American car buyers have discovered the Fit. In just one year, the sales of this little hatchback with good fuel economy and amazing utility have doubled. Is this strong sales record deserved?
We agree that the 2008 Honda Fit Base allows buyers to step into a fun-to-drive car without broadsiding their wallets. But the slightly more expensive Fit Sport provides some nice extras that will be appreciated every time you drive the car. For $1,320 more, the Sport adds paddle shifters, cruise control, lower body skirts, a rear spoiler and 15-inch alloys rather than the 14-inch steel wheels on the Base model.
The Fit is not the only small hatchback on the market. The Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris are both capable small cars with better than average fuel economy, but neither of them is designed with the imagination of the Fit. The Nissan does have a few features not found in the Honda (such as a 6th gear on the manual transmission) and a generally roomier feel. At $12,450 for the base automatic Yaris, the Toyota is substantially less expensive than the Fit but feels cheaper and provides little in the way of driving pleasure. The Smart Fortwo Passion, which starts at $13,590, delivers better gas mileage but has a balky automatic transmission, runs on premium gas and only seats two. Still, what sets the Fit apart is Honda's creative use of interior space and delivering a fuel-efficient car that's actually a lot of fun to drive.
The only power plant available on any 2008 Honda Fit is a 109-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that accelerates the little hatchback from zero to 60 mph in a modest 11.4 seconds. The five-speed automatic transmission with manual mode in our test car put power to the front wheels and upshifted and downshifted smoothly on its own. However, when in manual mode, the shifter only allows the driver to choose 3rd gear, which isn't useful except when engine braking on steep grades and when you need a sudden blast of midrange acceleration. The rev-happy VTEC engine, while feeling peppy, was raspy at high revs and droned noisily at highway speeds. The EPA rates the Fit automatic at 27/34/30 mpg city/highway/combined.
While the Fit's acceleration numbers are not impressive, its handling is quite nimble, making this little hatchback a lot of fun to drive. Some may find the suspension a bit too firm, while others will enjoy the precise control it allows when coupled with class-leading steering feel. The antilock brakes (discs in front and drums in the rear) had a firm feel, but the stopping distance from 60 mph was a mediocre 131 feet. The small exterior dimensions (157 inches long and 66 inches wide) allow the driver to weave through traffic easily and park in tight spaces.
To maximize interior space, designers created a very tall car, which provides amazing headroom. But this has a downside, as the upright seating position doesn't suit all body types. This might not be noticed in around-town driving, but on road trips it could be a problem. To keep the curb weight down to 2,514 pounds, some insulation has been sacrificed, leading to increased wind and road noise.
By moving the 10.8-gallon gas tank forward under the driver seat, some additional space has been created in the backseat. This not only improves legroom but also allows for easy storage of tall items such as potted plants. For a small car, the backseat hiproom is above average for two people — three occupants would make it very tight.
The Honda Fit is a bit of a throwback among modern cars, which have moved increasingly toward automating as many controls as possible. The Fit's controls are simple, large and straightforward. For example, climate control is managed by three big and clearly marked knobs. The radio volume control is so big some have remarked that it could be seen in satellite photos of the earth. The Base model doesn't come with an auxiliary jack (for iPods or MP3 players) but the audio display screen is large and the preset buttons are easy to use on the fly.
Another nice feature is Honda's "Maintenance Minder" which lets the owner know how soon regular service will be required. On the instrument panel, a readout tells what percentage of use is left before an oil change and tire rotation are needed. This allows for fewer service visits and saves the owner money by taking the guesswork out of oil change intervals.
Design/Fit and Finish
The big story with the Fit — and one that sets it apart from other cars in this category — is its seating. A single lever on the side of the rear seats allows complete repositioning of the seats. The seat bottoms can be flipped up to allow even more tall objects to be carried within the car. They can also be folded flat for long objects and the front passenger seat can be folded down, allowing one to sit in the back in sort of a lounge chair mode. The rear lift gate is wonderfully balanced and the rear cargo space is wide enough to allow even the longest golf bags.
The 2008 Honda Fit is a car built on a budget, and some of the interior materials reflect this cost-cutting. The expansive dashboard is made chiefly of hard plastic, and some of the surfaces are not pleasing to the touch. But the main point of contact, the steering wheel, feels good and the design throughout has a contemporary look. The exterior design of the Base model looks naked, in our opinion, without the rear spoiler and the lower cladding present in the Sport model.
Who should consider this vehicle
The Fit is a good buy for people concerned about fuel economy who still want a car that seats up to five and offers wonderful utility. Young drivers will love its sporty handling, while everyone can appreciate its surprisingly generous cargo capacity. In that respect, SUV drivers looking to downsize might find that their needs are still met by the 2008 Honda Fit. But keep in mind that this is more of an around-towner than a long-distance cruiser.
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