovative concepts into production models. Weeks after Honda's three-seater, hydrogen-powered FC Sport concept car wowed audiences at the Detroit Motor Show in January, the first pre-production models of the FCX Clarity, Honda's radical, zero-emissions, hydrogen fuel cell sedan, were unveiled in the US after just three years' development.

The new Jazz may not seem as groundbreaking, but the 2009 model demonstrates the Japanese marque's willingness to adapt and improve models at the drop of a hat.

The 2009 model has a fresh new look, with a raked-back windscreen and a sunroof creating a more streamlined body for better aerodynamics, improved visibility and fuel economy. The new model has a sharpened front end, with a double-creased bonnet, a new chrome grille and fog lamps, while side skirts, 16-inch alloys and an integrated rear spoiler lend the hatchback a sporty feel.

For a five-door compact, the new Jazz is deceptively spacious. Honda's 'forward-shifted' body - where the windscreen has been brought forward and integrated with a panoramic sunroof - allows for four glass panels between the pillars on each side, giving the cabin an airy feel while helping to optimise legroom front and rear.

The front glass panel between the A and B pillars is particularly helpful for eliminating blind spots while parking and only the rear-view mirror is mildly compromised by the narrow back window. Yet in terms of space and versatility, the Jazz is a class-leader.

All-round visibility is excellent for the driver and front passenger, and the rear seats can accommodate tall folk with plenty of legroom. The cabin has been ergonomically designed with a clever arrangement allowing the rear seats to split and be folded flat - backwards to create extra luggage space internally or forwards for more space at the rear.

Other ergonomic touches include a dizzying array of storage compartments in the cabin, with ticket holders, pockets, panel trays, a cool-box and no fewer than 10 drinks holders (despite the Jazz being a five-seater). Although the cabin is a cloth-and-plastic affair, the emphasis is on functionality and there's a no-nonsense feel to the trim and switchgear.

The new 1.4-litre i-VTEC engine is also a practical proposition, improving both torque and power delivery over that of the outgoing model, and reducing fuel consumption and emissions through a new intelligent VTEC set up, in which 'economy cams' delay the closure intake of valves at low rpm to emulate a lower displacement.

I drove the new-bodied Jazz (badged 'Fit' in Japan) last year around Hokkaido, and it was as easy to drive on (virtually empty) steep mountain roads as it was on the undemanding highways, and the car happily accommodated copious amounts of luggage - and drinks.

It also proved to be very frugal, and despite a stop-start driving pattern (courtesy of a baffling Japanese navigation system), a week-long tour of the country's most northerly and ruggedly beautiful island was concluded on just a tank and a half of petrol.

A few months later, the 2009 export model seems fresher still in Hong Kong. The standard paddle shift makes zipping through the gears painless on the highway and, with fewer steep hills, the 100 brake horsepower engine feels all the more perky, with the whine from the i-VTEC breaking into earshot when revved hard.

The Jazz is not particularly quick off the mark, but the five-speed automatic gearbox responds when pushed and the wheel-mounted paddle shifts are easy to use and effective in overriding any lag in the gear change at slower speeds. The steering is direct, but heavier than I remember it being in Japan - most likely because there's more work to do on Hong Kong's busy roads.

Even so, the Jazz handles very well, offering a pliant ride with a firm turn-in through corners (although it's damped sufficiently softly to deal with potholes and bumps), making it a comfortable car to travel long distances in. It's no surprise, then, that the Jazz is a favourite compact for car rental firms - and families - from Sapporo to Southampton.

AT A GLANCE: Honda Jazz

What drives it? A 1,339cc, 100bhp, 16-valve, i-VTEC four-cylinder engine linked to a five-speed auto box.

How fast is it? The Jazz makes 0-100km/h in 10.9 seconds, with a claimed top speed of 189km/h.

How safe is it? It comes with dual SRS airbags, anti-lock braking and electronic brake-force distribution. How thirsty is it? The test car is reported to slurp about 6 litres of fuel per 100km (47mpg).

Hong Kong friendly? Local dealers could not provide carbon dioxide spew data, but the 1.4-litre Jazz overseas is said to belch about 125g of carbon dioxide per km.

Available: HK$159,880 from Reliance Motors (tel: 2827 8622) with a three-year/100,000km warranty.