These small cars have big responsibilities. They need to be spacious, safe, stable and fast enough for the odd motorway jaunt, and perfect for taking the stress out of muddling through town traffic.
The Skoda Fabia has been king of this big-selling class since it was launched at the beginning of this year, but it now faces fresh competition from the all-new Honda Jazz and the facelifted Seat Ibiza.
We’re testing the 1.3 petrol Jazz – complete with its trademark Tardis-like cabin – against the Ibiza EcoTSI with its brand new, low CO2, turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine. The Fabia is here with the keenly-priced and smooth-revving 1.2 turbocharged petrol that we favour.
Honda Jazz 1.3 i-VTEC SE
The all-new Jazz is spacious and practical, and very well equipped, but can it justify its high price?
Seat Ibiza 1.0 EcoTSI 95 SE
A refreshed interior and a more efficient three-cylinder engine look set to up the Ibiza’s standing
Skoda Fabia 1.2 TSI 90 SE
Spacious, good value and great to drive, this is the one to beat in the competitive small car class
What are they like inside?
If interior space or easy access is critical for you, then look to the Jazz. There’s plenty of head and leg room in the front and back, and the high roof and doors that open to nearly 90 degrees make life easy for those who need to access child seats, or who have restricted mobility.
The Fabia is as spacious as small cars get, short of the Jazz. Four adults will be perfectly comfortable, since front and rear leg- and head room are very good by class standards, and access is good, too.
By contrast, the Ibiza’s cabin is cramped. While taller adults will be okay up front, they’ll probably find their knees hitting the front seatbacks when sitting in the back, and head room is tight for taller rear passengers, too. The Seat also has the smallest boot, and folding the rear seats is a faff as you have to first flip up the rear seat bases, and they don’t fold completely flat.
Predictably, the Jazz has the biggest boot, and its rear seats topple completely flat in one easy movement. It’s also only a moment’s work to lift the rear seat bases up cinema style to create a deep, through-loading area in the rear cabin.
The Fabia’s boot is almost as big as the Jazz’s, and has some useful cubbies and bag hooks. Alas there’s no variable-height floor or underfloor storage, and there’s a relatively hefty lip at the boot entrance.
The Jazz is let down by its driving position. The seat is very flat and doesn’t offer much thigh support, making you feel as though you’re sliding forwards off the seat. Taller drivers may also struggle to see the dials clearly because the steering wheel gets in the way. The Skoda and Seat have better driving positions, with more supportive seats that offer a greater range of adjustment.
Forward visibility is good in all three, but the Skoda has the best rearward view. The Seat, and even more so the Jazz, have narrower rear windscreens and bigger blind spots to be conscious of when changing lanes.
What are they like to drive?
The new 1.0-litre turbocharged engine is a great addition to the facelifted Ibiza range. The turbo kicks in early and delivers punchy performance, and you can hold high gears comfortably around town if you want, even though you do have to rev the engine quite hard to get the best from it.
The Fabia’s 1.2 four-cylinder turbocharged engine is similarly flexible and has plenty of oomph and a sharper throttle response, but there’s a more noticeable surge when the turbo kicks in and it’s best kept in its mid rev-range.
Meanwhile, the Jazz is ultimately the slowest car here, and the hardest work, too, because you have to rev the non-turbocharged 1.3-litre engine hard to get good acceleration. The gear ratios are quite short, too, so at 70mph in sixth gear the Jazz’s engine is revving frantically at more than 3100rpm at 70mph; the other are spinning away at a more relaxed 2800rpm.
All of these cars have responsive yet consistent steering that’s ideal for navigating awkward town roads and car parks. They’re also stable through fast corners, although the Fabia has more body lean than the others, and body float over dips and crests in the road are more noticeable in the Skoda and Seat.
Our trio avoids the unnervingly vague high-speed steering that often hampers the cruising ability of small cars, so long journeys aren’t something to worry about. Ride comfort is adequate in all, too; tatty town roads have them bobbing about a bit, but they remain composed despite being a touch unsettled over sharp-edged bumps and ripples – the Seat is worst in this respect.
