We meet up with the 2009 Honda Fit in Los Angeles at the Getty Villa, a sprawling treasury of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan art overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It's pleasant up at the villa and the parking's free, but we're not sure why Honda has chosen this spot to introduce the redesigned Fit, which can't even be optioned with a sarcophagus.
Then the Getty's vice president of communications Ron Hartwig tells us, "We use a herd of 400 goats annually to clear the slopes around the Getty Center. We have some 650 acres, and the goats are environmentally the best way to do it."
And although it smells less, the 2009 Honda Fit has more in common with the hoofed lawn crew than the Getty's Victorious Youth, circa 300 B.C. This subcompact hatchback represents a simpler, cheaper and, most likely, greener solution to getting around than whatever you're driving right now. It's small and cheerful, something that you can grab hold of during this hyper-rational frenzy about fuel prices that's making you think about kicking your gluttonous V6 Accord to the curb.
"We've always recognized challenging times like these as an opportunity for growth," says Dan Bonawitz, vice president of corporate planning and logistics for American Honda Motor Company.
And so after initially expecting to sell perhaps 33,000 examples when the Honda Fit first appeared in the U.S. in 2006, Honda now expects to sell 85,000 examples of the 2009 Honda Fit when it arrives in dealerships in September. So odds are you're going to know someone who owns a second-generation Honda Fit.
So It'll Be Kinda Popular
Odds are that you might even be that someone. After all, you've heard from our drive of the new-generation Fit in Japan that this five-door hatchback is now a bit bigger than the original. It rides on a 98.4-inch wheelbase (2 inches longer than before) with its wheels pushed about an inch farther apart at either end (58.7-inch front track; 58.1-inch rear track). The 2009 Honda Fit also stretches 161.6 inches from nose to tail (up 4 inches) and 66.7 inches from shoulder to shoulder (up 0.5 inch).
Yet when we approach the pack of 2009 Fits lined up in the driveway at the Getty, they're not all bloated and scary — the new Fit remains a subcompact in scale. Passenger volume is only fractionally larger at 90.8 cubic feet compared to the previous model's 90.1 cubic feet. Even so, we're vastly more comfortable sitting in this new Fit, as its standard tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel has made the driving position far more suitable for people on this side of the Pacific Ocean (no more arm extenders). An extra inch of rear legroom makes it pretty hospitable in back, too.
Although maximum cargo volume is now rated at 57.3 cubic feet (a massive increase from the car's former rating of 41.9 cubes), we suspect Honda has merely taken the '09 measurement with the front passenger seat reclined flat for surfboard transport. The gas tank is still mounted under the front seats, so the rear seats can still fold up or down, too. Curb weight has increased only 50-60 pounds, depending on transmission choice.
As Light as a 2,500-Pound Feather
Honda officials throw caution to the wind and let us drive their new budget, front-drive subcompact on the back roads of the mountains above Malibu — the good ones, actually, as we know from long experience. We immediately notice that the 2009 Honda Fit has the same adroit handling as the old Fit.
Honda also says the new Fit is 164 percent more rigid than before, the product of a million small changes, among them increased use of high-tensile steel, the adoption of more robust frame rails, an additional front frame member and stiffer rear suspension mounts.
The chassis engineers have also fiddled with the suspension geometry, increasing caster up front to improve steering feel and adjusting the toe and camber in back to improve the car's cornering character. The rear torsion-beam axle gets longer trailing arms with larger bushings, and the bottom line is better ride quality, says Honda.
As we wind our way through the mountains, we find ourselves thinking that the Honda Fit remains the most entertaining and communicative subcompact hatch short of a Mini Cooper. We also notice that the Fit's tail now tucks in more readily when you dive into corners, which makes the little Honda even more fun.
Minimalist Running Gear
Like the '08 version, the steering of the 2009 Honda Fit has electric assist as well as much the same ratio (12.7:1) as before. Honda has switched to a simpler and evidently more rigid three-point mounting system for the steering rack, but we can't detect much change as we hold the sporty, three-spoke steering wheel borrowed from the Civic.
