Two years ago, this story would not appear here, in its lead-article, three-page glory. No, driving a bargain-price, 1.5-liter fuel-sipper would have warranted a miserly, quarter-page nugget tucked into a corner and paying deference to the likes of a Ferrari, a large rear-wheel-drive V-8 sedan, or some hot-rod version of a full-size SUV.
But as time has moved forward, fuel prices have shot upward and priorities have taken an entirely new direction. A segment once derided is now basking in relevance. A car with expected annual sales of 50,000 has managed to find almost 30,000 additional buyers per year. Honda‘s is-dare we say it-hot. There’s no telling if the past two years of surging entry-level sales make a trend, but the time is certainly ripe for automakers to be taking small cars seriously.
The latest iteration of the arrives just when we would typically be expecting a midcycle refresh. Instead, we get an all-new Fit, but that’s because the car had already been on sale globally for almost five years when it first landed here in 2006. The driving experience of that car was predictable and competitive, although not brilliant. Still, in the exploding entry-level market, that first Fit maintained a class-leading reputation bolstered by ingenious packaging, unexpected interior chic, and spacious comfort.
The capitalizes on that formula as a worthy evolution, bringing more style to the exterior, refinement to the ride, and more innovation inside with a dose of the driver engagement that we’ve been yearning for. The most noticeable improvement is a five-speed manual shifter that no longer feels like it’s slogging through thick mud, but is instead inviting to move with its toggle-switch precision. It may lack a bit of weight that would lend it a sportier feel, but it’s safe to say that the gearbox is now in line with the transmission excellence we’ve come to expect of Honda.
Ride quality is much improved thanks to a stiffer body structure and softer rear springs that keep harsh bumps from shuddering through the entire cabin. The suspension still serves up understeer when you would expect it, but the car’s low weight and resistance to body roll encourage you to find where those limits are and then tease them on twisty roads. Steering feel between 2008 and 2009 Fits is also very similar. The quick-ratio rack makes for sporty turn-in, and it’s easy to place the car where you want it to go when you keep speed in check, but the light weight and disconnect of electric assist can have you making frequent corrections when aggressively diving into a turn.
Output from the SOHC four-cylinder engine is up marginally, to 117 hp and 106 lb-ft, but the real change comes from a power curve that is wider, providing more pep when taking off from traffic lights and stop signs. Ironically, in higher rev ranges where Honda‘s small engines usually find their gusto, the Fit with the optional five-speed automatic transmission seemed gutless, with engine speeds climbing slowly when downshifting to pass. In typical city driving, though, the slushbox was flawlessly smooth and quite quick when moving up or down a gear. As before, paddle shifters are standard on Sport models with the automatic.
The Fit’s true mission lies in its ability to transport people, gear, or a combination of both in one of the most efficient packages on the market. New retractable headrests on the rear seats mean that you no longer have to slide the front seats forward to use the 60/40 dive-down seats, which hug the floor and create a cavern for payload. Alternatively, the rear seat bottoms flip up to make a tall storage space behind the front seats. There’s also dual glove boxes, a tiny bin under one rear seat cushion, and a nearly unusable number of cupholders (ten!).
A new mileage display nested in the speedometer offers a readout for both instantaneous and average economy. EPA testing places fuel economy at 27 mpg city and 33 mpg highway for all Sport variations, as well as the manual-transmission base car. Automatic base-level Fits improve on that, offering a 28/35 mpg rating. Our test cars repeatedly showed averages of 35 mpg as we flat-footed around city streets, back roads, and a few highway stretches.
The interior finish is cheap, but it’s in line with competitors’ offerings. Plastics on the dash are very hard, and the map pockets seem disconcertingly flimsy, but Honda has taken care to place softer materials where fingers will turn knobs and elbows will rest. The leather-wrapped steering wheel (plucked from the ) is a nice addition, as is a driver’s armrest in Sport models. The driving position is significantly improved, aided by a telescoping steering wheel that’s standard on all 2009 Fits. A seat-height adjuster, unfortunately absent, might be the final piece to refining the driving position. Passenger comfort is superb, with serious amounts of head- and legroom and a rear seatback that can be set at two different angles.
The Fit‘s proportions remain largely the same, but subtle tweaks to its styling have transformed the car from slightly awkward to sleek. Headlights and fascia openings have taken on more angular forms and accentuate a sporty, forward-leaning stance. Wheel sizes on all cars are up by one inch (the Sport now gets sixteen-inch aluminum wheels). The new Fit grows more than four inches in length, but that can largely be attributed to a front overhang that has been lengthened on North American cars for both safety and styling purposes. The ’09 Fit is also half an inch wider and some 50 pounds heavier.
All Fits come standard with power windows and locks, plus an auxiliary audio input. If you opt for the Sport model, as Honda expects 70 percent of buyers to do, you’ll be rewarded with keyless entry, cruise control, and a new USB iPod connection that allows you to select songs through the radio interface. Navigation and stability control come standard in a new third trim package.
Prices for the new Fit have risen between $600 and $840 for the lower two trim levels, with base models starting at $15,220 and Sport versions retailing for $16,730. A fully equipped car with navigation will cost upward of $19,000, and some trim levels put pricing well into Civic territory. Despite the price increase, we still think the new Fit will sell even better than the last generation. When Honda set its last sales projection for the Fit, it was conservative by nearly 30,000 cars. We doubt the company will be quite that far off this time, but it’s possible that Honda is being humble when it targets 85,000 annual sales with this new car.
On Sale: Now
Price: $15,220/$16,730/$18,580 (base/Sport/Sport with navigation)
Engine: 1.5L I-4, 117 hp, 106 lb-ft