Comparison: Honda Ballade vs Renault Fluence

The foolish newbies

Please excuse my nonsensical ramblings this week; I’ve just had two of my wisdom teeth extracted. Despite being twice as stupid as before, I finally decided to compose a comparative test between two cars I drove back-to-back: the new Honda Ballade and Renault Fluence.

These two newcomers litter our market’s “C-segment”, a neatly partitioned section for medium-size entry-level sedans and hatchbacks. Think Corolla and most decent rental cars. Eager to increase their footprint and bank accounts, Honda and Renault both recently launched their latest four-door offerings.

What if you lose that or your three-year-old gets hold of it?

And they appear to have been cooking with the same recipe – the cars’ dimensions and specifications are almost identical for this segment with individual garnish to make each product more enticing. Hence this comparison; you see, those two remaining clever teeth are still working…

Both newbies look inoffensive and contemporary, I thought the Renault looks somewhat bloated and the Honda has a plain (or ugly) rear end. The Honda’s Insight-ish nose is a nice touch and I preferred its Elegance-spec alloy wheels. Boot space is 344L for Fluence and 506L for Ballade, both drop their rear seats for additional carrying capacity.

Renault Fluence (2011)

The Renault’s cabin might be marginally roomier but perceived quality is a dead heat. Threaten me with more dentist visits and I might give quality to Renault and seating comfort to Honda. Both interiors are modern and trendy, the Renault is more finicky and the Honda is a little more playful.

Honda Ballade (2011)
Honda Ballade (2011)

For reasons unknown the Ballade has a concealed CD player and a USB/ipod-compatible radio unit with stupidly complicated controls. Not wanting to be outdone, the Renault counters with impressive sound outputs and its usual chaos of control surfaces which can only be described as “needing some serious familiarisation before use”.

Honda Ballade dashboard (top) and Renault Fluence dashboard below

Honda South Africa glued a Bluetooth receiver to the driver’s side A-pillar which just beeped and flashed at me constantly. Renault South Africa neatly built TomTom navigation into the Fluence dashboard but left its operation to a remote control. What if you lose that or your three-year-old gets hold of it?

Forget about operating any of those two items on the move, they are foolish afterthoughts. The Renault’s instruments are completely illegible during the day, the Ballade’s gearlever (nicked from a box labelled “Jazz Parts”) is puny and both driver’s seats could’ve done with more downward adjustment.

Both cars have air-con, power steering (the Renault’s is lighter and fluffier than the Honda’s), electric windows, central locking, airbags, alarm and cup-holders. The Renault’s exterior mirrors are adjusted manually and it features a weird keyless entry/ignition key-card; which didn’t always work.

The steering wheels are adjustable in both cars, Ballade features audio and cruise control while the Fluence wheel is completely devoid of buttons. It has an extra audio/source stalk on the right of the steering column. The higher-spec “Dynamique” model also has auto wipers and auto lights.

Our test vehicles both featured ABS brakes with electronic force distribution but the Renault also has an emergency assist system (EBA). An empty Fluence weighs 1,205kg and will cope with 425 extra kilograms while the Honda tips the scales at just 1,094kg before accommodating up to 446kg.

Fluence power comes in the form of a 1.6L 16V four-cylinder worth 81kW (110hp) or 156Nm. Ballade manages 88kW (120hp) or 145Nm from a 1.5L 16V setup. The Renault’s engine is smooth and quiet; the Honda engine runs slightly rougher and is decidedly more eager.

Both sedans have pleasing torque punch but the Honda’s inferior weight and rev-happiness means that it is more agile. Plus, you can’t see the Fluence rev-counter needle during the day and its electronic throttle/clutch combination is absolutely awful. The Honda wins the drivability test hands-down. No contest.

Ride and handling are much of a muchness, the Ballade seemed a bit harder at low speeds and both will carve through corners with verve and eventual under-steer. Yet again, the Honda’s slightly meatier steering might make it the enthusiast’s choice.

Right, enough Miprodol chit-chat. Prices for the Ballade are N$184,900 and N$193,900 for the up-spec Elegance model; add N$12,000 for an automatic gearbox. The basic 1.6 Fluence costs N$199,900, the fancier version N$224,900 but no automatic options are available.

Honda releases its car with a three-year 100,000km warranty and four-year 60,000km service plan while Renault offers a five-year 150,000km warranty and five-year 100,000km service plan in return. That makes the Ballade cheaper and better to drive, but slightly less supportive when it comes to maintenance.

On balance, hand-on-heart, I did enjoy driving the Ballade more. The Fluence seemed roomier and looked a bit prettier but please don’t take my word for it; I don’t know half of what I used to.

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