If you saw a brand new brown car in the UK in 2014, it was most likely a Honda Jazz. That’s a fairly damning indictment. Not that brown cars are inherently uncool, of course – the 1970s were stuffed full of smashing chocolate-hued motors, and the likes of MINI, Fiat and BMW are working hard to bring the colour back into fashion… but it does have an ingrained reputational problem.
As, in a broader sense, does the Jazz. People see it as a pensioner’s car, a granny-runabout for the perennially befuddled. Something that you need to give a reasonably wide berth, in case its ponderous progress suddenly lurches into unexpected direction changes.
I think this is unfair. I believe in the Jazz, it’s a corking little motor. And, as the motoring press at large dusts off its creaky blue rinse analogies in readiness for the arrival of the all-new Jazz, I wanted to give the outgoing model a decent send-off. You see, if you spec it right, it has the makings of a teenage dream: it is, in a sense, a modern interpretation of the Citroën AX GT.
Don’t laugh. Hey, come back! There’s logic behind this. You see, you get a diminutive footprint, hatchback practicality, a peppy 1.4-litre motor and a manual ’box; more importantly, in terms of power-to-weight ratio, the Jazz is within spitting distance of the AX GT. Er, sort of. It’s something of a hidden gem, then – an eager warm hatch masquerading as an old duffer’s bumper car. It’s stealthy. It flies under the radar. And it’s surprisingly feisty.
Now, this theory of mine is rooted in quite a retro mindset. When I was first dabbling with cheapo hatchbacks back in the late 1990s, the AX GT was an aspirational thing. My first car was a 1.0-litre Vauxhall Nova – a base model so woeful that it wasn’t even a Merit or an L – it had 40bhp or thereabouts, and offered little in the way of dynamics.
While I did have a friend with an AX GT (the git), most of my mates had Novas, Peugeot 205s or Renault 5s with puny engines. As such, we had to make the best of what we had; with a blank canvas of entertaining country lanes stretching across the east Kent countryside, we honed our fledgling skills by driving the wheels off our asthmatic little hatchbacks.
Sometimes literally. Keep the revs high at all times, use the handbrake a lot, er… that was it, basically. You could hustle these motors, you just had to give ’em hell. Once this mean approach to eking out horsepower was applied to, say, an AX GT or one of its warm-hatch contemporaries (a 205 Rallye, for example – obviously we’re not talking about the bona fide likes of the 205 GTI or Escort RS Turbo, none of us could insure those…), you suddenly found yourself making pretty lively progress.
The AX had about 85bhp, in a car that weighed rather less than 750kg. Big revs and a big heart made it a proper little rally car.
Back to the Jazz, then. In order to test the theory, I asked Honda to hand over the keys to the sportiest variant, the Si. This is the model that, to be honest, the grannies of the UK are least likely to buy; disregarding for a moment the fact that they’d probably sidestep the 1.4-litre motor and manual stick for a 1.2 with a slushbox, the Si is the only one in the range that comes with the established trappings of the warm-to-hot hatch: stiffer, sportier suspension, and racier-looking bumpers.
I’d imagine the average pensioner would last a few minutes in the Si before declaring the suspension annoyingly stiff, and ease themselves into a lesser model instead. This gives my theory the upper hand. The Jazz Si is inherently not an old people’s car. Right? Good. We’re getting somewhere.
Now, let’s dive in at the deep end and canvas the opinions of some young people. They’ll know the score. When I was clutching my fresh new driving licence, any new car would have been an impressive proposition, so surely these whippersnappers can find something to love?
We’ll begin with Andie Coulson. She’s 20, she comes from a family of car lovers, she’s got to be in Honda’s crosshairs for this one. So Andie, do you think this car’s cool?
“No,” she says, “not really.”
Ah. Alright. Care to elaborate? How about if I gave you the keys to this car for 24 hours, where would you go? “I’d take my nan to Marks & Spencer,” she shrugs.
Hmm. And if I gave you the keys for a week?
“I’m sure all my grandmother’s gal pals would love to pile in with their picnic baskets and whizz down to Herne Bay for a spot of fish and chips,” Andie sighs, despairing at the world in general and the Jazz in particular. “They’re wild and adventurous like that. I might even pop by a Harvester on the way back so they can enjoy a shandy.”
Huh. This is deviating somewhat from the path I’d hoped it would naturally follow. Have you ever heard of the AX GT, Andie? “No.” How about the 205 Rallye? “No.” And what’s the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase ‘hot hatch’? “Freshly laid eggs.”
Okey doke. Perhaps twenty year-olds aren’t the key proving ground for this theory. Let’s try Josephine Day – she’s fifteen, so the heady thrill of a legitimate driving licence is still a couple of years away. Josephine, have you heard of the AX GT? “Yes,” she grins, “I have.” Great. Now we’re getting somewhere. Didn’t expect that. How about the 205 Rallye? “Er, no…”
Sure. Perhaps I was being a bit ambitious there. But whatever. What image does the phrase ‘hot hatch’ conjure up for you? “A teenage boy racer,” she says, thoughtfully. “Or something on fire.” Fair point, they’re often the same thing. And the big question, the crux of the matter – is the Jazz cool? “No. It’s not cool. It’s ugly, and the back looks ridiculous.”
