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NEW CAR REVIEW
Honda Fit is a perfect...fit, for renewed subcompact class
By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (SNS) – It seems as though Honda has filled every available automotive niche, so when it brings out a new car, where does it fit? Right there. In fact, maybe the fact it fits so well is why Honda named its new subcompact the "Fit."

 

To demonstrate how tight an area the Fit will fit through, Honda’s marketing folks created a unique little test at the car’s introduction in Santa Monica. They put a pair of vertical posts up, let the media types drive to a starting line about 20 yards away, then signal how close to put the posts, with the idea we could still fit the Fit through the gap. It was something of a vertical limbo dance for a car.

I waved them close, then closer, until I thought they might be too close, because in my experience, drivers generally can squeeze through a tighter opening than they think. I was right. I positioned the posts closer than I thought was possible, and I still fit the Fit between them, without scraping any paint off the side mirrors.

Others came closer. But nobody beat my parallel parking attempt, where I purposely over-steered my attempt to park between extremely close pylons, trying to compensate for the car’s compactness, and I made a perfect park, an inch from the curb, on my first try.

Next came a small, tight, pylon-lined course, which the Honda folks insisted was a not an all-out performance autocross, but just an agility drill, with a stop, and a back-up part, before the quick-stop finish. I went through it well, but conservatively, and though I didn’t beat later drivers who ran it with tire-screaming aggressiveness as if it were an all-out autocross, I came away impressed with the Fit’s quickness and agility.

Prior to all that lunchtime fun and frolic, I already had been impressed with the Fit’s performance zipping around and through the twisty hillsides of the mountain range inland from Santa Monica. Along the way, the thought occurred to me that when U.S. automakers and critics criticize imports, they are missing a serious point with Hondas, among others.

When Honda builds a new vehicle, critics and competitors can line up and nitpick all they want, but one thing remains unassailable: Honda vehicles tend to be a complete package, with the total far exceeding the mere sum of its parts.

The Fit is a perfect example, because it is a 5-door hatchback with a futuristic cab-forward design, with an interior that is remarkably versatile, and with performance that lifts it from utilitarian to fun.

  Ingenious design makes the interior versatile in a Swiss Army knife sort of a way. Flipping and folding second-row seats can create a tall mode, long mode and lounge mode. In tall mode, the surprisingly low floor can house a bicycle; in long mode, folding the right side front seat and second row seats makes a 7-foot flat storage surface; in lounge mode, reclining the front buckets can turn the Fit into a great place for two weary occupants to grab rest-area naps.

A 1.5-liter engine with multiple valves and VTEC variable valve-timing has a posted 109 horsepower at 5,800 RPMs, and 105 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800, with EPA gas mileage estimates of 33 city, 38 highway. You can choose a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic, and the automatic comes with paddles on the back of the steering wheel for fingertip manual shifts. How very sports-car like, for something more resembling a mini-minivan.

Speaking of critics, General Motors is on a marketing campaign to insist its cars are every bit as good, or better, than comparable imports that are perceived to be better, and that it’s the fault of the media for not creating the proper image for GM cars.

Amazingly, I’ve recently read a couple of syndicated columns where the creators shamelessly repeat or rephrase exactly that sentiment. A General Motors official recently informed me that the new Malibu is every bit as good if not better than cars like the Honda Accord. I stopped him right there.

The Malibu, and the Pontiac G6, are very good, possibly the best of a new breed of GM cars. They have tightness, good handling, decent performance, are priced about right, and they have almost all the important features. Almost. But when comparing cars, the last I checked, the engines are part of it. Therefore, hallucination is a prerequisite for anyone who declares them equal to or better than the new Accord, or Camry, for that matter.

Unquestioned engine technology is a major part of Honda’s allure. Honda had multiple valve engines with variable valve timing – technology transferred directly from Ayrton Senna’s superb Formula 1-winning Honda engines – on the entry level Civic back in 1991. That’s 15 years ago. By the mid-1990s, Honda’s VTEC system expanded to all of Honda’s engines.  

When Honda makes a new and improved engine, it discontinues its obsolete engines, so all its fours and V6es stay on the world’s cutting edge of technology.

At GM, the Malibu (and G6) don’t get to use the superb and high-tech Cadillac V6, and are saddled instead with the newest version of aging pushrod technology, which is cheaper to produce.

When it comes to compacts, Chevy now sells the Aveo, which is built in South Korea’s Daewoo factory, which General Motors recently purchased. So GM loyalists continue to push "buy American" philosophy, and GM is pushing a good – but far from great – Korean import as its subcompact.

Meanwhile, Honda won 2006 North American Car of the Year honors with the completely redone Civic. Fantastic car, from every standpoint. In my tests, I got 37-42 miles per gallon with the Civic EX sedan, with an automatic transmission. Over the years, the Accord has grown, and the Civic has grown commensurately, and the previously subcompact Civic is now larger than the 1985 Accord was.

Still, as gasoline heads inexorably back toward $3 per gallon, U.S. consumers might finally be ready to follow the lead of savvy buyers in Europe and Japan, and go smaller. If a car can be built structurally safe enough, then smaller, lighter, more agile and more fuel-efficient makes a lot of sense.

Toyota is doing it with the Yaris, which is smaller than the Corolla, adjacent to the Scion fleet, and Nissan is doing it with the Versa, which is smaller than the new Sentra. The Mazda5 is a compact van/wagon version of the Mazda3.

If small is going to be large in our immediate automotive future, Honda, as usual, steps to the front of the class with the Fit. The Fit is 19.2 inches shorter and 2.8 inches wider than the 2006 Civic – but it is 18 inches LONGER, 7 inches WIDER and 7 inches TALLER than the first Civic was, back in 1973.  

The engine has a sophisticated technique of deactivating one intake valve at low RPMs to create a swirl of more rapid combustion, and that valve is reactivated at mid- to high-RPM use for stronger power.

The five-speed stick has closer-ratio gears from 1-4, with a wider gap to fifth, for improved freeway cruising at lower RPMs for better fuel economy. The five-speed automatic has wider gear ratios, which is a welcome idea to reduce the need for frequent shifting. The paddle operation can be done with the transmission in D, in which case it goes back to normal automatic service by itself, or in full manual mode.

The Fit’s front suspension is an independent MacPherson Strut system, similar to the Civic, with the rear switched from multilink to a torsion beam, which allowed lowering the floor by 3 inches. Another key feature is that the fuel tank is moved forward, resting amidship, under the front seats, which used to be a vacant area. That allowed the rear floor to be lowered, 7 inches lower than in a Scion, for example. Passenger room is about the same as the larger Civic, and the cargo area expands from 20.6 to 41.9 cubic feet when you fold the rear seat down.

Honda used the new Ridgeline pickup – 2006 North American Truck of the Year – for overload crash-tests with the Fit. The body structure is made of 36 percent high-tensile steel, and with standard side and side-curtain airbags complementing the front bags, Honda claims top crash-test ratings front and rear side for the Fit.

Prices are between $13,500 and $15,000, in either base or Sport form. The Sport gets bigger (15-inch) alloy wheels, and underbody panel, foglights, paddle shifters, and a better audio system – essentially $2,400 in upgrades for a difference in price of $1,400.

Any car-buyer interested in quick and agile performance, great fuel economy, surprisingly good safety, active-lifestyle versatility inside, and low-price sophistication, will find that the Fit…fits.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.