Six years since launch? Must be time for a new model. That's how it usually works for Japanese carmakers, and increasingly for European ones, too. If your outgoing model is still selling well, so much the better; the new one starts on a high.
All of this applies to the Honda Jazz, the clever supermini-cum-MPV with the "magic seat" and the petrol tank under the floor beneath the front seats. The second makes the first possible, because the back seat can not only fold down unusually low and flat for carrying loads, but can also have its cushion flipped up to meet the vertical backrest and thus leave a tall load bay stretching across the cabin in front of the seat.
This makes the Jazz a very useful car. It also has a happy, simple, friendly feel to its design, from the ultra-functional, almost stark dashboard to the smoothness and ease of use of its optional CVT (continuously variable transmission). As a design, it's almost timeless.
All of which poses a problem for Honda. The company is conditioned to replace its cars regularly, and even without this imperative you can't really keep selling the same car indefinitely. So how does it replace the Jazz? With another one made into a new take on the same idea.
Model: Honda Jazz 1.2
Price: from £9,990 (range spans £9,990-£13,590). On sale October
Engine: 1,198cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 90bhp at 6,000rpm, 84lb ft at 4,900rpm
Transmission: five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance: 110mph, 0-62 in 12.5sec, 53.0mpg approx official average, CO2 approx 125g/km
If the remake can attract the younger family buyers, so much the better. Currently the average Jazz buyer is aged over 60, which needn't be a problem given the buoyancy of today's grey pound but is not an ideal long-term sales strategy. But the Jazz was fine the way it was. How is the new one better?
It's fractionally bigger, outside and in, yet weighs just 10kg more, despite meeting the latest safety standards. Its bare structure is actually lighter, thanks to greater use of high-strength steel (as with the Ford Fiesta tested last week, the Jazz's deadliest rival). You can now fold the rear seats down without first removing the headrests, and top models have a "double trunk" feature in which the removable boot floor is laterally hinged half way along its length.
What else? Top models – called EX (for Executive, fabulously inappropriate for an ultra-practical supermini) – have a panoramic glass roof. All come with a 1.3-litre engine, actually 1,339cc though Honda insists on calling it a 1.4, also offered with the lower ES specification. Below that come SE (confused yet?) and S, which both have 1.2-litre engines that give away 141cc and 10bhp to the 1.3. Maximum power outputs are 90 and 100bhp, respectively.
These engines are more powerful and efficient than the units they replace, thanks mainly to the nowadays-usual four valves per cylinder instead of two.
The Jazz's fuel-use figures aren't quite finalised, but the estimated combined-cycle mpg demonstrates impressive frugality at around 53mpg for the 1.2 and 51mpg for the 1.3. These correspond to CO2 figures in the mid-to-high 120s for grams per kilometre. With diesel fuel costing more than petrol, the Jazz's overall fuel cost should be little higher than that of a slightly more economical diesel supermini, while road tax will be costlier.
Then you look at the new Jazz, see how similar it is to the old one outside (just a bit more muscular), and how the former, uncluttered, dashboard has been replaced by something curvier and busier (it now has two gloveboxes) and much more plasticky-looking, now the dotted grid-matrix finish has given way to a sort of metal look and a fake leather grain. The plastics are all hard; they were before, too, but it somehow didn't matter then because the surface treatment was more honest.
Time to drive. I'm in a 1.3 with i-Shift, a "robotised manual" that can be used as an automatic or, as a clutchless manual. Normally, these transmissions are the regular manual with electronic rather than direct human control, but this has six forward gears instead of the manual's five, accounting for its (unconfirmed) lighter fuel thirst. The former CVT gave fractionally worse economy than the manual.
I'd still rather have the CVT than the i-Shift, though. In automatic mode, the transmission keeps trying to shift into a higher gear at the earliest opportunity, even if it means you start slowing down when you're hoping to accelerate. This is a particular problem on hills, cured either by pressing the accelerator much harder, which brings on an abrupt shift down through a couple of gears, or giving up and using manual mode. Then you endure shifts almost as tardy as a Smart ForTwo's used to be. Which is very leisurely indeed.
So I try a 1.3 manual. Better. The engine is smooth in the revvy, metallic way of Honda engines. But what have the engineers done to the steering? Its movement is assisted by electric motor, as before, and Honda claims it now feels more "natural". The opposite is true: it has the rubbery feel typical of today's poorer electric systems and is reluctant to self-centre.
Perhaps foolishly, Honda had a previous-model Jazz with CVT, and it was a lot more pleasing. Its steering was lighter, more accurate, less full of resistance, more – yes – natural. Its transmission was far superior. Its cabin was more visually restful. And it rode over bumps as well as the new car, which is pretty well. Finally, I drove a 1.2-litre version of the new car which, in well-equipped SE guise, is probably the pick of the range.
Don't get me wrong. Steering apart, the new Jazz is the most useful supermini you could own. But so was the old one, and a new model should be a greater leap forward than this. But you can still order it in metallic pink.
Ford Fiesta 1.25 Style 5dr: £9,895
This impressive Fiesta looks great – it's a near-clone of the Ford Verve concept car, it oozes quality and is great to drive. It sets a new standard for compact cars.
Renault Grand Modus 1.2 Expression: £10,420
At last, the Modus makes sense in this extended-length version and is the Jazz's closest rival in terms of concept. This car is certainly worth going to have a look at.
Toyota Yaris 1.3 TR 5dr: £10,545
The cabin feels cheap, but has futuristic central dial pack. However, there's lots of space, plenty of equipment and it's a satisfying, comfortable car to drive.
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