DO you remember the name of the first person you kissed, or the surname of your favourite primary school teacher? Of course you do! We tend to keep names associated with fond memories and relationships fresh in our hearts and minds. In South African motoring terms there can be few more fondly-remembered names than Ballade, and the local Honda marketing department was quick to realise the potential of rekindling the public’s fond memories as soon as the opportunity arose. Ironically, it took a potential clash of names with another South African favourite of the past (VW CitiGolf) for the decision to be taken to reintroduce the Ballade nameplate on the local market for the first time in 11 years. The Honda City, as the new Ballade is known in other markets, represents an opportunity for the Japanese manufacturer to offer a model that fits in just below the evergreen Civic saloon lineup, while still offering the value-formoney, peace-of-mind ownership experience that has seen Honda consistently top the JD Power and Associates South African customer satisfaction rankings… a reputation envied by other motoring manufacturers, not least Renault.
By its own admission the French company has been looking for every opportunity in which to gain, and in some cases regain, the trust and loyalty of the South African buying public. Models such as the Fluence, the newly-introduced Mégane saloon replacement, presents a solid opportunity to achieve that goal. Built in Korea, and using engines and transmissions sourced through the company’s alliance with Nissan, this new C-segment competitor is Renault’s answer to an everincreasing demand for value-formoney propositions by an increasingly budget-conscious buying public.
Although no mention was made of the new Honda Ballade as a main rival to the Fluence during its local launch, the two cars are more closely matched than initial observations may suggest. It didn’t take long during our team outing in both cars (four up in each) for it to become apparent that the more compact of these two rivals, the Ballade, actually appears to offer a more spacious cabin than the longer and wider Renault. Honda has achieved this by building the Ballade on the same platform as the current Jazz range, and consequently the fuel tank is positioned below the driver’s seat. Besides offering impressive rear passenger leg-and headroom, the other obvious advantage of this layout is that valuable luggage space is freed up. Despite both cars featuring full-size spare wheels (alloy in the Honda and steel in the Renault) positioned beneath deep-set boot boards, both boast large (424 dm3) boots. It’s not all bad news for the Renault though, as the Fluence’s cabin is spacious enough to comfortably accommodate four adults and their luggage. Rear headroom is restricted for people taller than 1,82 metres, however.
The downside to the additional interior space that Honda engineers have managed to squeeze out the Ballade’s lean frame is that, like the Jazz, it is left with a diminutive 42-litre fuel tank capacity, as opposed to the French car’s 60-litre reservoir. With both cars returning similar combined fuel consumption figures from their respective four-cylinder engines this could potentially result in a 200-kilometre difference in tank range, in favour of the Renault.
Significantly, both the Honda Ballade 1,5 Elegance and Renault Fluence 1,6 Expression featured in this comparative test are priced just below the R200 000 mark, with each manufacturer keen to load their respective packages with as much perceived value as possible. The top-of-the-range Ballade gains 16-inch alloy wheels (as opposed to 15-inch steel units) and standard Bluetooth connectivity over the comprehensive standard features list already found on the cheaper Comfort model. A smart-looking multi-function steering wheel, comprehensive audio system, allelectric windows, and airconditioning add sophistication to the Ballade’s well-put together cabin. Cloth-upholstered seating offers good comfort for all passengers, while a height adjustment function on the driver’s seat, together with a rake and reach adjustable steering column, should provide a comfortable driving position for most shapes and sizes. Indeed, only the slightly aftermarket-looking Bluetooth control, fastened to the A-pillar, seemed out of place in this otherwise nicely set-out cabin. The obvious saving on sounddeadening materials (compared with the more upmarket Civic range) does allow some noise intrusion, though.
A higher specification Fluence model (Dynamique) is also available but, besides leather upholstery, climate control and 17-inch wheels, all units are sold with a comprehensive list of standard equipment – the most notable of which is a built-in TomTom navigation system. Large cushions on the front seats and rear bench may not look very sophisticated but provide an impressive combination of comfort and lateral support. As with the Ballade, the driver’s seat is manually adjustable for height, although the default lowest setting is still fairly high. As always, Renault’s steering wheel-mounted satellite audio controls work well and the cabin is lifted by allelectric windows, air-conditioning and a comprehensive audio system, as well as an impressively upmarket looking facia, with soft-touch upper sections.
While both cars ride on MacPherson struts up front – with torsion beam setups at the rear – it’s the Renault, with its longer wheelbase and wider tracks that delivers the most refined ride over most surfaces. The Ballade feels decidedly sportier, with a firmer overall ride, but this does translate to a slightly more frantic, and ultimately less relaxed driving experience. The Fluence’s ultimate comfort levels are however somewhat undone by the disconnected and wooden steering feel that requires constant shifting around its centre point for reassurance. In this regard the Honda’s steering has a decidedly more positive feel and this, combined with the Ballade’s smaller overall dimensions, makes it feel like the more maneuvrable of the two.
VSA stability control is fitted throughout the Ballade range, while only 2,0-litre Fluence models feature traction control. Both the Honda and the Renault feature ABS-assisted brakes, although the Japanese car ultimately faired slightly better during out brake testing routine.
Honda offers the Ballade with a choice of five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission mated with its proven i-VTEC 1,5- litre petrol engine. This lively and free-revving engine delivers 88 kW of power at 6 600 r/min and 145 N.m of torque at 4 800. By virtue of the Ballade’s relatively low kerb weight (1 126 kg), the Honda feels nimbler and lighter on its feet compared with the heavier Fluence. This perception was quantified during our performance testing procedures during which the Renault’s 81 kW/156 N.m 1,6- litre petrol engine, mated exclusively with a fi ve-speed manual transmission, struggled to match the Honda’s eagerness. In real world terms the zero to 100 km/h times of these two models will matter little, but they do hint at how much effort each engine may require, especially at altitude, to keep up with traffi c. The more encouragement that each engine requires in order to maintain pace could ultimately also impact on overall fuel consumption. Our fuel index fi gures of 7,56 and 7,8 litres per kilometre for the Honda and Renault respectively will depend on how much work is required to maintain momentum. This exercise is made somewhat easier in the Ballade thanks to its transmission, which feels slick and precise compared with the rubbery and long-winded shift action of the Fluence.
Both the Ballade and the Fluence cater for Isofix anchorage child seats at the rear and, while both manufacturers offer front and side airbag protection for front occupants, the Renault also has curtain airbags as standard.
Regardless of what Honda SA chose to call its newest saloon, the new car exudes all the honesty and character that made the initial Ballade range so popular. While subsequent Civic models took over this mantle, natural evolution saw the model move into a new class of sophisti cation – and price bracket. While Honda plays on its past successes, Renault SA is keen to explore new oppor tunities with fresh thinking and a greaterthan- ever commitment to value and service. The French marque has made signifi cant inroads into improving perceived quality and after-sales services. In line with this trend the new Fluence features a not insignifi cant fi veyears/ 100 000 km service plan to match the extensive standard equipment included in the asking price. Honda includes a four year/60 000 km service plan with the new Ballade and will hope that the legacy that is carried with this name holds true. The new Fluence undoubtedly ticks many boxes, but Ballade matches it almost all the way and comes with the better dealership and back-up reputation. It is therefore still the safer choice.
|Honda Ballade 1,5 Elegance||Renault Fluence 1,6 Expression|
|Ride & comfort||17,88/25||18,38/25|
|Value for money||12,13/15||11,88/15|