Johannesburg - As any supermarket shopper can attest to these days, packaging can be quite misleading. Those big, poofy bags of crisps are often filled with more air than product; healthier alternatives to peanut butter are sometimes made with even more sugar; and if you think free-range eggs were laid by the happiest chickens roaming around a lush green pasture think again.
With that, we bring you Honda’s new Jazz in Sport packaging. Its list of ingredients starts off pretty tasty - an aggressive body kit, a set of black alloys upsized from 15 to 16 inches, fettled steering and suspension systems, and rear brake discs in place of the drums fitted to other Jazz derivatives.
A bit more power has been squeezed from the Sport’s 1.5-litre naturally-aspirated engine, and while 97kW and 155Nm will hardly rattle the cages of turbocharged Polo GTIs and Fiesta STs, it’s right in line with lower-level warm hatches like the equally revvy Suzuki Swift Sport - even if it was recently discontinued, like so many competitors in this class, to make way for an all-new turbocharged model.
It’s in this boy-racer-on-a-budget bracket where I see the Jazz Sport lining up. Its a relatively affordable pocket rocket league, where power outputs and outright performance play second fiddle to wieldy packaging and a fun-to-drive nature.
But there’s a big problem. In our market this Jazz comes only with a continuously variable transmission, and the words “Sport” and “CVT” go together like tabasco and custard. While we can appreciate the apparent fuel savings this type of automatic can offer in some cars, it just makes no sense in this particular genre.
Belt-driven CVTs are designed to maintain a steady RPM, where the engine can operate in its most efficient zone more of the time, but by nature they create a monotonous drone from the engine. And in the Jazz Sport’s case, the noise is especially buzzy and rather unpleasant.
The car does come with steering shift paddles linked to seven simulated gears, and if you flick up and down through them it’s almost possible to fool yourself into thinking there’s a more conventional autobox at work. But not quite. The hesitations between each of these phony ratios are uncomfortably lengthy, and the lack of responsiveness feels as if the cogs are rotating in a mass of marshmallows.
We can’t help but think Honda missed a trick here. With a manual gearbox this car could be quite the desirable performer. Like a Suzuki Swift Sport. Instead, all the hop-ups engineers have incorporated to make it a sharper handling, meaner looking and slightly more powerful Jazz have been negated by a transmission intended for use in very unsporting applications.
Even more strange is that Honda South Africa specifically chose to pair the Sport with a CVT (instead of a manual) for our market, based on the fact that the regular Jazz has historically sold better locally as an automatic. Sorry Honda, but historically speaking, you’ve never offered a sporty Jazz.
Sadly it’s expensive too. At R310 00 the Jazz sport is significantly pricier than Opel’s Corsa Sport, Peugeot’s 208 GT Line, Renault’s Clio GT-Line and VW’s new Polo Vivo GT - all of which feature turbocharged engines and quicker claimed 0-100km/h times. Honda quotes 0-100km/h in 9.8 seconds for the Jazz Sport, and while we didn’t put it against the clock we can safely say this is an ambitious figure, especially at reef altitude where its naturally aspirated engine suffers some strangulation.
If we try ignore the gearbox and pricing issues (both biggies), the Sport still manages to impress with zippy handling. Honda’s notoriously light steering, a feathery 1066kg kerb weight, and a tweaked suspension setup all contribute to a fun-to-throw-around package. We’re not saying it’s comparable to a Civic Type R at the Nurburgring, but the Jazz Sport can slither in and out of city traffic like a weasel in a henhouse.
Also, as compromising as the CVT ‘box might be, it does indeed aid in keeping fuel consumption down. After a week of driving, mostly in urban environments, the Jazz returned a relatively frugal 6.7 litres per 100km average.
With this gearbox, the Jazz Sport is a flawed package and we’re struggling to pinpoint its target market. Customary CVT buyers won’t be interested in sporty looks or a firm ride, and hot hatch buyers will be put off by a CVT. Niche by default, not by design.