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Not so long ago, buying a little car meant making big compromises. While some contenders had their strong suits, none could claim the all-round ability of those in the next class up despite costing just a few thousand dollars less.
But before you head out and buy a Corolla, know this: the city car class of 2014 is growing up fast.
The Honda Jazz has offered class-leading interior space and practicality since the original went on sale in 2002, but to drive it has always lacked polish. The Volkswagen Polo, meanwhile, has been a class-leading drive since the current fifth-generation model launched in 2010, but only in expensive $20K-plus form. The entry Polo has been the stripper model with a lacklustre engine.
Now, the third-generation Honda Jazz launched in July gets a new chassis that promises to sparkle, while the Volkswagen Polo gains more equipment and a new, more advanced engine in base form. Clearly, each has attempted to become more rounded by addressing their weaknesses. So, in this evolutionary battle, which light tike has become the better grown-up?
In addition to its new body and chassis, the $16,990 Honda Jazz VTi trades a 1.3-litre engine for the 1.5-litre shared with the high-grade variants, and in a nod to the original it drops its five-speed automatic for a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
No new bones for the Polo, but the $18,790 66TSI Trendline tested here retires its old naturally aspirated 1.4-litre engine for a detuned version of the 1.2-litre turbo previously only offered in the higher-spec 77TSI Comfortline. Paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (DSG), the 66TSI is now almost $3000 cheaper than the old 77TSI, and it gets a new electrical system from the Golf, too, which brings a much-needed infotainment upgrade.
The story begins the same as it always has – the Polo wins for interior finish, the Jazz trumps for practicality.
The Volkswagen has a higher quality finish than some cars twice its price. Soft-touch dashboard plastics, a damped glovebox door, neatly tactile buttons and dials, and piano black and satin chrome trim highlights make the it feel much more mature than the plasticky Honda. But the Polo can’t match the Jazz’s excellent all-round visibility, and is snug in the back for 180cm passengers. Back-seat Jazz passengers, meanwhile, could be excused for thinking they’re in a mid-sized Accord, so generous is its head and legroom, though the Polo’s seats are more comfortable and supportive.
As before, the Honda’s ‘Magic Seats’ mean its rear seat bases can be flipped up against the backrests to create a tall loading space in the cabin, or folded completely flat to expand the boot to wagon-rivalling proportions. There’s no other city car on the market that can carry three adult-size bikes with only their front wheels removed and still have three seats in play (as we demonstrated in our video review above).
With all five seats in place, the Jazz’s boot measures 350 litres, which is on par with some small hatchbacks, and is 25 per cent larger than the Polo’s 280L boot.
The Polo features a nifty two-level boot floor and also has 60:40 split folding rear seats, though it simply can't compete with its rival for the most part: the bases can’t flip up like the Jazz’s and the backrests don’t fold flush. Loading up the Honda through the boot is also made much easier by its low loading lip and enormous aperture.
It’s the Jazz that also impresses most in terms of standard features, particularly in the infotainment department, despite it costing $1800 less and despite the Polo’s belated upgrade.
Inheriting the Display Audio system from the Odyssey people-mover, it boasts a 7.0-inch colour touchscreen with a reverse-view camera and Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming.
Users of an iPhone (but unfortunately not Android smartphones) have the potential to get much more out of the system, too. Connecting a phone (albeit rather messily via two cables) to the Jazz’s HDMI port and one of its two USB ports enables ‘mirroring’, which allows the operation of some smartphone applications on the vehicle screen, in addition to Siri Eyes Free, which allows drivers to operate their phone’s voice assistant via a button on the steering wheel.
Owners can also download the HondaLink Navigation app, which for $49.99 provides a three-year subscription to the brand’s mapping service. The system displays on the vehicle screen like a conventional navigation system, though as it streams the information from your phone it chews your data, so it’s best to keep an eye on your usage to avoid copping a nasty bill from your telco.
Customers of the Polo 66TSI Trendline can’t get a camera or sat-nav in any form (they’re both optional in the more expensive 81TSI Comfortline variant), though they will rejoice that the old model’s horrible Bluetooth unit that was crudely tacked on to dashboard has been discarded. In its place is a 5.0-inch colour touchscreen with a proper integrated Bluetooth system, USB port, and even an SD reader that means owners can fill a card with music. And while its screen lacks a couple of inches on the Honda’s, it looks sharper and more vibrant; its whites and reds trumping the Jazz’s dowdy navy tones.
Expect it to get covered in fingerprints, however, as the Polo has no buttons on the steering wheel, forcing drivers to take their left hand off the wheel to operate all infotainment functions. The Jazz’s tiller, in contrast, covers all bases, with buttons for audio, phone, voice control, cruise control and the trip computer.
The latter of those represents another tick for the Jazz, bettering the Polo by displaying instant and average fuel economy, fuel range, and a secondary trip meter. Both come standard with cruise control, CD player, and a 12-volt socket, while the Polo uniquely gets one-touch power windows for all (driver only in the Jazz), and a full-size spare wheel (space-saver for Jazz).
