Monday, August 10, 2009

Honda Fit is Perfect for Today

Right in the middle of Consumer Reports’ Cash for Clunkers recommended car list sits the Honda Fit. The smallest Honda offered in the U.S., it may be the ideal car for a world of constrained resources and uncertain employment.

New for 2009, the Fit follows the same formula as its predecessor: Small on the outside, large on the inside. Taking up a surprisingly small piece of driveway, my Milano Red test car made short work of everything from passengers to groceries to string basses. The “Magic” split rear seat flips down to create 57.3 cubic feet of cargo space. Or, pull up the lower cushion and have a car-wide space behind the front seats.

It’s the Fit’s pod shape that makes it so impressive. The car looks a bit like a giant pumpkin or a sharp-edged ball. The windshield tapers down almost to the nose—there’s hardly any hood. Generous windows in the front pillars enhance visibility. The side window line rises up dramatically, ending in a chopped-off hatch. This car is much larger and more usable than the original Honda Civic hatches that debuted in the early 1970s.

Despite its role as the entry-level Honda, the Fit is not just basic transportation. Air conditioning and power windows, locks and mirrors are standard. Current and average fuel economy information displays appear on the dash. A 160-watt four-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with AUX plug is there too. They’ve even added a passenger visor vanity mirror, which was noticeably lacking in the previous-generation model I tested two years ago.

If you want more features, order the Sport model. It flaunts more than a dozen upgrades. Inside, you get remote entry and security system, leather wrapped steering wheel with illuminated controls, map lights, cruise control, and two extra speakers for the audio system. Outside, “sportiness” comes with an underbody kit, 16-inch alloy wheels, chrome headlight bezels and exhaust tips and a rear roof spoiler.

Both standard and Sport use an upgraded 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels. Horsepower jumps from 109 in the old model to 117 today, with 106 lb.-ft. of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but you can order a five-speed automatic.
Even with the automatic, my test car felt perky and delivered 33.4 miles per gallon. EPA figures are 27 City, 33 Highway; Green Vehicle numbers are a laudable 7 for Air Pollution and 8 for Greenhouse Gas scores.

For such a small car, the Fit carries four people very comfortably. A high ceiling inside helps. The molded seats are comfortable without being especially luxurious.

The interior features Honda’s busy styling, with plenty of varying surfaces and fanciful curves. It feels substantial and the fit and finish are typical Honda excellent.

The Fit earns a five-star, top-level rating for frontal crash for driver and passenger and five stars for side crash for the front seat (four stars for rear). That’s thanks to the Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure. ACE also provides extra rigidity to the Fit and helps minimize the potential for under-ride or over-ride, which can occur during head-on or offset-frontal impacts with a significantly larger or smaller vehicle. Of course there are plenty of airbags—six in all.

Active safety includes an anti-lock braking system (ABS) with Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD) and brake assist, front seat belts with automatic tensioning systems, and driver and front passenger Active Head Restraints. These features used to be available only in more expensive vehicles, but the technology has percolated down to everyone’s cars now. That’s good.

You can order Vehicle Stability Assist™ (VSA®) on the Fit Sport, and my tester had it. An electronic stability control system, VSA works with the ABS and Traction Control System (TCS) to keep you from oversteering or understeering in a turn. The system carefully brakes one or more wheels independently to help the driver keep the vehicle on the intended travel path.

It won’t cost you much to get into a Fit. Prices begin at $15,460, including destination charges. The Fit Sport jumps $1,510, and an automatic transmission will add $800 or $850 to that. My Fit Sport with a navigation system and VSA came to $19,630.

Beyond all this, with its electric rack-and-pinion steering system and firm suspension, the Fit is actually enjoyable to drive. Car magazines routinely rate it tops in its class for fun against competitors from Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and others. Especially at its price point, that means something, and you’ll be safe too. There’s even talk of a hybrid version. Watch this space for details.

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