WHO would have thought sitting on a container of volatile petrochemicals would be so fun?
The intensely likable, carry-on-sized 2007 Honda Fit- now playing in the U.S. after a boffo run in Europe and Japan, where it is called the Jazz - is a wondrous widget of automotive packaging, thanks primarily to the placement of its gas tank under the front seats, where one hopes nothing bad ever happens to it. This seemingly minor rearrangement opens up Alice-in-Wonderland space inside the Fit's subcompact rabbit hole.
Bringing order to this space are Honda's so-called Magic Seats, which with a simple pocketknife action fold flat and disappear into the low load floor. You don't even have to remove the headrests. The resulting "utility-mode" space measures 41.9 cubic feet (to compare, the luggage area of a 3-foot-longer Ford Explorer is about 45 cubic feet).
FOR THE RECORD: Car name: A review of the Honda Fit in Wednesday's Highway 1 section stated that the vehicle was called the Jazz in Europe and Japan. It is known as the Fit in Japan, North America and South America, and is the Jazz in Europe. -
As if sitting on 11 gallons of unleaded weren't magical enough.
After a brief glorying period in the late '70s and '80s, and with the notable exception of the Mini Cooper, subcompacts in the U.S. have been about as popular as hobo-flavored mouthwash. But the subcompact genre stands to make a comeback, for reasons that anyone who has visited a gas station recently can tell you. With this year's arrival of the Honda Fit, the Nissan Versa and the Toyota Yaris, suddenly we're up to our ankles in subcompact hatches and compact five-doors (slightly larger competitors include the Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix and the Ford Focus).
With what seems unusual precision, Honda predicts that the U.S. subcompact segment will grow 58% by 2010. Would that these same futurists bought my lotto tickets for me.
And like the Versa and the Yaris, the Fit comes to our shores with an established track record: The car has recently passed the global million-unit sales mark and is Japan's second-best selling car.
Yet in order to reach beyond the desperate-measures demographic, subcompacts are going to have to offer Americans something more than just hollow thrift. Honda is positioning the Fit as a "premium" subcompact - a phrase that might strike some oddly, like "business-class" appendicitis - but I think it's brilliant.
This is an exceptionally well turned out car for the money (about $14,500-$16,000, depending on options). Among the features: a punchy 1.5-liter, 109-hp four-cylinder with Honda's VTEC valve timing and electronic throttle; dual-front, front-side and side-curtain airbags; four-channel anti-lock brakes; power locks/windows/mirrors; rear wiper; a decent 160-watt stereo system; A/C; and aftermarket-style blue ambient lighting. Buyers who pony up for the Fit Sport will get 15-inch alloy wheels, underbody aero kit, roofline spoiler and fog lights. On the inside, Fit Sports come with a 200-watt audio upgrade with MP3, cruise control and remote keyless entry. The sport package dials down the geekiness to a dull roar.
I spent a week with the Fit Sport and my one-word review is "charming." Our test car was equipped with the optional five-speed automatic with paddle-shift switches on the steering wheel, which makes the car drive just like a Formula 1 car, give or take 900 horsepower. The auto-tranny has two programs. If you downshift the car in Drive (normal) mode, the transmission will kick back up into the highest appropriate gear after an interval of a few seconds. In Sport mode, the tranny will stay in the gear selected. You'd think the auto-revert feature might be annoying but I was surprised by how agreeable it was.
And as in all VTEC Hondas, engine torque is accessible just about anywhere on the tach. The Fit is one of those cars that isn't objectively fast - 0-60 mph is in the 9-second range - but because it so willingly pulls its guts out, it feels fast. Thanks to the car's fuel-saving, over-tall fifth gear, you can - if you must - go 90 mph on the freeway. It's a little like letting a hornet fly around in your mouth.
The Fit Sport is swimming-good fun to drive - light and flingable, with excellent steering feel from its electric power steering and more-than-decent grip from the 55-profile, 15-inch tires. The Fit shares its MacPherson-strut front end with the new Civic - with its increased caster angle - and so it shares with the Civic a well-centered but lively feel at the tiller. Unlike the multi-link, rear-ended Civic, the Fit's torsion-beam rear axle does tend to pick up the inside rear wheel during hard cornering. But overall, you can hardly complain about the Fit's dynamics.
NOR can you take issue with the car's, um, fit and finish. It's tight, well screwed together and quiet, with that Honda DNA of essential competence, like the interior of lightweight experimental aircraft. I must say too that while I was driving the Fit, I felt like slightly more of a citizen of the world and not my usual trough-nosed American.
Aspirations of global citizenship aside, for American shoppers the Fit equation comes down to three factors: fuel economy, safety and utility. As to the last, the main metric is what I call the child-seat quotient. How easy is it to get a child seat in and out? The second-set doors are large and angle out nicely. Moreover, if required, you can take two bulky child seats out and stow them in the back, where 21.3 cubic feet of space awaits - more than the cargo hold of a Scion xA, Ford Focus or even Scion's rectilinear xB.
Further seat-related prestidigitation: The Fit's rear seat cushions fold up in what Honda calls the "tall mode" to allow loading of upright items between the seat rows - items like plants and bikes and file cabinets and, um, baby llamas, and pies cooling on bakery racks ... use your imagination. It's a full 50 inches from the flat floor to the ceiling.
Here's another fun feature: The front seatbacks can be folded back level with the rear seat cushions to create a bed. Honda calls this the "refresh" mode, which sounds so much better than the "roadside canoodling" mode.
AS for safety, Honda assures us that, according to its internal measures, the Fit will receive a five-star front and four-star side collision performance rating from the federal government. The car does not have Honda's Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) crash structures that help mitigate front-end crashes with larger vehicles (ACE will be incorporated into the next Fit/Jazz redesign).
That leaves us with fuel economy: The 2,551-pound, auto-equipped Fit Sport is EPA-rated at 31/37 city/highway mpg, which makes it one of the most fuel-efficient cars on the road.
You'd be hard pressed to find a car that can do so much with so little and be so lovable doing it. The Fit is one-half of the perfect two-car garage. Or even one-quarter.
2007 Honda Fit Sport
Base price: $15,170
Price, as tested: $15,970
Powertrain: Transversely mounted 1.5-liter, 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder engine with electronic throttle and variable valve timing; dual-mode five-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting; front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 109 at 5,800 rpm
Torque: 105 pound-feet at 4,800 rpm
Curb weight: 2,551 pounds
0-60 mph: 9 seconds (approx.)
Wheelbase: 96.5 inches
Overall length: 157.4 inches
EPA fuel economy: 31 miles per gallon city, 37 mpg highway
Final thoughts: Biggie smalls
Cars.com Expert Reviews
|Joe Wiesenfelder||Cars.com National||April 11, 2006|
|Kevin Schweitzer||Cars.com National||February 1, 2006|
|Steven Cole Smith||Orlando Sentinel||September 29, 2007|
|Kristin Varela||Mother Proof||November 28, 2006|
|Bob Golfen||AZCentral.com||June 24, 2006|
|Warren Brown||washingtonpost.com||June 11, 2006|
|Steven Cole Smith||Orlando Sentinel||June 1, 2006|
|Anita And Paul Lienert||The Detroit Newspapers||May 24, 2006|
|Mark Glover||The Sacramento Bee||May 19, 2006|
|Royal Ford||Boston.com||April 30, 2006|
|Dan Neil||Los Angeles Times||April 5, 2006|
|Jim Mateja||chicagotribune.com||April 2, 2006|
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