Also green on the inside, with 104g/km CO2 rating.
Also green on the inside, with 104g/km CO2 rating.
At R239 900 it is significantly more expensive than the VW Polo BlueMotion.
At R239 900 it is significantly more expensive than the VW Polo BlueMotion.

Can this SA-bound compact hybrid beat a small diesel? Our UK correspondent puts on his green driving gloves to find out:

It ought to be the perfect car for the urban family. A supermini shaped like an MPV and moved by a hybrid powertrain. Plenty of space for five, low official CO2 figures and the promise of genuinely cheap, low-pollution running on congested streets. It's easy to park, a versatile load-carrier, and it fits easily through gaps.

Sounds ideal, yes? But what's odd about the Honda Jazz Hybrid is that no other carmaker makes anything similar. Is the Jazz the only supermini in step? Or is the idea actually not quite so clever in practice?

Hondas with this particular combination of 1.3-litre engine, continuously variable automatic transmission, and a slender electric motor between the two, already exist as the larger, Toyota Prius-like Insight and the CR-Z sports coupé, both of them based on Jazz underpinnings.

A distinct hybrid identity having been established, now it's the turn of the mainstream Jazz. It's the cheapest of the three, with prices starting at R239 900 when it goes on sale in South Africa very soon, but that is still dearer than high-economy diesel rivals with which it will be compared.

The engine is a lower-power version of the regular Jazz 1339cc unit, producing 66kW here, while the motor manages 10kW but a lot of torque. The official CO2 score is 104g/km.

2011 facelifted Jazz models have revised suspension and steering settings to counter criticisms of a bumpy ride and a stiff steering feel, and the Hybrid's are different again to allow for the extra weight of the motor over the front wheels and a slim battery pack under the boot floor. It's a clever bit of packaging, with the Jazz's usual versatility unchanged.

To drive, the Hybrid is as you would expect an automatic Jazz to be - especially now that the regular Jazz auto has itself regained the previous-generation's continuously variable gearbox in place of the jerky, surge-prone and much-disliked i-Shift "robotised manual".

The electric motor acts as the petrol engine's starter, so starting is instant, quiet and smooth. The engine stops when the car does, apart from when power is needed to keep the battery charged, and in certain circumstances the Jazz can run, briefly and slowly, on electric alone. That's when it makes the most sense. Nothing can beat a hybrid for economy in an urban setting, except a pure electric car which could never match a hybrid's all-round usability.

On the open road, with the electric motor boosting the engine's efforts, things are less clear, given the different ways of driving this Jazz; trying to keep the instrument lighting green (best economy) or letting it fade through turquoise to blue (profligacy). There's an "Econ", but if you're in a hurry you'll find the turgidity tedious.

On a 224km, mainly-freeway drive the Jazz averaged 5.5 litres per 100km, which means the Jazz Hybrid is probably a better bet than an economy-optimised diesel supermini if you do much town driving. As for the revised suspension and steering, the ride comfort is fine and most of the time the steering feels smooth and responsive.

An earlier encounter with the same Jazz Hybrid, during the snow and ice, perfectly revealed what is wrong with the electric power assistance (EPAS) that is fast becoming the new-car norm.

EPAS, if well programmed, can synthesise a fair approximation of the true road feel experienced in a conventional system, but seemingly it can't mimic the low forces of feedback generated on a slippery road.