- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

Auto enthusiasts with a good memory — or an average computer — will recall it was a stroke of luck that helped Honda get its fledgling automobile business off the ground in the United States.

The Japanese manufacturer began selling its first, fuel-sipping, front-wheel-drive Civic to Americans in 1972, and months later the Arab oil embargo sent gasoline prices soaring and supplies tumbling.

U.S. buyers, whose tastes had always run toward big automobiles, were panicked into taking a look at small cars. This opened a big door for Honda and other overseas manufacturers because none of the Big Three Americans had any small cars of note to sell.

To many, the little Civic was a big surprise. It was inexpensive, deceptively roomy and fun to drive.

Today, nearly 34 years later, gasoline prices are again skyrocketing, supplies are tight and Honda has recently checked into the U.S. auto market with another gas sipper, the subcompact Fit.

Let’s see how the old matches up with the new.

The wheelbase of that first Civic stretched a mere 86 inches and the whole car was only about 140 inches long, 59 inches wide and 53 inches high. Yet, thanks to the transversely mounted engine and clever packaging, the nearly identical two-door sedan and three-door hatchback models could hold four average-size adults in reasonable comfort.

What’s more, the rear seatback in the three-door hatchback could be folded forward to expand cargo space to 20.7 cubic feet. The two-door sedan had only a small trunk.

The Civic’s four-cylinder powerplant produced only 50 horsepower, but it was enough to give the 1,500-pound minicar adequate performance (0-60 mph in 14 seconds was considered sufficient then) and deliver 35 to 40 miles per gallon of regular fuel. Transmission options were a four-speed manual and a two-speed automatic, although I must say I don’t recall ever seeing a Civic with the automatic.

The independent suspension and power front disc/rear drum brakes were pretty sophisticated for the time and the small Honda came with an AM radio and wood-grain-accented dashboard. The price: about $2,200.

But the Civic was hardly perfect. Its thin sheetmetal was prone to rust, and its shifter was rubbery and could be balky going into reverse. The optional air conditioner robbed the engine of power and the vinyl and cloth seating options wouldn’t make it in today’s world. And it ran on tiny, 12-inch tires.

Now, let’s jump ahead to 2006. Americans have been nearly jolted out of their SUV seats by gasoline prices spurting past $3 a gallon. And guess what? They’re starting to think small again. On cue, along comes Honda’s itsy-bitsy Fit, only this time it’s not new. The Fit has traveled much of the world, with sales in 70 countries. In Europe, it’s the Jazz.

There is only one model, a sort-of mini station wagon with four doors and a hatchback, but its 96.5-inch wheelbase is still diminutive by anyone’s standards. From end to end the Fit streteches 157.4 inches, it measures 66 inches wide and it is 60 inches high. Four adults, even tall ones, will have sufficient room.

Lift the rear hatch and there is room for 21.3 cubic feet of cargo with the rear seatback in place and nearly 42 cubic feet of luggage with the seatback folded flat. Credit the increased headroom and carrying capacity to the Fit’s 5-foot height.

The modern, 1.5-liter aluminum-alloy engine — again transversely mounted — features four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing. It generates 109 horsepower, enough to propel a Fit with manual transmission from a stop to 60 mph in less than nine seconds. A five-speed automatic transmission is a no-cost option.

Fuel consumption, however, is basically unchanged. The EPA rates the Fit at 33 miles per gallon city/38 mpg highway in a car with the manual shifter and 31/38 with the automatic. In a week of driving a straight-shift Fit in varied conditions, I recorded an average of 35 miles per gallon. That’s pretty good, considering that the Fit weighs about 900 pounds more than that first Civic.

Like the earliest Civic, the Fit has an all-independent suspension and power front disc/rear drum brakes. Wheels have grown to 15 inches.

I recently spent a week with an upscale Fit Sport and found it to be light years — OK, a good 30 years — ahead of its early counterpart. The engine was smooth and quiet, capable of easily keeping pace with freeway traffic. The shifter slipped easily from gear to gear.

The steering was precise. The brakes worked with authority. The taut suspension nearly glued the wheels to the ground, allowing a driver to hustle along the back roads with surprising confidence. There was a penalty, though. When the road surface is rough, so is the ride quality.

Safety features have advanced tremendously since 1972. All Fits have front and side air bags for front-seat passengers, side-curtain air bags, side-impact door beams and seat belts for all passengers. The Standard Honda Fit is priced at $14,400 including a $550 delivery charge. Add $800 for an automatic difference. That includes air conditioning, a four-speaker sound system, power door locks and power windows.

The Fit Sport is priced at $15,720 or $16,520, depending on transmission choice. For the extra money, the Sport buyer gets remote keyless entry, an upgraded, six-speaker sound system, cruise control, fog lights and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Fit Sport buyers who opt for the automatic transmission also get steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

That first Honda Civic may have been a trendsetter in the late 20th century. The Fit is a small-car pace setter for the early 21st century.

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