Versus the competiton:
The Honda Fit subcompact hit the U.S. market in 2007, but it’s been sold in numerous countries since 2001, so a redesign is already coming in September for the 2009 model year. The first generation was no slouch; it joined a subcompact class that was already growing, with the Chevrolet Aveo and Scion xB and xA joining the likes of the Hyundai Accent and Suzuki Esteem (the latter since discontinued). Though the Fit’s 2007 launch coincided with those of the Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris, the Fit snatched the top spot, in our opinion, thanks to its overall quality, despite strong competition from the larger, more affordable Versa.
I spent a few hours with the 2009 Fit and Fit Sport in both manual and automatic forms, and people who purchased the earlier Fit will be pleased to hear that the new one doesn’t blow the old one away, but new buyers will enjoy incremental improvements in many areas, including roominess, visibility and engine power, as well as a gas-mileage bump. Among the things that haven’t improved is the Fit’s advertising slogan, “The Fit is go!” Maybe I’m a pedantic editorial type, but it seems to me that a word is missing. “The Fit is a go” would have worked in 2007, but it seems a foregone conclusion now. The Fit goes? Yes, it does. I was also pleased to find as early as 2007 that when you step on the brake pedal, the Fit is stop. I fired up Google’s language translator hoping I could figure out if something got lost in translation, but when I punched in “The Fit is go,” the Japanese came back as “???????” — my reaction exactly, and possibly a better slogan than the one Honda chose.
The EPA-estimated fuel economy is 28/35 mpg for the base model with a five-speed automatic transmission, and 27/33 mpg for versions with the five-speed manual transmission as well as for the automatic Fit Sport. You read it right: The manual is less efficient than one automatic version, whose highway figure has increased from 34 mpg to 35 mpg in the new generation. With the starting price of a 2008 Civic Hybrid at $22,600 and a 2008 Prius at $21,500 (if you can find one at that price), hybrids aren’t the most accessible cars — or necessarily the most cost-effective ones in the long run, despite mpg estimates of 40/45 and 48/45 mpg, respectively.
That’s not to say the Fit is cheap in its class. The starting sticker price in 2008, $13,950, has increased to $14,550. Also, because demand for small cars has risen with gas prices, their transaction prices are often higher than the sticker. Our most recent Smart Target Price estimate for the 2008 was $14,620, and because they’ve ceased production, the first generation is long gone in some regions. All that said, the price hasn’t proved to be a deterrent.
The Fit has grown by 4.2 inches in length and a half inch in width, but the greater change is in the cabin, which is almost 5 inches longer overall. If you’re familiar with the 2008 Fit, know that headroom has increased 0.4 inch, and backseat knee clearance is about 0.7 inch greater. If you’ve never been in a Fit, you’d be surprised by the fit. Like many small cars these days, its interior size belies its exterior dimensions. At 6 feet tall, I had substantial headroom surplus, and legroom was good enough that I had to inch the driver’s seat forward a bit to get full extension on the clutch pedal. Comfort has also improved, thanks to the addition of a dead pedal, or foot rest, on the left where the previous model had a carpeted outcropping that made for a more crowded footwell. The pedals are now slightly farther apart, as well. Where the previous Fit offered no center armrest at all, there’s now one standard on the Fit Sport’s driver’s seat. It’s not offered on the base Fit, and the passenger doesn’t get one at all. This will not make people happy.
The steering wheel now telescopes as well as tilts, but I’m surprised the driver’s seat doesn’t have a height adjustment. Even so, the dashboard and window sills are reasonably low, and I doubt that shorter drivers will have much trouble with visibility. Quite the contrary; the greenhouse is huge and has a wide-open feel, due in part to the A-pillars sloping far forward. This puts them more in the driver’s line of sight, but Honda slimmed them down and made the sail-shaped windows at their base substantially larger. No one will see the front fenders from the driver’s seat, but this has become the norm; you just have to visualize where your car ends. Aerodynamics and the desire for interior room ensure that pillar-forward designs will proliferate.
The rear view is much improved, too, thanks to backseat head restraints that, when nested into the backrest, eliminate the obstruction from the previous generation’s enormous ones. The backseat is comfortable, and due to a change in the roof’s peak, headroom is ample. With the driver’s seat all the way back, my knees were in contact with its backrest, but the floor is relatively low, so my knees weren’t raised much — which is how some cars shoehorn occupants in there. The 60/40-split backrests recline a bit, but the release handles atop the seatbacks are much better located for folding the seats flat than for reclining once you’re seated.
For what it’s worth, Honda continues to claim that the front seats recline all the way to create something of a bed, as they do in the Honda Element. I continue to claim that even Michael Phelps isn’t double-jointed enough to rest comfortably on this thing.
The versatile rear seats’ cushions can be raised to provide a tall cargo space, or their backrests can be folded forward in the customary fashion. The nested head restraints allow them to drop flat in a single step regardless of the front seats’ position. (The previous generation allowed the head restraints to stay mounted, so long as you slid the front seats forward and then back over their odd paddle shape — which is a lot of work.)
The Fit earns its fuel economy the old-fashioned way: with modest acceleration. Technology like variable valve timing helps the 1.5-liter four-cylinder deliver even, usable power, but the emphasis here is on efficiency. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the calibration of the five-speed automatic, which isn’t apt to kick down unless you give the pedal a good jab — even when in Sport mode. If you want to take control, get a Fit Sport, which adds steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. Once the transmission downshifts and the engine revs higher, acceleration is definitely adequate. Inevitably people will hear this transition and conclude that the engine is “straining.” It’s not straining; it’s doing its job. Anyone who gets over this misconception will be rewarded with good mileage. Unfortunately, the Fit Sport might not make it easy, because it has significant engine noise when accelerating moderately to heavily. Is it because the car is otherwise quiet and exceptionally nice? I don’t know, but it surprised me, and I drove a 2008 model the same day that seemed quieter.