Right. OK. So perhaps this theory requires a little refinement. I suspect the hidden conclusion here isn’t just that young people don’t want the Jazz, but they don’t want the AX GT either. Which, in a roundabout sense, means that my idea still holds water: the sort of people who want the latter will be in their thirties now, so it stands to reason that they should enjoy the former. I’m certainly enjoying it. But in the interest of truly dispelling the myth, let’s take the Jazz down to Essex and see what my granny thinks of it. If she’s indifferent to it, we’re in business.
Dorothy is in high spirits when I pick her up, eager to tear it up around the undulating country lanes of the Wickham Bishops environs. She’s an adventurous old bird, my granny – back in her driving days she had a Micra, as so many pensioners do, but it was the racy 1.3 GX – revvy twin-cam hijinks were a mere throttle blip away. Perhaps, then, she’s not the ideal older person to test this increasingly tortured theory. But nevertheless, off we go.
This is actually a bit surreal. She’s goading me on to go faster and faster. The Jazz doesn’t have a lot of oomph in the lower regions of the rev range, but if you give it 4k-plus off the line and keep the engine on song then it fairly scampers along. This sort of mischief has made me regress to that old take-power-where-you-can-find-it approach of my seventeen year-old self all those years ago, and I’m handbraking it around corners and urging the thing to the redline at every given opportunity.
You don’t get a significant cam-profile crossover like you did in VTECs of yore, but the exhaust actually starts to sound pretty good as the needle approaches the red paint, and all the while my granny is cheerfully making chirpy observations like “Ooh, it’s nippy isn’t it?” She’s not scared at all. This is weird.
Come on then, grandma – is the Jazz a grannies’ car? “Oh no, I don’t think so,” she assures me. “It feels like something designed for young people. Although it would give an older person a thrill, it’s quite sporty.”
Yes! That’s exactly the right answer. Nice work, granny.
“It certainly goes well,” she continues. “A bit bumpy for my liking, but it corners beautifully.” (See, anyone who tells you that people in their eighties don’t appreciate the finer points of damper rebound is talking a load of old tommyrot.) “It looks sporty too, it seems very close to the ground. It’s what I’d call a headturner – it would look good outside your house. And that shiny white paint is lovely.” That’s a good shout, granny – the pearlescent paint is a £450 option, but it really does make those crisp origami lines pop. I think it’s rather handsome.
We’ve established, then, that the young people aren’t all that interested. Furthermore, the old people like it, but feel it’s better suited to the young. Simple mathematics places that squarely in the aspirations of those in their 30s and 40s, which makes perfect sense as they’re the people that own AX GTs. No, shut up, this argument isn’t getting desperate, it all makes perfect sense.
Furthermore, the advantage that the Jazz has over the AX is that it’s enjoyed many, many years of product development meetings and technological advancement; sure, they both have a 1.4-litre engine, but the Jazz also has airbags, ABS, ‘Magic Seats’ (they fold cleverly, they’re not actually magic), aircon, ISOFIX, all the things that make life easier and safer.
The Si mimics the AX GT’s warmed-over aesthetic with its diamond-cut 16” wheels, stiffer-and-lower suspension and chunky restyled bumpers. Furthermore, the AX GT cost £7,914 at launch, which is the equivalent of about £20,700 today – the Jazz Si can be yours for £15,445, and that includes the spangly disco paintwork. Phew. What a time to be alive.
What have we proved, then? That the Jazz is better equipped and cheaper (at least to people who own time machines and would be buying a new AX [although why you’d go to all the trouble of building a time machine and then programming it to adjust your associated bank account for inflation is a matter for a separate debate]); marginally slower, but equally entertaining to make point-to-point progress in. That the two young people polled didn’t think it was all that cool. That the one old person did, but felt that it was better suited to young people. Ah hell, this AX GT theory is crumbling into dust, isn’t it? Rubbish. Abandon it, move on. Can’t be right all the time.
The key take-out from all this is that the Jazz deserves a fairer go from the motoring public at large. Sure, it has a certain reputation and, to be fair, that is largely down to the reality of the people who are actually buying the thing. But it is fun, and it is easily possible to get a lot of amusement out of it, and that’s what makes it cool.
There you go, then – a satisfactory conclusion. The Jazz Si is cool. It’s a legitimate warm hatch – the only proviso being that you need to drive it like a hyped-up 17 year-old who doesn’t know any better. But isn’t it fun to stop being a sensible grown-up for a bit and do that now and again?
The most important outcome of this test, in fact, is that my granny had to have a sizeable gulp of brandy when we arrived back home. She asked me not to tell you that, but I feel it’s vital to the story. The Jazz is amusing, and can be a bit edgy when pushed – old people are buying it because it’s a laugh, and they like to have their nerves rattled a bit. Probably. So let’s hope the new generation of Jazz has been cast in the same mould – those geezers need excitement.