Lifestyle

Nice Fit


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Up Front. As if anyone needed proof that fuel efficiency sells these days, Honda is having a blowout year. While Detroit struggles, Honda's U.S. sales are up 10.2% through the end of July, and the company has set a sales record for every month so far this year.

Now along comes the Honda Fit, the new subcompact introduced in April, to add to the frenzied buying at Honda dealers this year. Honda (HMC) has sold 15,922 Fits in the model's first four months on the market, and the average Fit spends a mere week on a dealer's lot before selling, according to the Power Information Network. That compares with 52 days for a Hyundai Accent and 71 days for General Motors' (GM) Chevy Aveo.

The only competing models that sell as fast as the Fit are its main Japanese subcompact competitors: the new Yaris from Toyota (TM) and the new Versa from Nissan (NSANY), which just hit the market in July (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/14/06, "The Judgment of Yaris"). However, Power Information Network says the hot-selling Honda Civic and Toyota-made Scion xA are being snapped up nearly as fast.

The Yaris is a much bigger seller than the Fit: Toyota has sold 32,822 Yarises in the model's first five months on the market. But that's only because Toyota planned to produce a lot more from the beginning. Honda is selling Fits as fast as it can make them, and could probably sell a lot more if it boosted production. By comparison, GM has sold 35,078 Aveos so far this year, but sales are down 16.1% because the Chevy subcompact is being outclassed by its new competition.

The Fit's appeal is obvious: versatility and great mileage. The car is barely 13 feet long, only weighs 2,551 lbs., and has a tiny 109 horsepower four-cylinder engine. With an automatic transmission, it's rated to get 31 miles per gallon in the city and 37 on the highway. (If you push the car hard, though, you'll probably get lower mileage. In a stretch of 198 miles of mixed driving, I only got 26.3 mpg.)

Yet the Fit's boxy design allows Honda to pack a lot of comfort and utility into a small package. The Fit is more like a mini minivan than a small car. It has four doors, plus a big fifth door that opens up its rear end.

And the car's innovative seat design allows you to fold down the rear seats in several ways, creating a large cargo area when you need it. There's more space in the rear than in most cars because the Fit's gasoline tank is under the front seat, rather than in back. The car is only 60 inches high, yet the rear compartment measures 50 inches from floor to ceiling.

Honda has made folding down the Fit's seats easy. You flick latches on the backs of the front seats, and they slide forward. The rear seatbacks fold down so low that the headrests slide right under the front seats, creating a large, flat platform in back for cargo.

Separately, the bottoms of the rear seats can be folded up to create space for hauling tall, bulky items, and the back of the front passenger seat folds down to create room for long items. Plus, you can fold the front seat-backs down to create a soft, upholstered sleeping or lounging space when you're out camping or picnicking.

You pay a premium for all this versatility. The Fit starts at $14,445 with a stick shift and $15,245 with an automatic, though it comes with everything already on it at that price, including such standard safety gear as antilock brakes, front-seat side airbags, and side-curtain airbags covering the front and rear seats. (Like most Hondas, the Fit has earned the top five-star rating for safety in front-end crash tests from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and is expected to get a top rating in side and front offset crash tests, too).

The main option is to move up to the Sport version of the Fit, which goes for $15,765 with a stick shift and $16,565 with an automatic. For the extra money, you get add-ons such as a spoiler, paddle shifters with the automatic transmission, fog lights, remote keyless entry, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, 15-inch alloy wheels, and a fancier, MP3-compatible audio system with an auxiliary jack.

In the real world, buyers are paying more for the Fit than for its main rivals. The Power Information Network , which like BusinessWeek.com is owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP), figures the average transaction price of the Fit is $16,345, vs. $16,069 for the Nissan Versa, $14,478 for the Scion xA, $14,410 for the Yaris, $13,123 for the Accent, and just $12,520 for the Aveo.

