Sunday, May 16, 2010

Honda Freed

We were in Indonesia earlier this year to briefly try out the new Honda Freed around Honda Prospect Motor’s test track. It was a very short drive but it did give us some sufficient first impressions of Honda’s compact “premium” MPV.

The Honda Freed is the first time in a long time that a car manufacturer has attempted to sell a decidedly JDM styled vehicle here in Malaysia. You see, it is quite clear that our taste buds and those of the Japanese domestic market are quite different. There are plenty of little vehicles that look like the Mitsubishi TownBox all over their streets yet when the Proton Juara was introduced here, we couldn’t get used to its styling.

But for some reason when JDM large MPVs are brought into Malaysia they gain “luxury vehicle” status. Let’s face it – the Alphard is not a particularly good looking vehicle. It’s a gigantic box. But its large and it can ferry many people with comfort, from the first row all the way to the third row. For an MPV – the more space, the better. And the vehicle must also be able to transport all that cube inches of interior space safely, efficiently and a bonus would be swiftly.

The Freed looks pretty much like a JDM car and it is not the first time Honda has made a vehicle that looks like that. It actually looks like a smaller version of the StepWGN, which is another JDM-only model, although you can easily buy one through a grey importer here in Malaysia. I was actually quite surprised when Honda announced that it would be making the Freed in Indonesia. That also meant that Honda was definitely going to sell it throughout the ASEAN market. Would we be able to get used to its looks?

But still, the idea of a Honda in the compact MPV segment was appealing to me – Hondas generally drive quite decently and having a more exciting choice in a market full of Nissan Grand Livinas and Toyota Avanzas made me look forward to it. A Grand Livina type of vehicle with the DNA of what typically defines a Honda is something that I was guessing that Malaysians would find quite appealing. But then I heard the indicated price range and I was a little disappointed. It wasn’t going to be an MPV that everyone would be able to consider side by side with its competition, but more of a price level up.

At RM113,980 it isn’t a super big margin over the 1.8 liter Nissan Grand Livina but this was a 1.5 liter MPV so it would be more logical to compare it to the 1.6 liter Nissan Grand Livina instead. And that’s a huge price difference – the 1.6 liter GL is under RM90k. Is the huge mark-up because of the more generous equipment level really worth it when an MPV is essentially a box that’s supposed to bring as many people as you can as comfortably as possible?

The larger 1.8 liter engine in the Nissan may not be a horsepower king with less than a 10 horsepower advantage on top of the Freed’s, but when it comes to normally aspirated engines there’s no replacement for displacement and the 1.8 liter engine has much more torque (174Nm at 4,800rpm) for you to move all your passengers around easier.

So how does it do ferrying people in it? One of the factors we have to look at would be its size. The Honda Freed has a really long wheelbase – it is the longest variant of the Jazz/City platform. And normally a long wheelbase equates to lots of space on the inside. But for the Freed, the extra long wheelbase is because its wheels are tucked seriously to the far reaches of the car’s body. That explains why although the Freed has a longer wheelbase than the Grand Livina, the Grand Livina’s overall length still ends up being longer than the Freed’s – because of the overhangs. As a result, the interior room of the Freed is not that particularly large for its exterior dimensions.

I am a large guy and I can definitely fit into the second and third row but I wouldn’t exactly call it comfortable. In the third row, my knees were touching the rear of the second row. The only consolation is the rear of the seats are soft-ish. The seating position feels a little high in all three rows which is good if you like to have a commanding position of the road and even your passengers are able to enjoy this.

The third row doesn’t fold flat onto the floor. Instead, you hang it from the sides of the vehicle like the old Pajero third row. At least the resulting luggage area has a flat floor. I haven’t tried personally but Honda’s press images have photos of two bicycles being able to be fit in there.

The low-ish floor because there’s no folded down third row taking up space and the tall roof likely makes the rear luggage area of the Freed one of the most flexible in terms of the dimensions of stuff you can fit in. The opening to access the cabin from the rear of the car is also suitably large – that’s why as some of you have commented there is not much of a rear bumper on the Freed. However because the entire interior is one big ‘room’, there’s no option for a luggage cover if you decide to use the third row as a permanent storage area.

