They may not be permanently snow-capped or as high as other ranges but the Drakensberg are ‘our’ mountains and, just like Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain, a haven for people simply wanting to escape the city and drink in the spectacular sight of the ‘Berg’ as it changes colours from early morning to late afternoon.
Formed some 182-million years ago during the Jurassic period, the Drakensberg is able to produce these gorgeous colour patterns because of high levels of sandstone mixed in with the pyroclastic deposits and igneous basalt.
The highest point in South Africa is Mafadi peak that sits on the border with Lesotho. At a height of 3 446,1 metres, it is lower than Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest peak in Lesotho which is, at 3,482 metres the highest point in Southern Africa.
Small wonder then the entire length of the Drakensberg is home to hotels, resorts, guest houses and camping facilities – and it was in the direction of one of these the Honda Ballade 1.5 Elegance I had on test was aimed – the 506-litre boot filled to capacity with suitcases for three and enough victuals to feed a small nation.
Our route took us inland from the coastal town of Park Rynie, through Highflats, Ixopo and on to Underberg before turning off to our final destination of Drakensberg Gardens Resort.
Once off the highway at Park Rynie the road to Underberg is a mix of slow-moving trucks, taxis and other hazards, the worst of which being the infamous Kwa-Zulu Natal ‘welcome mats’ – a series of vicious humps placed before villages and schools and generally unpainted and unsignposted.
These dastardly little buggers are not designed so much to slow traffic as they are there to rip out your suspension and prompted the very stern warning from Mrs W there were eggs in the boot.
South Africa is also the only country I know of that is happy to advertise its failures by putting up signs warning of potholes, rather than fixing these craters that sometimes look like asteroid impact sites.
However, the eggs survived intact – which says a lot about the suspension characteristics of the Ballade McPherson strut and Torsion beam layout and the resulting ride quality.
The original Honda Ballade was launched in South Africa in 1982 and has gone through some quite radical iterations (the short, compact second generation still the best gymkhana car I have ever played with) and some less successful than others mainly due to pricing issues nudging it into premium territory.
The comparison for this latest generation and the 1,5-litre CVT Elegance I was driving brings up the Toyota Corolla Quest 1.8 Auto at R24 700 less than the Honda and the Mazda3 1.5 Active at R4 700 more than the Honda.
At the launch, Yuishi Fukuda, president of Honda Motor Southern Africa said: “The all-new Ballade is a symbol of the brand’s evolution in South Africa over the past two decades and has contributed to Honda’s peerless reputation for delivering exceptional durability, quality and reliability in every segment in which we compete.”
The Ballade’s styling reflects a sleek and somewhat sporty appearance, emphasised by a lower and wider stance, along with a longer bonnet and short front overhang.
Indeed, this latest version followed trend and came out 110 mm longer, 55 mm wider and 10 mm lower than the previous generation and not only improved interior passenger space, but gave the car a more solid feel on the road through the lower centre of gravity.
The Ballade Elegance is equipped with projector-type halogen lights, along with LED daytime running lights and distinctive LED taillights that wrap around the side of the body.
Driver-oriented ergonomics offer comfortable seating position with easy access to the various vehicle controls. Furthermore, the new slim A-pillar and repositioned side-mirrors provide an excellent field of view for the driver while also minimising blind spots.
Driving comfort has been significantly bolstered through the fitment of new seat designs featuring high-quality fabric upholstery – most appreciated over those ‘welcome mats’.
The infotainment centre is now a high-resolution 8-inch touchscreen display with full Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality. The unit also features Bluetooth and steering wheel controls.
Electrically operated side mirrors and windows, cruise control, automatic air-conditioning and auto headlights are all standard features across the range.
The all-new Ballade saw the introduction of a 1,5-litre DOHC engine with i-VTEC technology, producing 89 kW at 6 600 r/min with peak torque of 145 Nm reached at 4 500 r/min.
Honda claims a combined cycle fuel consumption of 5,5 l/100 km but the reality is, even with improvements to the CVT system, a figure closer to 7,0 l/100 km.
The Ballade is fitted with a revised version of Honda’s Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) which now features ‘G-Design’ shift control. This is intended to create the sense of driving a traditional automatic transmission through the integration of artificial gears during acceleration, but with the enhanced efficiency of a CVT.
The system is much improved but I still dislike CVT transmissions. With the Ballade it did have specific ‘sweet spots’ but still a horrid tendency to rev loudly while hunting for a ‘gear’ – subtle adjustments on the throttle helped it make up its mind, but obviously required constant movement from the driver and certainly did nothing when cruise control was activated.
Still, the adoption of Honda’s Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) design technology and new high-tensile materials, mean significant improvements have been achieved in the overall dynamic performance, handling and safety of the new model and I cannot fault overall comfort and neither could my passengers.
Handling is nicely neutral with the car having a good feel to it even when pressed into doing some quick directional changes. The steering is precise and the braking system does it job efficiently.
The latest-generation Ballade offers as standard safety anti-lock braking with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA). Rear parking sensors are standard as are driver, front passenger, side and curtain SRS crash bags, seatbelt pretensioners and ISOFIX child seat anchors.
The Ballade is a car that grows over a (short) time to a ‘fit-you-like-a-glove’, being very easy to live with and absolutely capable.
It comes standard with Honda’s 5-year/200 000 warranty, as well as a 4-year/60 000 km Service Plan with 15 000 km service intervals. Customers also have the reassurance of three-year AA Roadside Assistance.