By Gordon Hall
Let’s just accept that the 2021 Honda Ballade, as we know it in South Africa, is secretly a seventh-generation Honda City. The previous model, introduced here in 2014, was a sixth-generation City so this new one looks and feels much the same.
Appearance changes include a broader front badge bar, slightly narrower headlights with an upward flick to the outer edges, a wider grille mouth, and deeper fog lamp surrounds with decorative strakes.
At the other end are reshaped tail lights, more creases in the back panel, vertical fog lamps instead of horizontal and a fashionable new diffuser.
The interior features restyled vents; automatic, single-channel air conditioning; new instruments and steering wheel, pushbutton starting and a larger touchscreen for Elegance and RS models. The said Elegance version loses its reversing camera to new top model RS that also gains LED headlights and fog lamps, a TFT digital driver interface and leather upholstery.
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The 2021 Ballade grew; 110mm longer and 55wider but with the now-expected lowering of overall height – by 10mm in this case – and at the expense of ground clearance. That shrank from 150mm in 2015 to 137mm now. Boot and tank capacities remain essentially unchanged.
Easily overlooked is the engine. It’s a new 1.5-litre, naturally aspirated motor that’s one cubic centimetre larger than the old one. Coded L15B, its new electronics and more sophisticated hardware, including a Double Overhead Camshaft (DOHC) cylinder head, allow it to deliver a broader spread of power without sacrificing top-end performance.
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Apart from that, there was a need to meet stricter emissions standards. A twin-cam layout gives better control over valve timing and valve lift and makes it easier to meet BS6 requirements without sacrificing performance or economy.
The increase is not dramatic; nine kilowatts more power but no added torque. Honda says the improvement is not in the power output as such, but in the way the engine delivers; more concentrated in the lower- and middle reaches of the powerband.
This earlier build-up of power is just what the doctor ordered. It feels more flexible and appears to be a slightly better, if not yet ideal, match for the constantly variable transmission (CVT) with which all three South African models are fitted. Turbocharged versions of this engine work beautifully with it, but the logistics of the naturally aspirated, 1500 cc power and CVT still need work.
But outright performance has never been what Ballades are about. This is a city car with a big boot, ample people space, gentle manners and loads of safety kit. Suburban families appreciate it for all those reasons but drivers who’ve unmasked its Superhero alter-ego love it too. It’s a sleeper.
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Slip the stick back an extra click to the “S” position, cinch your seatbelt a little tighter, apply pressure in the bottom right corner, juggle virtual gears with the steering-mounted paddles, watch the revs climb, hear its happy growl and let the fat lady sing.
Although no match for a Civic Type R, it can provide loads of under-radar fun. As long as Officer Aggro doesn’t get you.
Prices: Comfort @ R336 500, Elegance @ R366 900, RS @R396 900
Engine: 1498cc, DOHC, 16-valve, i-VTEC four-cylinder
Power: 89kW at 6600rpm
Torque: 145Nm at 4500rpm
Top speed: n/s
Real life fuel consumption: About 6.5 l/100km
Tank: 40 litres
Turning circle: 10m
Luggage: 506 litres
Warranty: Five years, 200 000km
Roadside assistance: Three years
Service plan: Four years, 60 000km at 15 000km intervals
Test unit from Honda Motor SA press fleet
It’s great to tick as many boxes in your car as possible, and today we welcome the range topping Honda Ballade RS which is feature packed. It kicks off with an RS front grill that has grooved LED head and fog lights, chrome door handles & a boot lip at the back. #HondaBallade pic.twitter.com/7MF8V3oQTz
— Khulekani on Wheels (@khuleonwheels) February 17, 2021