HOLDERNESS, N.H. - Picture an empty stretch of twisty, two-lane blacktop weaving through the New Hampshire woods and you'll immediately fantasize a hot-blooded sports car cutting through the crisp air at full song.
Route 113, which runs along Squam Lake, the second largest after Winnepesaukee, was that road on an early Sunday morning, neat and clear after a recent snowstorm. The 2009 Honda Fit Sport was that car - or at least an impression of a sports car. No Nissan GT-R, Lotus Exige, or Boxster S was in sight. That made the Fit, sitting low in Storm Silver Metallic, the unassuming supercar of Grafton County for a good, solid hour.
The Fit's stretched, bug-like face (Honda compares it so in commercials) and skinny body looked out of place next to the Subaru Outbacks, SUVs, and pickup trucks strolling through town. Inside, the trappings are much easier on the eye. Supportive seats, huge headroom, and a sporty trio of silver-painted gauges with orange needles and blue backlighting make a fine place to command the road. Hugging tight in every turn, the Fit Sport grips and goes, its 5-speed automatic hitting the rev-limiter at 6,800 r.p.m. as the engine winds up fast without harsh vibration.
When I sailed the Fit into a dip mid-corner, the outside tires hit the bump stops - normally a moment for sweating and cursing - and the car kept going as if nothing had happened. The steering wheel stayed tight in my palms, composed, and didn't jerk back. A second later, I flicked the right-hand paddle for a smooth upshift, the whine of the 1.5 liter four-cylinder engine strangely intoxicating. No drama, just a registered 28 miles per gallon in madman mode.
Five-door economy hatchbacks aren't supposed to be this exciting, as the Toyota Yaris, Scion xB, Chevrolet Aveo, and Nissan Versa can vouch for. Coming from Honda - the motorcycle-minded automaker that brought variable-valve timing to the masses, and for the rich, the Ferrari-challenging NSX - the Fit's sprightly attitude isn't surprising. On the highway, it's tame and relatively quiet as the trip computer showed 36 miles per gallon, my two passengers (one covered in yellow fur) sound asleep on the drive back to Boston.
The fold-up rear seats are the mini Honda's trump card. Someone in Japan had the bright idea to shift the 10.6 gallon fuel tank to the front, thereby making the rear floor completely flat. It may sound unnecessary, but the extra cubic inches give big, tall items (say, an 80-pound Golden Retriever) substantial breathing room and make loading and unloading cargo as simple as opening and closing the doors.
Don't think the Fit is perfect. Its pint-size may blend well on Japanese and European roads, but in America, the Fit is almost too small, even in a city. Civics and Corollas appear to be Lincoln Town Cars in comparison, and no matter how hard you charge through a rotary, a few entering drivers will always refuse to yield. Lucky the brakes and handling are up to task.
The navigation system is like MapQuest of the 1990s - crude, static, and not very helpful in comparison to most in-car displays. All that cornering skill leads to a rough, sometimes jolting ride over patchy pavement, which is the majority of city driving here in Boston.
At just under $20,000, our Fit Sport wasn't cheap for a subcompact, either. Consider that a base Volkswagen Jetta can be had for about $17,500, and the thrifty TDI comes well-equipped at $22,270. It's not a lot of metal for the money, but the Fit is loaded with airbags, stability control, and plenty of refinement. It's hard to argue against the Fit if small size is a big concern, and aside from the all-wheel-drive Suzuki SX4 Crossover, not much else comes close in this category.
Unnatural? Out of place? Certainly America isn't used to the Fit, and it's clearly been out of our nature to accept small cars and their drivers as serious. But with the full-size SUV era nearing an end - and the introduction of the 2011 Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Spark - more Americans might consider downsizing their daily transportation. Or, at the very least, give hatchbacks some deserved respect.