Wheel sizes are larger, with 15-inch steel wheels and 175/65R15 Dunlop SP31 tires on the base Fit and 16-inch alloys and 185/55R16 Bridgestone Turanza EL470 tires on the 2009 Honda Fit Sport. Alas, these 16s are skinnier than last year's 15s, which were 195/55R15s.
Honda has also attempted to improve brake pedal feel for the 2009 Honda Fit by fitting a smaller-diameter master cylinder with a longer piston stroke, along with a more powerful brake booster. But the brakes themselves still consist of 10.3-inch ventilated front discs and 7.9-inch rear drums. During our little party on Mulholland Highway, braking performance proves mediocre — just like the old Fit.
Still a Small Fry
Maybe you thought Honda would consult the Nissan-Scion playbook and stuff more engine into the 2009 Fit? Ah, but that would negate the efficiency advantage of driving the smallest Honda. So welcome back to last year's 1.5-liter inline-4 with its single overhead cam and four valves per cylinder.
There are substantial changes inside the engine, though, the biggest being the adoption of i-VTEC, which is two-stage variable valve timing and lift for the intake valves. Previously, the engine simply shut down one of the intake valves on each cylinder below 3,400 rpm, creating a torque-enhancing swirl effect.
Output edges up to 117 horsepower at 6,600 rpm, compared to 109 hp at 5,800 in the original Honda Fit. Meanwhile, the peak torque rating barely changes. You get 106 pound-feet at 4,800 versus 105 lb-ft at the same rpm in the first-generation engine.
Do not be deceived, though. The torque curve is flatter and meatier than the old Fit's.
Torquey Enough To Lower Your Pulse
We know this because we're all relaxed while driving around Malibu, short-shifting our 2009 Honda Fit Sport with its five-speed manual transmission when we feel like it and carrying on light conversation with our passenger. Honda officials won't give acceleration estimates but promise the '09 Fit will be quicker at our test track.
For the Fit Sport, the optional five-speed automatic transmission includes shift paddles on the steering wheel, along with regular and Sport shift modes. (Honda predicts that 70 percent of Fit buyers will take the automatic.)
The manual gearbox has shorter overall gearing for quicker acceleration, but it costs 1 mpg on both EPA cycles, as Honda is predicting 27 mpg city/33 mpg highway.
When the Fit Sport is equipped with an automatic, its fuel economy remains the same with 27 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. The only winner here is the automatic-equipped base Fit, which uses a more conservative shift program to get a rating of 28 mpg city/35 mpg highway.
Honda officials concede there would have been more mpg improvement if this car came with the continuously variable transmission (CVT) used in the Japanese-spec 2009 Honda Fit. But the CVT, they say, is better suited to Tokyo gridlock than high-speed U.S. freeway traffic. "Americans aren't very patient," one American Honda official observes.
Costs More but Still Worth It
With destination charges included, you'll pay another $600 for the base 2009 Honda Fit, whether you get the manual ($15,220) or the automatic ($16,020). Expected to account for 70 percent of volume, the Fit Sport costs an extra $790 with the manual ($16,730) or $840 with the automatic ($17,580).
The Fit Sport comes standard with an iPod-friendly USB port, along with map lights and a driver armrest. Budget another $1,850 if you want the 2009 Honda Fit Sport Navi. Priced at $18,050 with the manual and $19,430 with the auto, this new high-line model adds a touchscreen navigation system and stability control. It's only expected to account for 10 percent of sales, and says Senior Product Planner Jeff Swedlund, it's aimed at the growing audience of "downsizer customers moving in for the size and weight of the vehicle and the [lessened] environmental impact."
We're not quite comfortable with the idea of paying $19K for a Fit (not when the Mini Cooper exists), but in base or Sport trim, the 2009 Honda Fit is an excellent small car. Not only is it extremely useful, thanks to its unique packaging, it's genuinely fun to drive. Unless you're going to buy a used car, this is about as good as it gets for $16,000.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2009 Honda Fit in NJ is: