FOR SEVERAL GENERATIONS the Ballade, a name cultivated during the brand’s custodianship by Mercedes-Benz SA, was to Honda what the Corolla is to Toyota. That’s a stalwart compact sedan with impeccable reliability and trusted versatility. Yet when the Ballade sedan of the late 1990s was imported alongside a hatchback derivative, Honda SA bravely tacked its internationally accepted Civic badge onto the ‘two-door’. It went on to garner cult favour among more youthful buyers, making the unlikely Civic name incrementally cooler. All Honda’s C-segment hatches and saloons have since acquired the global nomenclature and will continue to wear it. This brings us neatly to the all-new 2011 Honda Ballade.
This Ballade is a small car. In the East it’s been badged as the ‘City’ – a name that would have given local VW enthusiasts the mutters. Its dimensions are similar to cars that have carried the badge before it, but the competitors have all grown in size – making this a B-segment sedan as opposed to the C segment that the Civic now plays in. It helps to think of it as a booted Jazz, positioned against rivals such as the four-door Mazda 2 and Ford Fiesta. Exterior styling feels generic although that chunky grille and wedge-like snout conjure a visage similar to Honda’s Insight hybrid. In their defence, the designers have created a cohesive profile that avoids the ‘booted hatch’ trap its rivals have fallen into. The rear end is typically Honda and does well to sew up the overall design. Milled 16-inch alloy wheels are a welcome touch for a model in this range. Overall though, a sensible exterior likely to appeal to an older crowd.
Settle into the cabin and any Jazz parallels vaporize. Instead of the hatchback’s ‘future forward’ controls and ergonomics, a much simpler layout does duty. Materials and surfaces feel downgraded from the typical premium Honda fare. The CD player feels cumbersome with controls that had our snapper in a flat spin. The design may be inspired by the ‘iPod’ but storing your favourite channels is not an option. Bluetooth connectivity is on offer via an aftermarket-spec item on the driver’s A-pillar. A USB connection is standard. Small mercies. And while the front seats are comfortable enough and rear space adequate, some of our test panel criticized the upholstery and foam cushioning.
Our 1.5 i-VTEC Elegance test unit is rated at 88kW and 145Nm. Settle behind the rake and reach adjustable leather-rimmed helm and select the first cog via the skinny lever of its five-speed manual gearbox and you’re ready to go. It’s a buzzy engine, noisy but appreciably responsive. The gearbox is notchy, though precise and quick enough in the Jazz tradition. We sprint to 100kph in 9.57 seconds and cross the 402m mark in 16.96 seconds, which is brisk enough and on par with segment rivals. In what might be a freak characteristic of our test unit, at speeds above 130kph wind noise escalated from ‘barely audible’ to cabin-filling ‘shriek’.
Point the noisy Ballade at a corner and you’ll notice that once you deviate from the vague centre, steering feel is quite good; communicative if not entirely direct. The suspension is comfortable on the straights and remains composed when pushed on the bends without excess lolloping about. Understeer is evident, but generally the ride and handling are exactly what you’d predict from a car of this nature: safe and slightly boring.
The Ballade certainly ticks enough boxes to qualify as a Honda, including the key attributes of safety and reliability. Where it falls short is on interior quality, which many testers felt was sub-Korean. Perceptions have shifted and this is clearly a Thailand product built to a tight budget. It’s no bargain. At R193 900 we expected more. Another point to note is that at this price point, you could buy into the C-segment. Entry- level Toyota Corollas, Kia Ceratos and Chevrolet Cruzes offer similar trim levels, plus boast larger interiors and more boot space – making a more compelling argument. However, if small suits your needs, we’d opt for the better finished Mazda 2.