Honda is the guy selling umbrellas on the corner when it starts to rain. The lady selling flowers when you're late for an anniversary dinner. The vendor selling fire extinguishers when your underwear bursts into flames.
Shrewdly anticipating the utterly obvious and inevitable, Honda was ready for the recent surge in gas prices in all ways but one: It didn't have enough cars on the lot. Honda has had the highest U.S. fleet average fuel efficiency for the last 15 years and has, with admirable restraint, avoided stuffing gas-aholic V-8s into the trim little noses of its cars.
So when people started panicking about fuel prices this year, there were the brightly lit and cheerful Honda dealerships, arising like Homer's rosy-fingered dawn. I went by my local Honda store a month ago and it looked like it was hosting a cockfight.
The company's hottest product is the Fit, a small, modest, lumpen prole of a car that just happens to be one of the best-engineered vehicles on the planet. It tells us something fundamental about the changing tastes of the American market that Fit sales are up 73% this year, while you couldn't give a Cadillac Escalade away if you filled it with mermaids.
Honda has basically sold out of the 2008 model-year Fits and is rushing the new, redesigned 2009 models to dealerships now, a month earlier than planned. Honda projects that Fit sales in the U.S. will be around 85,000 units this year. I shudder to think how hard management is caning those poor devils at the plant in Suzuka, Japan, where U.S.-bound Fits are made.
The brief: The Fit is a subcompact hatchback, in the same aquarium with minnows such as the Nissan Versa, Scion xD and Suzuki SX4 Wagon. The base price for the 2009 Honda is $15,220 (including delivery) -- $600 more than the 2008 model. The top-shelf Fit, the Sport model with navigation and stability control, will sell for $18,760. And -- here it is, drum roll please -- the fuel economy is 35 miles per gallon highway, 28 mpg city for the base model, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Sport won't do quite as well, with 27/33 mpg, city/highway. That's what bigger wheels and tires (rolling resistance) and spoilers and side sills (aero resistance) will do for you.
After spending a day test-driving a 2009 Fit Sport in and around Malibu and Pacific Palisades, I can report that the new Fit is slightly larger, vastly stiffer, noticeably more quiet and comfortable, and every bit as dorky-looking as the previous edition. Honestly, this thing couldn't get a date for the prom with duct tape and a burlap sack. But that's part of its counterintuitive charm.
I will say one thing for the looks. In the engineers' desire to give the Fit "Man-Maximum" ergonomics -- their phrase -- they have expanded the forward cabin area and raked the front window like the futuristic Honda Clarity fuel-cell car. It's cool. Also, by raising the headliner height, slimming the A pillars and enlarging the quarter windows, the designers have increased the outward visibility by 10%.
What's that all mean? The vibe from the cockpit is open, unoppressed and glassine, a luxury of dimension in what is really a very small car.
When the Fit appeared in the U.S. in 2006 (it was already selling well in Japan), Honda rhapsodized about the car's "Magic Seat," which sounds like an endowed chair at Hogwarts but is actually the clever, multi-position rear seat mechanisms. These have evolved somewhat. Now, thanks to new flip-down headrests, the rear seat backs can be folded flat with just a turn of a latch, even if the front seats are pushed all the way back (i.e., you don't have to remove the rear headrests).
The 2009 car's additional millimeters of wheelbase translate directly to rear knee and leg room. I'm 6-foot-1, and I had no trouble moving from the driver's seat to occupy the left rear seat, what's called "sitting behind myself."
The Fit's rear seat bottom still flips up vertically against the rear seat back to allow stowage of tall items, such as plants and bikes, up to 50 inches in height. Even with the rear seats upright, the Fit's rear cargo space still measures a huge 20.6 cubic feet.
As for driving, the Fit has the metabolism and genetic code of all Hondas: well made, well tuned, well sorted, invested with the lifeblood of a thousand nameless Japanese engineers suffering from acute insomnia. Nothing is casually decided in a Honda, nothing is temporized. Some number-haunted wretch has agonized over every yen and millimeter of these cars. I love that.
The little four-cylinder pepper grinder under the hood (a 1.5-liter dual-stage VTEC) is keen and eager and completely floggable.
Peak horsepower comes at mezzo-soprano range (6,600 rpm), and peak torque (106 pound-feet) arrives at 4,800 rpm. Fits come with either a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission with paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel. The steering is quick, the brakes are powerful.
I know, I know. What about a Fit hybrid, you ask. Well, Honda is about to go on a hybrid tear, with a new Toyota Prius fighter and a new sporty hybrid coupe based on the CR-Z coming in the next 18 months. And early in the next decade, a gas-electric Fit. Eco-hearts go pitty-pat.
You may have guessed: The Fit is pretty near the top of my favorite-cars list, and not because it's so fast and awesome-looking, because it oh-so ain't. It has the beauty of a certain well-wrought urn, exactly what it needs to be -- self-defined, lightly perfect. One of these days I'll buy one, if I can ever get near the dealership.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
2009 Honda Fit
Base price: $15,220
Price as tested: $18,760 (Sport model with navigation and stability control)
Powertrain: 1.5-liter, 16-valve DOHC in-line four-cylinder with two-stage variable valve timing; five-speed manual transmission or five-speed automatic with manual shift mode; front-weel drive
Horsepower: 117 at 6,600 rpm
Torque: 106 pound-feet at 4,800 rpm
Curb weight: 2,489 to 2,615 pounds
0-60 mph: 9 seconds
Wheelbase: 98.4 inches
Overall length: 161.6 inches
EPA fuel economy: 27/33 mpg, city/highway (Sport); 28/35 (base with automatic)
Final thoughts: The best subcompact on the market