Luggage space is quite limited when the rear seats are being used. You’re left with a triangle shaped storage area if your third row is reclined to a comfortable position. So 4 seater + 2 seater + luggage = not a good idea, unless you mount a storage box on top of the Freed.

The Freed has automatic sliding doors on both sides of the vehicle and they can be opened from the remote control. We tested the door for safety functions and etc and yes, they stop opening when they detect an obstruction. The little opening that’s required for the doors to slide rearward into is neatly integrated into the feature line that rises from the front to the rear of the Freed so it’s not unsightly. Opening and closing the doors takes about 5 seconds.

However no matter how “cool” auto sliding doors may be, because the Freed in itself isn’t a very long car compared to larger MPVs which typically employ these sliding doors, the doors and door opening aren’t that wide.

It’s a serious struggle to access the third row by sliding and reclining the second row forward. The walkthrough cabin created by the four captain chairs in the first and second row isn’t just a feature – it’s a necessity in order for you to get into the third row comfortably. It’s the same when exiting the vehicle. I personally consider this a minus point.

How’s the passenger comfort? We drove the Freed around a short test track for a few laps, both as drivers and passengers. The Freed’s suspension is on the softer side – expected as it is an MPV after all. The steering is also pretty light and very easy to control and meneuver, but perhaps a little too light at higher speeds.

It performs well under normal driving but under spirited driving there is alot of understeer and tyre squealing – perhaps better tyres will improve that. We also found it easy to recover from any silly antics.

First and second row comfort is decent and I couldn’t find fault with the seats for the short drive that we had. However the third row ride comfort was quite bouncy and I began to feel a little sick in the stomach, which was disappointing considering the magic that Honda pulled off with the Honda Odyssey. In the third row of the Odyssey you could be in the third row with the driver really gunning the B roads, causing the Odyssey to bank left and right as rapid successions of corner after corner got dealt with, and your tummy would not complain.
In the Freed, the third row is located right above the rear torsion bar suspension thanks to the long wheelbase and short overhangs. The bounciness isn’t harsh but it can get quite rapid in frequency. There are only front air conditioning vents in the Freed but during our short test you could still feel some air flow in the third row.

The engine and transmission are both smooth and responsive to both throttle input and downshifting but as expected the combo has to work hard under the vehicle and passenger’s weight if you are not in the mood for a cruise, and things can start getting a little loud in the cabin at high revs but there’s no vibration. The brakes are pretty good though – we had a brake test area as part of the test track and they were strong and responsive even under a four person load.

And then you have the interior. The design of the double deck dash is quite appealing, and the multi-info display has a real time fuel consumption indicator which we now find a necessary feature in all modern cars. We get the better looking digital air conditioning controls compared to the triple knob manual controls we saw in our Indonesian test drive cars. There are loads of little cubby holes and storage areas here and there, which is something good.

However the moment the dashboard ends, you get door panels which are basically just bare plastic on all doors. Feels hard to accept all of this when you see the word “premium” thrown at you in all the Freed literature. It this what premium is supposed to be?

What the Freed has ended up being is is a high spec compact MPV that also comes with a high price. And it’s still not as high spec as we’d hope it to be – where’s the VSA stability control that doesn’t seem to be an available feature globally on any of the cars (Jazz, City) that spawn from this small car platform?

I wish Honda had took a more conventional approach to making a compact B-segment MPV instead of the “mini Alphard” that the Freed ended up being. The Freed is a very different formula from its competitors but I don’t think this is a better formula as ultimately its still a small vehicle.

Honda used to make a station wagon version of the last generation City/Jazz called the Honda Airwave. Imagine if what they made was a more ‘conventional’ lower riding Honda Airwave with 2-3-2 third row seating (as opposed to the Freed’s 2-2-3), regular doors and a more affordable price tag?
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