Honda’s engineers have made a few tweaks to the 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine adopted by the new Jazz VTi, but none that alter its power and torque outputs, which remain at 88kW at 6600rpm and 145Nm at 4600rpm.
The Polo’s 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo is down on power compared with the Jazz (-22kW) but up on torque (+15Nm). Importantly, however, both are available significantly earlier in the rev range, with its 66kW produced between 4400-5400rpm and all 160Nm on tap across a highly usable 1400-3500rpm band.
The Polo is also equipped with a fuel-saving stop-start system, which switches the engine off when the vehicle is stopped and turns it on again when you take your foot off the brake pedal.
The Polo’s drivetrain is unsurprisingly the sweetest and most sophisticated of this pair. The engine is quiet and refined at all speeds, whether down low in the rev range or pushed to its redline, while the Jazz is louder and coarser, particularly beyond 4000rpm where its performance is at its best.
The Polo feels punchier off the line than the Jazz and responds quickly to calls to accelerate – the DSG shifting instantaneously from seventh gear to fourth to find the engine’s sweet spot. It’s also clever around hills where it intuitively selects lower gears to maintain a steady speed. The detuned 66kW engine does feel rather sluggish compared with the old 77kW version and the new 81kW tune in the Comfortline grade, however.
Volkswagen has all but eradicated the low-speed clunkiness that once plagued its dual-clutch transmissions, though the latest Polo can be jerky to take off when stopped on an incline, as the combination of its stop-start system and an overly grabby hill start assist system bog it down if you jump quickly from the brake pedal to the accelerator.
The Honda’s CVT is lazy by comparison, reacting slowly to prods at the throttle pedal and relying on the engine’s extra power to get the job done. The engine is capable, but requires more encouragement than its rival’s.
Its CVT allows the engine to settle better when cruising, however. Around town, the Jazz’s engine hovers just above 1200rpm compared with the Polo at closer to 1500rpm, while at 100km/h the Honda ticks over at 1700rpm versus the Volkswagen at 2100rpm.
We suspect this goes a long way to explaining the superior fuel consumption recorded by the Jazz on test.
Driven around inner city suburbs, on the highway, and more spiritedly on some country roads outside Sydney, the Jazz consumed 8.7 litres per 100 kilometres compared with the Polo’s 10.7L/100km. Both were up considerably on their official combined cycle ratings (Jazz at 5.8L/100km, Polo at 4.8L/100km). It’s also worth noting the Polo’s turbocharged engine requires more expensive premium unleaded petrol, while the Jazz is happy drinking regular.
Across all of those different driving conditions, however, the Polo continues to assert its dynamic dominance. Around town its suspension irons out imperfect surfaces and corrects quickly and precisely after larger bumps. The Jazz, by contrast, feels jittery and takes longer to settle, and its suspension is also more vocal than the Polo’s – it seems improved compared with the old model, but not to the degree you’d hope.
On the highway the Honda’s big windscreen generates lots of wind noise, its taller body gets buffeted by the breeze, and its steering wheel requires regular corrections to hold a straight line. The Volkswagen feels solid and settled at speed, with minimal road and wind noise penetrating the cabin.
The Polo shines yet again during fun driving. The updated steering is beautifully light and direct, the brakes progressive, the ride still impressive, and the DSG even snappier in Sport mode. Its 15-inch Continental tyres also provide plenty of front-end grip. It sits flatter and feels more balanced than almost anything under $20K, and is genuinely enjoyable to drive.
The Jazz is much less convincing in these conditions. Its ride is choppier, its brake pedal has a light and unnerving initial feel, its steering feels more vacant, and it lacks the Polo’s balance, shifting its weight and understeering earlier when pushed into corners.
It remains competent, but uninspiring.
The Honda’s pragmatic approach continues as the Jazz is cheaper to service, especially if you drive plenty of kays. Both hatches are covered by capped-price servicing programs, with the Jazz due at six-month/10,000km intervals and the Polo every 12 months or 15,000km.
Over three years, the Jazz offers the narrowest of savings, costing $1524 versus the Polo’s $1532, though measured to 60,000km, the Volkswagen blows out to $2389 while the Honda is unchanged.
The Volkswagen uniquely comes with three years of roadside assistance, and its three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty is also superior to the Honda’s, which is capped at 100,000km.
The Honda Jazz and Volkswagen Polo have both grown up in their own ways, and each offers a realistic alternative to a small hatch in the next class up. The Jazz’s new engine is an improvement, though its ride is still not smooth enough to match the class leaders. Similarly, while the Polo’s new tech features fix some of the old failings, the Honda moves the game along by offering a camera and nav in a base model.
Clearly, each contender will appeal to very different buyers. If interior spaciousness and versatility, interior technology, and lower running costs are your priorities, the Honda continues to be the obvious choice, while if you favour powertrain refinement, driving dynamics, and cabin comfort and quality, the Volkswagen is impossible to overlook.
For all their differences this pair is incredibly hard to split, but in the battle of the evolutions it is the Polo which is ultimately the most grown up, handing it a narrow victory in this tale of two city cars.