Honda Jazz Hybrid Badge

The green has faded only slightly

I have very little respect for motoring journalists. To my mind, their obsession with horsepower, acceleration, maximum speed, torque and displacement encourages automobile manufacturers to build the wrong cars for a warming world. They never fail to test the time it takes to race from 0-100 kms, something no one should be attempting in the real world.

And their impressions of fuel consumption—when mentioned at all—usually consist of a figure calculated from a single half-day of hard driving, a number that is useless for comparing one vehicle to another. It is always much higher than the official consumption figures.

I like to do things differently. I have given myself a year to get to know my Honda Jazz Hybrid. I drive it gently, and have measured fuel consumption tank by tank more than 40 times. (I don’t trust the consumption reading given on the dashboard.) These are my impressions:

I am a big fan of the Honda Jazz line. We own three in my family, and the oldest is still going strong after 9 years and 150,000 kms. I find them to be solidly built, a perfect compromise between the masses of tiny and tinny subcompacts and the larger, more luxurious vehicles that seem to me to be suited neither to modern parking lots nor to the air I would prefer to breathe. The seats fold down like origami, so my bicycle fits in the back.

The Jazz Hybrid is the best appointed of the cars I have owned, and the interplay between the electric and petrol motors is generally seamless. The car’s special engine only announces itself clearly at red lights, or in traffic jams, when the engine shuts off instead of idling. It took my wife a while to get used to this, but more and more non-hybrids are being built with this auto-stop feature, and in the future we will find it a disturbing aberration for the engine of a stopped vehicle to idle. I’m only bothered when the hybrid’s engine occasionally fails to cut out at a traffic light.

The hybrid is only available in automatic, which suits my family’s aversion to clutch pedals. The Continuously Variable Transmission or CVT is an ultra-efficient and very smooth automatic that is used in most hybrid cars worldwide, and in our first Jazz as well. Motoring journalists sometimes complain about CVT response in quick acceleration from a dead stop. After 9 years of driving one, I couldn’t even tell you what they are talking about.

We have been less pleased with this particular car’s handling of hill starts, which require a parking brake on steep slopes. This is routine on manual-transmission cars, of course, but not with automatic transmissions, including our first Jazz. The owner’s manual notes that the Hybrid Jazz sold in Europe comes equipped with Hill Start Assist, to prevent the car from slipping back. South Africans apparently didn’t merit this feature.

The other drawback relative to our other Jazzes is that the boot space—with the seats in their normal position—is compromised slightly to make room for the unseen battery pack. Three medium-sized suitcases will fit, but no more. I used a roof-rack and car-top luggage carrier for one long trip with four passengers.

None of this has mattered as much to me as the chief consideration: Is this car as green as its metallic paint suggests? I keep track of my fuel consumption on a spreadsheet that you can download for yourself here. The calculations tell me that I average 5.8 litres per 100 km driving the hybrid. (In American: 49 miles per gallon.) When my wife, son or daughter are driving, consumption drifts just above 6 l/100 km. You can get a sense of how I drive by reading my 10 Unconventional Tips for Saving Petrol.

It’s all relative, of course. We bought the hybrid when downsizing after two children moved out of the house to attend university. Since our FRV used nearly 10 litres per 100 kms, our fuel bill is way down. Compared to the other Jazz, the hybrid’s improvement is less dramatic. I average 6.9 l/100 kms on that vehicle, about 20 percent more than the hybrid. All of this promises a meaningful reduction in the environmental damage wreaked by our driving, and as I have pointed out in a previous post, hybrid emissions are far lower than mere consumption figures would indicate.

Still, one calculation leaves me puzzled. Compared to the official consumption figures, my average on the old Jazz is 20 percent worse, but actual consumption on the hybrid is 32 percent worse than the official rating of 4.6 litres/100 kms. I’m not the first hybrid driver to notice that real-world driving is different from the testing conditions used for the advertised figures. I suspect that many of those drivers never bothered to pay close attention to their litres/100 kms until they bought a hybrid, however. Their actual fuel efficiency with non-hybrids was undoubtedly also much worse than the official ratings. But I am constantly measuring, and my driving habits are consistent.

A dark suspicion nags me. The battery charging indicator suggests that the car stops drawing on the batteries when they are still holding a half charge, and begins to charge them from the petrol motor. If so, I’m not deriving the full benefit of the electric motor, especially up long hills. The charging regimen is controlled by software, which can easily be reprogrammed. Is it possible that the cars used for testing fuel consumption were set to maximize the use of the batteries, but the cars sold to customers are programmed to use the batteries more lightly in order to improve their lifespan? I can only wonder.

Still, if I put those suspicions to the side, I am left with the undeniable fact that in 32 years of driving, my Honda Jazz Hybrid is the cleanest, most efficient, even the most enjoyable vehicle I have ever owned. As to those vehicles I have never owned, I couldn’t say. The Toyota Yaris hybrid was introduced in South Africa only a few months after I bought this car, with even more impressive claimed figures for emissions and consumption. Again, I can only wonder . . .