The Honda Fit was easily the best subcompact on the market — great fun to drive and a deft mix of efficiency, interior space and value.
Then Honda discovered that fun doesn't sell.
The newly redesigned 2015 Fit is still spacious, frugal and smartly engineered. But Honda — tired of seeing Fit sales lag behind those of the Chevy Sonic, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent — has sucked out all the joy from the car's handling.
Honda's third generation of this four-door hatchback, marked as a 2015 model, started showing up in dealerships this month. Honda General Manager Jeff Conrad said in March that the changes were in response to driver feedback.
"We knew the outgoing generation was really sporty," Conrad said. "But there was an element of people that said, 'Well, we don't want something that rides too rough.'"
As a result, the new Fit has lost the crisp handling and connection to the road that made its earlier iterations stand out from the conservative class of subcompacts.
In its place is vague steering that gives the impression that the car is less eager to drive than you are. No longer sporty, the Fit's handling now falls in line with everything else in the segment.
Also gone is the earlier generation's old-school automatic transmission. Honda dropped an all-new continuously variable transmission into this Fit in the name of efficiency. It succeeds: The loaded EX-L model we tested was rated at 32 miles per gallon in the city, 38 mpg on the highway, up 10% over last year's model.
But this CVT let the engine drone on when a conventional automatic transmission would have shifted already — surprising, since this gearbox is nearly identical to the one that Honda uses in the Civic and Accord, which have some of the best-programmed CVTs on the market.
The new Fit is a better value than before, pushing the base LX model's price up just $100 to $16,315. Standard equipment on all models now includes a backup camera, 5-inch screen and stereo system with Bluetooth/USB connectivity. The EX-L model sells for $21,590 and includes a touch-screen navigation system, moon roof, leather upholstery and heated front seats.
But this is still a budget car. Despite Honda's claims that the new Fit is the quietest vehicle in the segment, the car didn't feel any quieter or more refined than its predecessor. And a Fit with Honda's glorious new six-speed manual transmission — which is as good as Honda's excellent manuals have ever been — might reduce the CVT complaints.
The rest of the Fit's features should also make this car worthy of subcompact fans' attention.
The new model is smaller outside but larger inside. The car is 1.6 inches shorter, for better maneuvering and parking. But interior space is the best in its class, according to Honda, with passenger volume up 4.9 cubic feet and rear legroom increasing 4.8 inches.
The space is also versatile. The rear seat backs fold flat for more cargo room, while the rear seat cushions flip up to accommodate upright items on the floor. The front passenger seat also leans all the way back to make room for extra-long storage.
Five tall people can fit in this car comfortably, without knocking heads, shoulders, elbows or knees.
The 2015 version is also more efficient. The engine remains a 1.5-liter four-cylinder, but uses technologies like direct-injection to squeeze more power from less fuel. Horsepower jumps to 130 from 117, while torque clocks in at 114 pound-feet, up from 106.
This Fit is assembled at Honda's new plant in Celaya, Mexico — earlier versions were built in Japan — which helps keep costs in check and also gives Honda a larger supply of cars for North America.
Limited supply from Japan may have been a factor in low sales for previous Fits. "We were always struggling to get our share of what we needed," Conrad said in March.
Or it could have been that off-putting sportiness.
"You walk a tightrope," Conrad said. "And we're looking to expand sales."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times