ANN ARBOR, Michigan - More than most automakers, Honda was ready when fuel prices began to escalate sharply during the first half of 2008. Unlike some manufacturers, Honda had two smaller passenger cars in its vehicle collection.
As gasoline reached $3 per gallon, then $4, Honda dealerships - like other retailers - suddenly found themselves inundated by requests for fuel-efficient models. Shoppers who might have considered an SUV or a bigger sedan a few months earlier were taking close looks at compact Civics as well as the subcompact Fit. Before long, the inventories of those two models began to dwindle, as customers snapped them up.
Not only did Honda have a Fit in its lineup, but a redesigned version was already in the works. First introduced to the U.S. market in April 2006, as an early 2007 model, the Fit had actually debuted in Japan five years earlier. The 2009 version has been redesigned with American tastes more firmly in mind.
In its new form, "the concept of Fit hasn't changed," said senior product planner Jeff Swedlund. "We're just enhancing all the good" parts.
Fuel economy, of course, is one of those desirable elements. The 2008 Fit earned a fuel-economy estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of 28 mpg city/34 mpg highway with manual shift, dipping slightly to 27/34 mpg with automatic. In its 2009 form, the manual-shift Fit drops a bit to 27/33 mpg, but earns a more frugal 28/35 mpg estimate with automatic.
New styling follows a "super forward aeroform" theme, which emphasizes a "forward-leaning" profile. Headlamps give a "fearless yet friendly expresssion," according to chief engineer Kohei Hitomi. From the start, Honda has promoted the Fit for its "machine-minimum, man-maximum concept," adding that the hatchback is "small on the outside, big on the inside."
Overall length of the four-door hatchback has grown by more than 4 inches, and wheelbase is 2 inches greater. Other dimensions haven't changed much. Honda advised that the 2009 Fit has more front legroom, plus greater foot and knee space for backseat occupants. Moving the windshield forward by close to 5 inches has given the 2009 Fit a slightly different profile - enhanced by tripling the size of the front quarter windows, which makes them a bit more useful in terms of visibility. Honda also claims that rear visibility has improved by 35 percent.
Beneath the Fit hood, Honda's 1.5-liter i-VTEC four-cylinder engine develops 117 hp (at 6600 rpm) and 106 pound-feet of torque. The prior Fit engine made 109 horsepower. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, but Honda claims Fit is the only car in its class with the option of a five-speed automatic transmission. In the Sport model, paddle shifters at the steering wheel may be used for manually-selected gear changes.
Tires are one size larger than before: 15-inch for the base Fit and 16-inch for the Fit Sport, which gains a rear stabilizer bar for 2009. Honda credits new tires with reducing the Fit's braking distance.
Inside, the rear seat is wider than before, with more cushioning. It also folds flat, even if the front seat is positioned all the way back. Occupants can search for 10 cupholders - quite a total for a small car - and use an underseat storage compartment. A tilt/telescope steering wheel is standard.
As before, the Fit contains six standard airbags, along with antilock braking. For the 2009 model year, 95 percent of Honda models have ACE (Advanced Compatibility Engineering) construction, including the Fit. Front lateral rigidity is said to have increased by 164 percent.
Quality has been an issue with small cars of the past, but that's changed considerably in recent years - all the more so with Honda's Fit. Impressively refined for a subcompact (or any car, for that matter), the Fit delivers a confident and solid feel on the road.
Reacting adeptly to driver requests, delivering fuss-free handling, the Fit behaves as nimbly as any smaller car and better than most. Untroubled by most pavement imperfections, the Fit's suspension reduces trouble spots to a most minimal level of annoyance. Little correction is needed on straightaways, as the Fit is particularly capable of staying closely on course.
Acceleration from zero sets no records, but is reasonably brisk. Pushing hard on the gas to pass or merge produces less-impressive response, but it's on par with other cars in this class. Few small cars are as quiet when idling, and the sound that emerges while accelerating is pleasantly refined. Paddle shifters on the Sport model operate with such subtlety that it's difficult to discern whether a gear change has actually taken place.
As in many smaller cars, a manual gearbox can extract more energy from the engine than an automatic transmission. Honda's five-speed manual benefits from a loose-operating, easy-to-use shifter, helping to produce greater response to gas pedal commands.
Front seats are comforably cushioned, with adequate headroom. Backseat legroom is reasonably good, but falls short of the Nissan Versa's space. Rear headroom is better, with ample toe space beneath the front seats. Visibility is helped by large outside mirrors, but thick rear pillars again hinder views in that direction. Blue dash-markings on the large speedometer are helpful when sunlight makes instruments difficult to read. Other gauges, positioned within deep nacelles, aren't as easy to see.
Honda originally intended to place the 2009 Fit on sale in September, but moved the debut date to late August. Prices start at $14,550 (plus destination charge) for a manual-shift model; $15,350 with the automatic transmission. Moving up to a Sport edition with its paddle shifters escalates the prices to $16,060 and $16,910. With navigation, a Fit goes for $17,910 with manual shift and $18,760 with automatic.
Honda is targeting three buyer groups: young (Generation Y) folks, "downsizers" who previously owned bigger vehicles, and former compact-car buyers. Principal competitors include the Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, and Scion xD, though such subcompacts as the Chevrolet Aveo also might be considered.
"Fit is truly a global car," said chief engineer Hitomi, sold in 115 countries. Some 2.3 million have been sold worldwide.
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