The popularity of hybrid technology has increased vastly over recent years. It crops up in family cars, four-wheel drives -- hell, even buses and lorries get a look in. But the technology has been strangely absent in super-minis. That's somewhat odd, as it's arguably the one class of car for which hybrid technology makes most sense.
Honda's stepped forward to right this wrong with the new Jazz Hybrid. The company claims it's the first small family car to be powered by a part-electric, part-petrol power train. It'll go on sale in February 2011 for £15,995.
Undercover eco wagon
To the untrained eye, the Jazz Hybrid looks much the same as the standard petrol car. That's no bad thing. It has an attractive design that'll appeal to those who don't want to be judged because they're driving an eco-friendly car.
Our test model was painted an attractive bright green colour. That gave its lentil-eating eco game away slightly, but the only other clues to its hybrid power system were the translucent rear light clusters, the slightly tweaked headlights and, of course, the 'Hybrid' badge on the rear.
The Jazz Hybrid may look like a slightly tweaked petrol-powered Jazz, but, below the surface, it has much in common with its Honda Insight cousin. It's powered by the same 1.3-litre petrol engine as the Insight, as well as Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) package, which consists of a nickel-metal hydride battery pack and a 15bhp electric motor.
Together, the pair help improve the Jazz Hybrid's fuel economy while reducing emissions -- but not to the degree one might expect. The car returns 62.8mpg, which is a full 12mpg fewer than the Toyota Auris Hybrid gets on the combined cycle.
The Jazz Hybrid's emissions are slightly less impressive than the established norm, too. The car spews a not inconsiderable 104g of carbon dioxide every kilometre it's driven, which is 15g/km more than the market leading Toyota Prius and 5g/km more than the current crop of eco-friendly, non-hybrid diesels, like the Volkswagen Polo BlueMotion -- one of the Jazz Hybrid's main rivals.
Driven to distraction
One could forgive the Jazz Hybrid's relative thirst and higher-than-average emissions if it were fun to drive, but it lets itself down in this area, too. It's fine when travelling in a straight line, but enter anything resembling a corner and it handles like Bambi. The Jazz Hybrid's front seems to want to go in one direction -- not always the one you desire -- while the rear seems to react half a second later.
The car's CVT (continuously variable transmission) gearbox is also potentially aggravating. Unlike standard gearboxes, which have distinct gears (first, second, third and so on), this one has one long gear with no distinct ratios in the standard auto mode. This has its benefits -- it theoretically increases fuel economy, since it allows the engine to run at its most efficient RPM no matter what speed the wheels are turning at. But there's a notable drawback: the Jazz Hybrid sounds rather like a hairdryer that gets increasingly louder the harder you push the accelerator pedal.
Space: The final frontier
Honda's IMA hybrid system may disappoint where economy and performance are concerned, but it does have its advantages. It's a small, comparatively modest unit that doesn't intrude on the car's cabin space, so there's enough room inside the Jazz Hybrid to carry a small horse.
This is especially evident in the rear, where Honda's supplied its uber-impressive Magic Seats system. This provides rear passengers with plenty of leg room, as well as the option to recline the rear seat by 73mm, potentially increasing passenger comfort on long journeys.
There's also plenty of potential to transport large or unwieldy cargo. The seat bases can be locked vertically against the seat backs, increasing the load area between the front and rear seats, which is ideal for storing tall items, such as large potted plants.
The seat backs also fold forward, providing an almost completely flat luggage area that's large enough to accommodate a couple of wheelbarrows, a bicycle and, seemingly, the entire contents of an Ikea warehouse. In total, this car delivers a whopping 1,320 litres of space -- considerably more than the majority of its rivals.
The front of the Jazz Hybrid's cabin isn't quite as impressive as the rear. The instrument binnacle, in particular, sports a low-rent version of the futuristic, 3D-effect gauges seen on the Honda CR-Z. That said, it presents all the information you could ever wish to see, including a gauge that shows when the car's regenerative braking system is active, and a graphic showing when the electric motor has kicked in to relieve the burden on the petrol engine.
Like most eco cars, the Jazz Hybrid has a system of rewarding environmentally conscious driving. Below the rev counter is a display that shows an ever-increasing number of virtual trees. The more you nurse the accelerator pedal, preserving petrol and limiting your emissions, the more trees you'll 'grow'. It's a decent idea, but we think most people will end up ignoring this sort of gauge until manufacturers devise a more interesting reward system.
Honda is pitching the Jazz Hybrid as the cheapest hybrid car on the market, but it doesn't skimp on cabin tech. The 7-inch touchscreen display mounted in the dash of our test car packed some great features -- most notably a wealth of audio sources.
Users can play tracks via the integrated AM/FM radio, and stream audio via Bluetooth, which is ideal for listening to Spotify playlists from a mobile phone. The Jazz Hybrid also has an aux and USB port for connecting either a USB key or an iPhone or iPod. Sadly, the car's speakers aren't up to much, but then they rarely are in this class of car.
The Jazz Hybrid's navigation system is satisfactory, but only just. It has a few annoying foibles, including the fact that it only accepts four-digit postcode entry. As a result, you'll need to manually enter street names every time you want to get somewhere -- bad news for anyone who wants to visit Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive in the New Forest.
If you're visiting Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive, and you've taken the time to spell it out on the touchscreen, you may find the sat-nav doesn't actually have it listed anyway. The mapping data in our test car was rather out of date, with some fairly major roads completely absent from the database.
The Honda Jazz Hybrid isn't the most frugal car we've tested, nor is it the cleanest. There are countless other hybrids -- and even diesels -- that have superior eco credentials. That said, it offers features some of its rivals can't, most notably acres of storage space. If you want a vehicle that's relatively eco-friendly and hugely versatile, it's definitely worth a look.
Edited by Charles Kloet