Behind the Wheel. My big problem with the Fit is the driving experience. At first, I marveled at the car's quickness and nimbleness. The Fit isn't fast—it takes more than nine seconds to go from zero to 60 mph—but it feels a lot quicker than that, despite its tiny engine. The car struggles up hills, but it handles well and feels tight in everyday driving.

Out on the highway, it's not a car in which you would want to pull out in the passing lane with an 18-wheeler bearing down from the opposite direction. When you punch the gas at 65 mph, there isn't much oomph.

On the other hand, if you put the automatic transmission in manual mode and use the paddle shifters, you can really cruise at highway speed if you plan ahead a little. I took the Fit out on the Interstate at rush hour and was able to weave in and out through slower-moving traffic with confidence. The Fit feels safe and solid at 80.

Within half an hour or so of driving, though, I was pulling out my hair. Maybe it's just me, but I found the Fit's racy automatic transmission extremely annoying. Whenever you punch the gas a little, the transmission steps down and the engine starts whining. To me, the sound when it does this is like chalk on a blackboard. I couldn't make up my mind: Was it more like a washing machine or a sewing machine? I finally decided that it most resembles is a hedge-trimmer. It isn't a pleasant sound.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to put steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters—which usually are found on sports cars—on a tiny little car like the Fit. But they're fun to use and at least allow you to modulate the engine noise a little to make it less annoying.

Otherwise, the Fit is a fine little car. The boxy design gives it a surprising amount of hip, shoulder, and head space. Miraculously, leg space is also decent. I'm 5-feet-10, and with the driver's seat all the way back I really had to stretch to reach the pedals. Yet there was plenty of room for my knees in the rear seat with the front seat all the way back.

The interior is attractive considering the car's price. In fact, GM should take a close look at the way Honda uses small touches to make inexpensive interior materials seem tasteful. The wide dash in the Pontiac G6 I just test-drove was an unappealing expanse of too-shiny vinyl, but Honda manages to make the Fit's similarly deep dash area attractive by covering the dash in a subtly patterned dull gray material that resembles carbon fiber (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/16/06, "Pontiac Converts").

The Fit's glove box is double-walled and feels solid when you snap it closed. The controls are tastefully designed and easy to use. The Fit also shares several appealing design features with the new Civic, such as the little triangular side windows at each end of the dash and bright Cobalt blue rings around the speedometer, tachometer, and gas gauge. All in all, it's a very nice car inside.

Buy It or Bag it? For me, the Fit's engine noise and automatic transmission would be a deal-breaker. This may be a personal quirk, but I would test-drive the stick shift version of the car to see if it sounds less obnoxious. And if I bought a Fit with an automatic transmission, I would pay up for the Sport version. The paddle shifters plus the other gear that come with the Sport version of the car are worth the extra money.

My big question: Why not buy a Honda Civic instead? (See BusinessWeek.com, 6/7/06, "Civic Virtues.") The basic DX version of the Civic has a more powerful engine that makes it more fun to drive than the Fit—yet it does about as well on gas mileage (it's rated to get 30 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway, and I got 33.1 mpg, much better than I got in the Fix).

Yet the basic '06 Civic sedan starts out at $15,355 with a stick shift and $16,155 with an automatic—slightly less than a Fit Sport. Of course, by the time you add some options to the Civic you'll probably pay more: Power Information Network says the average price people are paying for Civics is $18,726, but even that's just a little over two grand more than a Fit Sport with an automatic transmission.

If you need a small people hauler for carpooling, the Fit will probably win the day. Before buying one, though, I would check out competing models that cost less, such as the Scion xA and the hatchback version of the Yaris, which start out at $13,320 and $11,530, respectively, with a stick shift.

The somewhat larger Ford Focus hatchback is also worth a look if you prefer a domestic model. It starts at $14,995 with a stick shift, and the list price rises to more than $17,000 if you pay up for the SE or SES version, which handle well. But Ford dealers are also bargaining like crazy on price right now.

Personally, I would probably go with the Civic. But I don't have kids to ferry around. If I did, it might be another story.

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