All are comfortable around town, although the Jazz is less well judged at high speeds, when bigger intrusions such as expansion joints can catch it out momentarily. The Jazz is certainly the least refined, due to its coarse-sounding engine. It’s noisier than the quiet burble in the Ibiza, and particularly the smooth engine in the Fabia.
All suffer noticeable road and wind noise at motorway speeds, although the Seat is worst for road noise and the Jazz for wind flutter, making the Skoda quietest overall by a small margin.
Most irritating is the Honda’s sensitive initial throttle response and slightly vague clutch, which makes it easy to accidentally over-rev the engine when pulling away, although on the plus side it does have the best gearshift; short and precise, where the Seat and Skoda’s shifts feel sloppy by comparison.
What will they cost?
The Honda is the most expensive, and discounts are limited, while the Skoda is cheapest to buy at the outset, with big savings available on what’s already the lowest list price.
The Seat is available with sizeable discounts but still isn’t as cheap as the Skoda after haggling. PCP finance costs for the Honda and Seat come in at £187 and £183 per month respectively, after a £3000 deposit on a 36-month contract.
The Skoda is much cheaper at £119 per month, although if you do choose to buy the car at the end of the agreement you’ll have to find £5791, compared with £4711 for the Seat and £6166 for the Honda.
Less impressive is the Skoda’s 44.9mpg real-world fuel economy; the Jazz managed 48.7mpg and the Seat 52.2mpg. Over 36,000 miles the Seat will cost you around £500 less in fuel than the Skoda.
Despite this saving, the Ibiza will still cost you more than the Fabia overall if you buy outright and sell on after three years, mostly due to the Seat’s heavier depreciation. With all the bills you’re likely to face factored in, the Skoda comes in at £12,990, the Seat £13,959 and the Honda £14,650.
The Jazz goes some way to justifying its higher costs with lots of equipment. All of these cars get air-con, a multifunction steering wheel, 15in alloys and front electric windows, but the Jazz also gets front and rear parking sensors, cruise control, auto lights and wipers, rear electric windows and a choice between two standard paint colours – orange or red.
The Fabia and Ibiza only offer one standard paint – dark blue or red, respectively – and, while the Skoda gets standard rear parking sensors, the other two still look sparsely equipped next to the Jazz. The Seat is the cheapest of the three to run as a company car or lease.
However, it’s the only car here that doesn’t come with automatic emergency city braking or curtain airbags (which cover the front and rear windows), settling for driver’s head and side airbags only.
The Skoda is the clear winner here. It’s not perfect – there are cars with a better ride and handling compromise in this class (namely the Ford Fiesta), just as there are cars with classier interiors (try the VW Polo), and the new Jazz certainly beats all comers for space and practicality.
However, in this class of car, the Fabia is the best blend of function, comfort and cost. It’s sweet to drive, roomy inside, and cheap to buy and run, too, no matter how you’re paying.
The Seat is slightly less comfortable but slightly more fun, and its engine is perfect for this sort of car, being impressively efficient yet energetic from low revs. However, you’ll want to avoid the Ibiza if you value rear passenger comfort or boot space, and it’s missing some of the convenience and safety kit that many would consider the bare minimum these days.
The Jazz is a really decent car despite coming last here. It has quite remarkable interior space and versatility, is dynamically more than fit for purpose, and, while it’s expensive, it comes with properly ‘big car’ levels of equipment. However, in this ever hard-fought class, it needs a more efficient and more refined engine, lower PCP costs and a better driving position if it’s to be considered one of the best rather than just recommendable.
Skoda Fabia 1.2 TSI 90 SE
For Spacious and good to drive, smooth engine, low costs
Against Slightly firm low-speed ride, less practical boot than the Jazz
Verdict Remains easily the best all-rounder in this class
Seat Ibiza 1.0 EcoTSI 95 SE
For Sweet engine; cheap company car; economical
Against Mediocre practicality and safety equipment
Verdict Enjoyable, but Fabia is better on most counts
Honda Jazz 1.3 i-VTEC SE
For Outstanding practicality; masses of kit; gearshift
Against Noisy; driving position; engine needs revving
Verdict Plenty to like if you can get comfortable