The five-speed manual, which has been tweaked a bit over last year’s, is well-matched to the new engine’s power band — a total of 117 horsepower at 6,600 rpm, which is an 8 hp increase. The torque is 106 pounds-feet at 4,800 rpm, and the stick has shorter throws for a sportier feel. Somehow the manual Fit sounded quieter to me — perhaps because engine noise seems less intrusive when it’s expected, which it often isn’t when an automatic is doing the shifting.
Antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution are one of many safety features you might not expect of cars in this class. They’re standard in the Fit. Par for the course, though, it has rear drum rather than disc brakes. This doesn’t necessarily mean the car doesn’t stop well, but discs are a theoretical advantage. I found the brakes reasonably linear, but the brake pedal has a slightly spongy feel that I associate with drums.
With its slightly longer wheelbase, wider stance and more rigid body, the new Fit should ride and handle better than the old one did. My impression from my relatively short drives is that it does. Its manners as a subcompact are probably better than most people expect, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a small car. The ride is firm, if controlled. I was a little disappointed in the backseat, though, which jostles a good deal more than the front. Perhaps it’s the semi-independent torsion-beam suspension, which isn’t as good as an independent design but is nevertheless pervasive in this car class. Also, I rode in the back of a Fit Sport, which has a rear stabilizer bar where the base Fit has none, plus lower-profile tires on 16-inch alloy wheels compared to the base 15-inch steel wheels. Be sure to check it out if backseat comfort is critical for you.
In terms of handling, the Fit is definitely competent and fun — more so than the somewhat stodgy Yaris sedan and loose Chevy Aveo. The electric power steering has a decent feel, which isn’t always the case with this technology, and the turning diameter is a conveniently tight 34.4 feet. We look forward to further testing once we get several days with a Fit at Cars.com HQ.
The new Fit hasn’t been crash tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but the first generation scored well in all but the rear-impact test. That might improve with the addition of active head restraints to the front seats in 2009. Though we won’t know until the 2009 is tested, Honda’s crash-test track record has been excellent. The Fit incorporates the Advanced Compatibility Engineering structure that’s designed to make Honda’s small cars more compatible in crashes with higher-riding vehicles (and vice-versa). Standard safety equipment includes six airbags, with frontal, side-impact torso bags for the front seats and side curtains for the front and rear. The passenger’s torso bag is designed to deactivate if the occupant is out of position — leaning too close to the side where it deploys.
The good news is that the Fit Sport offers an optional electronic stability system. The bad news is that the base model isn’t eligible for the stability feature, and it comes bundled in an option package with a navigation system for the Sport. I hate seeing safety options tied to non-safety features — especially one this important with one presumably this expensive (prices not yet announced).
The Fit also goes farther than any other small car in pedestrian-protection provisions, with impact-absorbing hood, fenders, bumper and other parts. I don’t know how important this is to the buyer, but it would be pretty important to the pedestrian — or to any driver who ends up responsible for his medical bills.
Along with its sharp gauges and generally high-quality interior, the base Fit includes visor vanity mirrors, a current and average mpg indicator, and an AM/FM/single-CD stereo with four speakers and an analog input jack for any MP3 player.
The Fit Sport adds fog lights, a body-colored underbody kit, a rear spoiler atop the liftgate and a chrome tailpipe. Inside you get cruise control and a leather steering wheel with illuminated controls — pretty upscale. The standard stereo has six speakers and a USB input for connecting compatible MP3 players or memory sticks, which can then be controlled through the stereo. Remote keyless entry with a security system is also standard on this trim level.
The big cliché in the auto industry these days is “the right car for the right time,” which I’ve heard automakers claim for their small trucks, crossover vehicles, wagons and practically everything else. If you want the real right car at the right time, you’re looking at it. The Fit is the best example of what is now the most significant vehicle class in the U.S. Pain at the pump doesn’t necessarily make buying a new car an option, but in today’s economic climate it makes the most affordable and efficient ones the most attractive for people who are ready to make the move.
While we Americans were distracted by light trucks, subcompacts got more roomy and generally more workable. People who wouldn’t think about buying an entry-level car now will — or at least should. As subcompacts go, the Fit is expensive, with its $14,550-$18,760 price range for the 2008 model overlapping that of the Civic compact. That’s not a bad thing. The name of the game now is downsizing, and people who have owned, say, a Civic or an Accord don’t want to drive a heap. A high-quality small car is exactly what people are looking for — preferably one that makes few sacrifices. The Fit is that car. Compare the Smart ForTwo, which sacrifices seats, comfort, refinement and more. I don’t care how long the waiting lists are; for what you get, the ForTwo’s 33/41 mpg is too low and $11,590 is too much.
People who buy today won’t necessarily dump their SUV or pickup for a subcompact, but they might add one to the family fleet for commuting, or as an alternative runabout they can bust out during the next gas crisis. Cars are pretty bad investments, but Honda’s history of quality, reliability and longevity bode well for the Fit’s resale value. As bad investments go, it looks like a pretty good one. Honda plans to import 85,000 Fits over the next 12 months. It won’t be enough.