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 Fit 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 Honda Fit 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 2009 Fit 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.