Lifestyle

First Drive: 2009 Honda Fit


Fit_2009
Editor's Rating: star rating

The Honda Fit was already the best subcompact on the market—and it just got better for 2009

Up Front

At a recent press event in New York City, I watched a 6 ft., 9 in. fellow auto reviewer wedge himself behind the wheel of the new Honda (HMC) Fit. He looked like a bear in a bathtub to me, but he said he had enough room to drive the thing. His punning response when asked how he felt: "I wouldn't say I'm comfortable, but I fit."

Ever since hitting the U.S. market two-and-a-half years ago, the subcompact Fit has been one of the most remarkable models on the American market. The front seats are surprisingly roomy, as my Kobe Bryant-sized colleague demonstrated, and it's arguably the most versatile small car around. If anything, the redesign for the '09 model year, which added 4.2 in. to the car's length and pushed the windshield nearly 5 in. farther forward, makes the 2009 even more versatile than the previous Fit without sacrificing the drivability and fuel economy that made the original so popular (sales were up 78.5% in July and 71.9% in the first seven months of the year, to 52,053).

Fuel economy remains about the same, which is to say excellent. With an automatic transmission, the base model '09 Fit is rated to get 28 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway. The stick-shift versions of the car do slightly worse, as does the Sport version with an automatic transmission, which gets 27 city and 33 highway.

The Fit's safety ratings also promise to remain excellent. Side, side curtain, and dual-stage front air bags are standard, while stability and traction control are available as an option. Based on its own tests, Honda expects the new Fit to earn five-star government crash test ratings for all occupants in front and side collisions, and the rating drops to a still acceptable four stars for rear passengers in side crashes.

The downside is that the Fit isn't cheap. At a base price of $15,220 with a stick shift, the '09 Fit costs nearly three grand more than the entry-level 2008 Toyota (TM) Yaris, which starts at just $12,210. Honda expects 70% of shoppers to go with the Fit Sport, which starts at $16,730 with a stick shift and adds enhancements such as 16-in. alloy wheels, fog lights, a rear spoiler, keyless entry, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a driver's armrest. The high-end Sport with an automatic transmission and a navigation system costs $19,430.

For that kind of money you can get a well-appointed Honda Civic, which is bigger and gets about the same mileage. For $21,245 you can get an entry-level '09 Honda Accord.

Still, the '09 Fit promises to be in high demand when it hits the showrooms in early September. Honda expects to sell 85,000 new Fits over the next 12 months, which is about the current selling rate for the '08, and dealers have struggled to keep up with demand all year. In early August, they only had a 4.8-day supply of '08 Fits, Honda says.

Behind the Wheel

The Fit's big selling point is the versatility of its interior. The key to the car's design is the placement of the fuel tank under the front seats, creating space so the rear seats can fold down flat and low. There's also an unusual amount of space (51 in. at the high point) between the floor and ceiling of the car, and the seats fold up and down in multiple ingenious ways, giving the Fit amazing hauling power for such a small car.

The 2009's interior crams even more utility into the Fit's small package than before. Moving the windshield forward and moving the ceiling's peak back over the rear-seat area created extra space for more rear leg- and headroom. The rear seats are still tight for average-size adults but not as cramped as they used to be. The new Fit is only half an inch wider than the old one, but interior width is 1.2 in. greater, creating more shoulder space. The rear doors now open wider, making it easier to get into and out of the back seat, and the rear hatch is bigger and extends down lower, making it easier to load stuff into the back of the car. The Fit also now has 10 cup holders, two for each person the car can carry, and a hidden storage compartment under the front seat for valuables.

Here are some examples of how versatile the new Fit is. If you take the front wheel off a bicycle and flip up the bottoms of the Fit's rear seats, you can set a bike upright in the space between the front and back seats. The front seatbacks recline way down to the point where you could sleep in the front seats if you wanted, and the rear seats fold down flat in a 60/40 pattern. Cargo space behind the rear seats has been expanded to 20.4 cu. ft., the biggest among subcompacts. With the rear seats folded down, the Fit has more than 57 cu. ft of space in back, which is cavernous for a subcompact. The rear seats can now fold down at the flick of a latch without the headrests having to be removed.

Like the previous Fit, the '09 is peppy and surprisingly fun to drive. The '08 made Car and Driver's 10-best list for two years in a row for just that reason, and the '09 drove slightly better than the '08 when I tested them back-to-back. The '09 only weighs 22 lb. more and has eight more horses under its hood, which turns out to be a wash when it comes to acceleration.

Other reviewers have clocked the '09 Fit at 0-to-60 mph in just nine seconds, though it feels slower than that to me. It's far from Porsche-quick, but the Fit is still a fun car to zip around in. The frame has been stiffened and the rear suspension softened, so the '09 smooths out bumps better than the '08. Steering response is sharper, too, and the brakes bite harder than the old ones did. From 62 mph, the new Fit comes to a dead stop in just 94 ft., about six ft. sooner than the older model.

Go with the stick shift if you like sporty driving. The Fit's automatic transmission comes with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. But the automatic transmission is racy and noisy, and the engine feels too weak at high revs with the automatic transmission. On the other hand, the stick shift in the '09 feels more precise than in the old model. The car feels much zippier when you push the engine close to the redline. The clutch is light and easy to use, even in stop-and-go-driving.

I really like the changes Honda has made in the Fit's interior. The windshield is bigger, and there are now large triangular windows at either end of the dash, providing even better visibility than before. Some of the new design touches make the interior seem less plain, too. For instance, the three main controls for the heater and such are sprinkled on the dash to the right of the steering wheel like a splatter pattern.

My main complaint about the new Fit is that it looks goofy to me. Most of the extra length went to extending the overhang over the front tires, and there's now an unsightly hump in the hood. The car looks cobbled together and out of proportion. Also, the traction and stability-control system is only available if you take the navigation system. It should be available on all trim levels.

Buy It or Bag It?

Honda is the class act among major auto companies right now. You pay a premium for a Honda, but your car will also probably hold its value better because the company doesn't offer rebates, doesn't indulge in distressed pricing schemes during hard times, and doesn't boost sales by selling to car rental companies and other fleet buyers. Shoppers know they have to pay full price for a Honda, whether new or used.

That said, the Fit is pricey. The '08 Fit has been selling for an average of $16,230, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), and the '09 will probably sell for more. I'm not a big fan of the Yaris, which is less versatile and fun to drive than the Fit. But the '08 Yaris has been selling for an average of $14,381, and it should be on your shopping list if all you want is a reliable subcompact. Toyota's little Scion xD also has some of the same virtues as the Fit and costs less.

Another logical alternative is the Nissan (NSANY) Versa, which about matches the others on fuel economy and felt bigger and more solid than the Yaris and Fit when I drove them back-to-back. However, the Versa also has a more generic interior that doesn't appeal to me as much as the Fit's. The '09 Versa has been selling for an average of $15,722, according to PIN, about $500 less than the '09 Fit. Plus, Nissan is offering $500 off the Versa through Sept. 30. (PIN, like BusinessWeek.com, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)

If you want four-wheel drive, check out the '09 Pontiac Vibe or its sister model, the Toyota Matrix. However, they can't quite match the Fit's fuel economy and will end up costing several grand more. The Vibe is probably the more attractive of the two right now because General Motors (GM) is offering $500 rebates on it through Sept. 2.

In my opinion, the '09 Fit is the best subcompact on the market. But you may have to swallow hard before paying so much for such a small car.

Click here to see more of the 2009 Honda Fit.


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