First Drive: 2009 Honda Fit Sport

2009 Honda Fit Sport – Click above for high-res image gallery

When Honda introduced the first generation Fit to the North American market in mid-2006, its timing couldn't have been better. The entry level hatchback appeared just as fuel prices in the U.S. were heading skyward. Ever since then, the Fit has been selling as fast as Honda can bring them in from Japan. The Fit (or Jazz as its known in some markets) debuted in 2001 and the second-generation model went on sale in Japan last fall. Honda showed the new U.S.-spec Fit at the New York Auto Show last spring and we had our first opportunity to drive it on the roads north of Ann Arbor, MI last week.

As is typically the case with new models, the updated Fit has grown a bit (about 4 inches in overall length), but it's only about 44 pounds heavier than the outgoing model. Also in the usual fashion, Honda strove to increase the refinement of the Fit while not losing any of the fun-loving qualities of the original. In the process, it has had to deal with rising raw material and shipping costs while keeping the price from getting out of hand. Read on to find out if the spiritual descendants of Soichiro Honda have succeeded.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

The debut of the modern MINI earlier this decade clearly demonstrated that a small, fuel efficient car didn't have to be a cheap, plasticy, under-performing penalty box in which to suffer your commuting activities. The MINI's BMW origins, however, meant that it was a bit on the pricey side as well as having a minuscule back seat. The arrival of the Fit on our shores took those same driving qualities and added a more reasonable price and vastly more space for occupants. The Fit is taller and longer than the MINI, but smaller than cars like the Nissan Versa and Ford Focus.

The original Fit was designed well before Honda decided to bring the car to North America, so it didn't incorporate much in way of U.S. demands. Nonetheless, in its first two years on the market, American drivers took to the Fit and Honda sold as many as they could stuff on cargo ships from Japan. Besides its handling and fuel efficiency, features like the rear Magic Seats and ample cargo space also contributed to its popularity. For the second generation Fit, Honda wanted to build on what made the original a hot seller without diluting any of those properties.

The design philosophy behind the Fit is described as "Man-Maximum, Machine-Minimum," shrinking the car around the biggest possible user space. As we said, the new Fit has grown a bit, but not by much. Its limbo capabilities are unchanged at 60 inches, but it's about 0.6 inches wider and 4.3 inches longer. Following its New York Auto Show debut last spring, some observers complained about the longer nose compared to the JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) Fit that launched late last year. Honda explained that there were two reasons for this. One was aesthetic, as American consumers in clinics felt the Japanese Fit looked a little too mini-van like with its short nose. The other had to do with crash safety. U.S. standards require a certain level of occupant safety, even for those still ignorant enough not to wear seat-belts. Both of those needs led to a slightly longer nose that Honda now claims adds to a sportier looking new Fit. We'll let you be the judge of that.

Personally, we like the snub nose look of the JDM Fit, but the U.S. version looks fine as well. The rest of the car is a clear evolution of the original with the increased length and larger windows giving the appearance of a lower stance even though it is the same height. That vertical stature is one of the keys to the Fit's interior volume. Rear seat passengers sit upright with plenty of head room and knee room. The extra half inch of width allows for the addition of a driver seat center arm-rest and the distinct feeling of more elbow room. In spite of the slightly increased size, the mass for a comparably equipped model only goes up by the aforementioned 44 lbs.

An emphasis on safety in the new Fit plays a big part here. Honda has used a lot of high-strength steel to improve the structural integrity without bulking the car. As with other recent introductions, Honda has also incorporated Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE), which is intended to improve occupant protection in collisions between different sized vehicles.

For those unfamiliar with the rear Magic Seats, they provide immense flexibility. Like all hatchbacks, the rear seat backs fold down flat. The retracting rear head rests allow the flat fold even with the front seats all the way back. The front passenger seat back also folds forward for carrying larger items. The magic part is in the rear where the lower seat cushions also fold up against the seat back which is ideal for carrying taller items since you have unobstructed space from the floor to the ceiling between the seats.

