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2009 Honda Fit

Just two and a half years after the Honda Fit arrived in the U.S. as a subcompact class-leader, we're set to receive an all-new model for 2009. That's because the Fit wasn't exactly brand-new when it arrived here in April 2006-it had already been out for five years in Japan. Impressive fuel efficiency and creative packaging pushed the old Fit to the front of the pack, but the new version will attempt to maintain that position with greater refinement, better dynamics, and premium features.

Growing up doesn't have to be awkward

The car's new styling adds a sporty edge with a forward-leaning stance. The previous car's bulging headlights are replaced by stylized, angular units that play off a more aggressive upper grille and a raised hood bump. Sport models receive fog lights, a rear spoiler, revised fascias and a chrome exhaust tip along with larger, 16-inch wheels.

Honda refers to the new shape as "super-forward" with the cabin moved even further forward and the quarter windows between the front door and A-pillar tripling in size. Overall length grows by more than four inches, but that change is almost entirely captured in the front overhang that is lengthened exclusively for North American models to accommodate crash standards and styling preferences. Width is increased by approximately half an inch.

Fold and flip in fashion

The first-generation Fit was widely acclaimed for packaging that provided generous interior space belying the car's exterior dimensions. The 2009 Fit continues that concept with Honda's so-called Magic Seat in the rear. With the fuel tank beneath the front seats rather than the rear bench, Honda freed up room to allow the rear seats to collapse to the floor when the rear seat backs are folded, creating a very large and useful cargo hold with a totally flat floor. Alternatively, the rear seat bottoms can be flipped upward to create a tall storage space between the front seats and the rear cargo area.

The new Fit makes it easier to store smaller gear as well. A second glove box now lives on the top of the dashboard and there is a small compartment located on the underside of the rear seat cushion. It may not be practical for storing regularly used items, but Honda's suggestion of stashing the owner's manual there makes sense, as it would free up room in the more-accessible main glove box. And for those with basketball-sized bladders, the number of cupholders has doubled to a total count of 10.

All Fits come standard with power windows and locks, an auxiliary audio input, and a telescoping steering wheel. Honda expects about 70 percent of buyers to choose Sport models, which add cruise control, keyless entry, and a USB connection to control an iPod through the radio interface.

There's a suitable amount of room for four full-size adults with surprising amounts of headroom and legroom. Cushioning for all seats is enhanced and driver comfort is improved in Sport models with a fold-down armrest and leather-wrapped steering wheel borrowed from the Civic. Interior materials are on par with the cheap, hard feel of the competitors, but style is a step above with unique textures and ergonomics.

More toys for small spenders

As consumers downsize, Honda is betting buyers will be willing to put more money into their small cars. Proof of that comes from a new navigation system, one of the first to be offered in a subcompact car. The system appears on the new range-topping trim known as Sport with navigation. A 6.5-inch touch screen is easy to use and a voice-recognition feature allows destinations to be entered while keeping your hands on the wheel. The system also works clearly with an iPod connected. Navigation-equipped models are also come with standard stability control.

Perfecting the power/economy balance

The Fit continues to use a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine; slight tweaks have been made to produce equally slight changes in power and fuel economy. Power is up 8 hp to 117 hp while torque increases by just 1 lb-ft. to 106 lb-ft. Those changes are hardly noticeable from behind the wheel, but drivers should notice a slightly broader torque curve that adds a bit more energy when driving in the city and taking off from stops.

Buyers receive a five-speed transmission whether they choose an automatic or manual. Automatic transmissions feature a sport mode to keep revs up and prompt earlier downshifting, while Sport models come with paddle shifters. The manual shifter on the new car has a much-improved feel over the 2008 model and welcomes gear changes with a more precise and direct feel. The shift action is very light, as is clutch take-up, whereas we'd like more feedback to tell us when the clutch is engaging.

All Fit models achieve similar city fuel economy as last year's models. Base models equipped with automatic transmissions now achieve 28 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. All other Fits are rated at 27 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway. Economy-minded drivers will appreciate the new fuel-economy display that can show either instantaneous or average fuel consumption.

Smooth roads ahead

One of the most noticeable and beneficial changes for commuters (and their occasional back-seat passengers) is suspension refinement that tackles bumps and dips with much more grace. That improvement stems largely from a stiffened chassis and softened rear springs. The driving experience has improved over both smooth and severely pockmarked pavement, as stability is improved and bumps no longer jitter through the entire cabin.

Slightly more sport, still lots of subcompact

Pushing the 2009 Fit through turns isn't all that different from driving the 2008 model, although there are improvements that help to engage the driver. The quick-ratio steering provides sporty turn-in, but is burdened by the artificial feel of electric assist. The handling benefits from greater chassis rigidity, with the car more willingly following a quick line through a turn but still understeering at the limit. Power is adequate around town and the engine has enough spirit to be fun when driven hard. The manual shifter is much more willing to play and encourages you to keep the tachometer needle in the 3500-rpm fun zone. However, the automatic Fit often feels anemic at high rev ranges.

Maintaining the title

The Fit's largest strides come during city driving, with improved engine responsiveness and better isolation from large bumps. Add incremental improvements in the driving experience, styling, packaging, and equipment list, and the Fit should retain its title as king of the class. The new Fit goes on sale in early September. Prices increase by $600 to $900. Base models are priced from $15,220, while Sport models start at $16,730. Fully equipped models will cost more than $19,000. Despite creeping onto the Civic's price turf, we expect the Fit will continue to be a hot seller as more buyers look for efficient cars that offer utility and up-level content.