Makers of the latest hybrid cars are always telling us that powertrains are not the sole focus of their petrol-electric models; that the technology has gone mainstream and that these vehicles should be judged on their own merits, not simply against other hybrids.
Good point. So let's just think of the Honda Jazz hybrid as an ordinary small car with a twist. After all, this car (mostly) looks and feels like a normal Jazz, but still boasts an official fuel economy figure of 4.5 litres per 100km.
To really get a sense of what the Jazz offers, we need to compare it with a conventional small car. But it can't be something completely ordinary, because the Jazz hybrid - with its blue-tinted lights and multi-coloured eco-instruments - is still a car for those who are attracted to just a little idiosyncrasy.
Meet the Skoda Rapid. For many, it'll be a little left-of-centre by virtue of the fact that it's a Skoda, of course. But there's also some interesting technology at work in the Rapid, and on paper it's a worthy rival for the Jazz hybrid in more ways than one.
Consider this: both are five-door hatchbacks that hover around the $30k mark. Both offer Tardis-like cabin space within small-car exterior dimensions. Both aim to combine extreme thrift with pleasing performance, by combining frugal small-capacity petrol engines with a bit of on-demand boost. In the Jazz it comes in the form of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid technology, which supplies extra electric power when required, while the Rapid employs light-pressure turbocharging. The Rapid also gets the Volkswagen Group's Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) twin-clutch automated transmission technology.
Rapid is a little larger than Jazz, but then that's always been Skoda's ethos: offer a bit more metal for the money than its rivals. Thanks to the brand's access to VW technology, it's never fallen short on driving pleasure either: the Rapid's 1.4-litre TSI engine and DSG mirror the specification of the latest Golf. The Jazz, too, benefits from the company parts bin: this hybrid version borrows its powertrain from the larger Insight.
The driving experience in the Jazz is quite conventional, because it's really a mild hybrid: while it will coast at very low speed with the petrol engine off, in 99 per cent of driving the 1.3-litre powerplant is running. The electric motor is used primarily for extra power: you cannot drive away from standstill just on battery, for example. In very specific circumstances the IMA will slip in Electric Vehicle (EV) mode, but it's usually only momentary and you wouldn't know it save for a small EV-indicator light.
The most tangible difference between this and a regular 1.5-litre Conventional car versus hybrid Jazz is the continuously variable transmission (which comes as part of the hybrid powertrain) and the fact that you have less power but more torque in the hybrid model: an extra 19Nm in fact. Total hybrid system output is 72kW/167Nm.
The powertrain is pretty slick and if you can avoid punishing the throttle (which causes the CVT to rev uncomfortably high), that petrol/electric pulling power is quite satisfying. The transmission has sport and low modes, but both can get busy: better to leave the CVT in drive.
The Rapid is on a higher performance tier, with higher outputs (90kW/200Nm) and a faster 0-100km/h time (9.5 seconds versus 11.2). Relatively sporty too, with a crisp engine and that quick-shifting DSG. It can't match the Jazz's smooth demeanour around town - indeed, the twin-clutch gearbox can still get a small case of the shudders in light throttle work or when parking on hills. The Rapid's ride is also fussy on the 17-inch rims supplied for our test car (an option over the standard 16-inch items) compared with the Jazz.
But on the open road it's a different story. The lively engine and finger-clicking gearshifts of the DSG make the Rapid a genuinely entertaining car. It also handles neatly, changing direction with alacrity and flowing through tight corners in fine style.
Not so the Jazz, which collapses into understeer very quickly and resorts to 1970s-cop-show levels of tyre squeal when you attempt to drive enthusiastically. The energy-saving tyres must take some of the blame.
Okay, so nobody expects the Jazz hybrid to be a sports car. But even with modest expectations, I think many will be surprised at how readily the chassis protests when you turn the steering wheel with serious intention.
But the trade-off is outstanding economy, right? True. The Jazz hybrid boasts a combined fuel economy figure of 4.5 litres. The Skoda Rapid is hardly thirsty, though: 5.8 litres in the same laboratory test. Those figures are achievable in the real world, too.
On Driven's test route, which blended motorway work with performance driving, the Jazz maintained its advantage with an average of 7.2 litres per 100km over the Rapid's 8.5 litres. Trust us, that's the very worst you'll do in either machine.
Neither car exactly oozes a premium feel inside: not a soft-touch plastic to be found anywhere. The Honda has it all over the Rapid for style: more colour, a bit of flair in the layout without being unnecessarily complicated. There's a nice ambience in the Jazz, although the Rapid is the clear winner on build quality. Dour it may be, but the Skoda's cabin is beautifully assembled, with tight and consistent panel gaps. The Honda is still impressive by class standards but certainly more approximate than its rival here - our test car even had a misaligned glovebox lid.
The Jazz is legendary for its load versatility thanks to Honda's Magic Seat system, which allows the rear chairs to fold in a variety of ways: everything from clicking the squabs back for a tall space (pot plants, children's changing area) to folding the seats flat for a cavernous van-like load bay.
The Jazz's unique underbody construction does lend itself to alternative powertrain technology better than most, although boot space has still suffered a little in the transition to hybrid power: at 233 litres it's only average by class standards and well short of the Rapid's enormous 500 litres-plus cargo area.
The Skoda wins showroom points by sliding in at $10 under $30,000, although our test car had a $2000 option pack that added the larger wheels, parking radar and Bluetooth streaming for the audio system (cellphone connectivity is still standard though). The Jazz hybrid opens at $31,500, making it the most expensive Jazz variant. But it's clearly the most interesting as well.
The bottom line
Generous space and sharp open-road dynamics secure a win for the Skoda. But don't discount the Honda's smooth powertrain and surprising refinement: it's still the better car for city driving.