The driver environment is well laid out with all controls close at hand. For those with a large thirst and bladder to match, the Fit's interior will be great for road trips as there are now 10 cup holders available. Two are located on the floor ahead of the shifter, one at either end of the dash board, one in each of the four doors and two more in the rear of the center console. A new top trim level has also been added to the Sport that includes an in-dash navigation system with a touch screen. Visibility out of the Fit is also excellent thanks to thinner A-pillars, larger quarter windows at the base of the more steeply raked pillars and a larger rear window. The steering wheel also adds fore-aft adjustment to its previous angle adjustment making it easier to get the right, ahem, fit.

We hit the road in a brilliant blue Fit Sport with a 5-speed manual gearbox and a navigation system for our first drive. Even for those not necessarily looking for a super-efficient car, the first generation Fit, especially in Sport form, provided a remarkably nimble and stable platform for tackling twisty roads. In spite of its tall stance, the original Fit never felt tippy and neither does this new one. Americans are generally averse to the idea of managing the gear ratio selection in their cars and predominantly opt for automatics. Thus, the new Fit carries over its five speed auto-box from the original and the Sport retains the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters for those who like to play pretend.

For those who don't mind manipulating three pedals with two feet, the shift-it-yourself version proved remarkably adept. The shift throws were short and very precise. There was no slop to speak of in the shifter and the engagement of the clutch also made it very easy to drive smoothly and quickly. Also rating high praise was the Fit's steering. Unlike the Acura TL and TSX, which had inconsistent weighting and poor feedback from their electrically assisted systems, the Fit's system felt great. Honda increased the rigidity of the steering gear and changed the way it is mounted to the front sub-frame. During hard cornering, the forces going on at the tire/road interface were transmitted back through the reasonably thick rimmed wheel and there were no noticeable dead spots or free play.

The only sore spot were the brakes, and since we only had time to drive one example, it's not clear if this was a one-off problem or a common one. While the pedal feel was fine, during light braking typical of around town driving, it seemed to take more effort than expected to achieve the desired deceleration. It's possible that the pads were glazed from some over-enthusiastic use during a previous drive or perhaps they were green and needed braking in. Either way we'll be watching for this when we get a unit for a full review.

Other than that the Fit was very well behaved on curvy rural roads, highways and around town. The structure felt solid and the suspension was well damped while never feeling harsh. Wind and other ambient noise was remarkably low inside for an economy car. Probably the most remarkable aspect with regard to noise was when the car came to a stop. The Fit was so silent at idle that after recently driving other cars with auto start-stop systems, we thought the Honda was equipped with one. We had to glance at the tachometer to realize it was still running. Under hard acceleration the 1.5L four cylinder does make some noise but remains vibration free throughout the rev range.

The Fit's updated engine picks up 9 hp compared to the previous generation and 1 lb-ft of torque for a total of 117 hp and 106 lb-ft, respectively. If there is one thing that smooth running Honda four-cylinder engines can be criticized for are their relatively weak low end torque. What we'd love to see in the Fit is a 1.6L version of Honda's upcoming clean diesel. A torquey engine like in the MINI Cooper D blended with this chassis would be a perfect combination. It's not that the Fit is slow, but having the extra torque just feels better and provides more encouraging acceleration for passing or on-ramp merging.

The 2009 Fit also picks up one mpg across the board compared to the previous model, scoring 28 city/35 highway for the base model equipped with the automatic transmission . All Fits get anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution as standard equipment and the new Sport/navi version also includes stability control. The interior of the Fit clearly isn't a luxury car, but the shapes, color combinations and textures of the hard plastics keep it from feeling excessively cheap.

Honda scored big-time with the first generation Fit and expects to do even better this time. Capacity will limit sales to about 85,000 units for 2009, which we think will all be sold with no trouble. Honda has essentially run out of 2008 Fits over the past couple of months with supplies at most dealers in the single digits. It hasn't set a precise on sale date for the '09 model, but instead will allow dealers to start selling cars as they arrive in the next few weeks rather than waiting to fill the pipeline. All North American dealers should be selling them shortly after Labor Day, though. Finally, we'll have word on Honda's pricing for the Fit in a later post, but we think there's enough here in the new 2009 Fit to justify a few extra bucks in Honda's pocket.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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