We love the Honda Fit. Roomy inside and more fun to drive than a team of coked-up sled dogs, we've awarded it a place on our 10Best Cars list two straight years, and it decimated the competition in a seven-car comparison test. Of course, that was the old Fit. There's now a new model, completely redesigned for 2009, and a few of us in the office have had a chance to take a spin behind the wheel.
And here's where the problems start. After nearly every drive of a new car, we tend to gather and discuss our individual impressions. More often than not they jibe. When they don't, though -- whoo, boy -- expect some fireworks. Regarding this new Fit, we agree on its character -- more refined, slightly less frenetic -- but we don't all share a similar outlook on the vehicle's appeal. West Coast bureau chief Steve Siler, for example, bemoans the car's newfound maturity and loss of ultimate tossability. On the other hand, associate editor Erik Johnson is more than happy with the changes, finding value in showing people that affordable, fuel-efficient small cars don't have to be refrigerator boxes with Radio Flyer stickers on the sides and dashboards made of string cheese.
Steve Siler: Johnson, there are many reasons the old Fit was a good Fit. It was rendered in cheap materials that were screwed together with Swiss-watch precision. It was crazy versatile. But best of all, it still felt like a floggable cheap car: humbly endowed but a hoot to toss about, kinda like my old 1988 Nissan Sentra but with actual steering feel and body control. It reminded me once again that there's no thrill quite like driving a slow car fast.
Erik Johnson: But none of that is lost in this new car. Yeah, I'll give you that the old car felt like you were racing it all the time -- going 45 mph was an exercise in working the clutch, shifter, and 1.5-liter four practically to breaking point -- but the new Fit is still that fun. It's just that now it feels like you're racing only when you're actually beating on it. Otherwise, the nicer interior materials, stiffer structure, and calmer nature mean you can actually get around town without feeling like you've downed 17 shots of espresso. This is a great car for people who are coming from larger vehicles and need something that sips fuel while providing some semblance of roominess. The new Fit has 10 cup holders, man.
SS: The Fit feels fat. In spite of the '09 model's modest power bump to 117 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque (from 109 horsepower and 105 pound-feet), I found myself struggling to find that special something I used to love in flooring it, steering it, and halting it. Speaking of halting, by the way, I will admit the new Fit does that really well.
EJ: One of the things I love about the new car is the brakes. They have lots of feel and never seem overwhelmed. Something I'm not as totally enamored with is the steering, since it has lost on-center feel. The new Fit feels exactly the same once you've turned the wheel -- talkative, nicely weighted, and accurate -- but I suppose the dumbed-down center feel is a concession to the one-handed, inattentive drivers they expect to inherit from larger, more ponderous vehicles; twitchy, fast steering just wouldn't do for them. As for the Fit being fat, it's only gained a claimed 44 pounds over the old model, something like 1/56th of its total weight -- you call that fat? That's the type of comment that sends 15-year-old girls into therapy.
SS: You're the one who needs therapy, Johnson. It's a character thing: Honda went for refinement with this car from a dynamic, interior, and styling standpoint. The back seat is more comfortable. The car is about 10 times quieter. And the rear seats now tumble into the footwells with one lazy tug. It's all grown up, and that's what I'm not digging. But as a short-armed driver, I do appreciate the new telescoping steering wheel and reckon that buyers of all ages (and shapes) will agree.
EJ: Something else that buyers are going to like is the even better view out. The little front quarter-windows, which were practically useless before, are three times larger, and the rear headrests now retract into the seatbacks. Honda says visibility is improved by 10 percent up front and a whopping 30 percent to the rear.
SS: I have to give it to 'em -- what timing! All those changes mean the Fit will appeal not only to kids looking for a playful, disposable runabout but also to step-down customers accustomed to Camry amenities but who don't want to spend half their income on gas. [EPA mpg estimates range from 28/35 for a base car with an automatic transmission to 27/33 for all other combos, roughly the same as the old car's. Honda also plans to release a gasoline-electric hybrid Fit.] When the new Fit goes on sale in September, the price will rise from $14,620 to $15,220 for starters and will max out just over $19,000 for a loaded Fit Sport with navigation and stability control, which are bundled together for some reason. Given the more upscale positioning of the car, I'm surprised about the Fit's lack of available satellite radio and Bluetooth, although I do like its standard aux-in jack.
EJ: Not offering those two things is a bit of an oversight, but I get the feeling that quite a few buyers are going to be technologically handicapped, if you catch my drift.
Getting back to what's really important, though, what'd you think of the transmissions? I think if you don't want to shift your own gears, you're going to be happy with the revised automatic. The Fit feels more willing to work with the five-speed autobox, and there's even a sport mode that will hold revs longer. On the Fit Sport, the paddle shifters carry over; use them in regular D mode, and they'll allow you to swap a gear for about three seconds before popping back into drive. Actuate the paddles in sport, and the Fit will hold gears to redline, banging off the limiter. Shifts are by no means F1 fast, but they'll do. The plastic paddles themselves feel a little cheap, but what do you want, magnesium-lined elephant ivory? I think it's a neat touch and a nice concession for cash-strapped enthusiasts. The five-speed manual's throws have been shortened, and it remains satisfying to use, although you'll still need to have ESP to find the clutch-engagement point. These are good transmissions, paired with a willing, if underpowered, engine.
SS: I agree with you on the transmissions. The manual is pretty good, and the automatic's paddle shifters give me hope that maybe someday (with a turbocharger, perhaps) the fun might come back. At this point, though, the concept of a Fit Sport remains a touch oxymoronic. The concept of a Fit Si, however, is being tossed around at Honda as we speak. Sign me up for that.
EJ: I'd love an Si. The chassis could handle a couple dozen more horsepower, and that would take it right back to frenetic territory. I still say the current car is more fun to drive than any of its subcompact competition, especially in Sport form -- go ahead and laugh, Siler, you Fit Sport doubter, you -- where a newly added rear stabilizer bar helps balance out the softer rear suspension in the base car. The new Fit doesn't feel any swifter than the old one, which we tested as quickly as 8.7 seconds to 60 mph. We're going to have to wait until we strap test gear to the 2009 to find out, at which point we'll have even more detailed driving impressions.
At the end of the day, Siler and Johnson found some common ground, specifically in recognizing Honda's savvy decision to broaden the appeal of what was a very appealing car to begin with by adding heaps of refinement without raising the price much. They might differ in their, uh, fondness of the actual vehicle, but they both recognize that the Fit is fit for the times and that it remains at heart a versatile, fun-to-drive car in a segment full of mostly duds. Whether or not the Honda remains fit for a 10Best Cars award, however, remains to be seen. We can't wait to find out.
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