- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

When the First Gulf War kicked off in 1991, thinking that fuel costs would skyrocket, driving consumers into subcompact cars, the carmakers populated their press fleets with every buzz-bomb econobox in their respective arsenals. Automotive journalists were subjected to the spectrum of available subcompacts in a very concentrated time period. It was an eye-opening experience. For the most part these were uncomfortable, noisy, underpowered, low-quality, lousy excuses for automobiles. They were cars that almost no one would ever consider posing with for a photo. Entry level really meant cheap and cheesy. What a difference 17 years makes.

Today escalating prices at the gas pump on a weekly, if not daily basis have once again focused the spotlight on subcompacts. A recent turn with Honda´s $15,905 Fit Sport was a reminder of how the term and our concept of “entry level” have evolved over the intervening years. Here is a four-door hatchback that is stylish, comfortable, adequately powered and carefully bolted together. It doesn´t turn heads, but it certainly won´t have you wearing a paper bag over your head when tooling around town. It performs well with decent acceleration and crisp cornering. Four can ride comfortably, enjoying a wide range of standard conveniences. And, the level of fit and finish is what you’d hope to find in an Accord or Pilot.

Fit also comes in a more affordable $14,585 base version. At these prices a five-speed manual transmission expedites engine output to the front wheels. Substituting the available five-speed automatic tranny adds $800 to the bottom line. This is the only factory option offered for either Fit. Other than substituting the base’s 14-inch steel wheels with the Sport’s 15-inch alloys, the differences between the two versions primarily have to do with passenger comfort and convenience. Both editions come standard with air conditioning, full power accessories, an audio system with CD player and a tilt steering wheel. Upgrading to the Sport adds foglights, under body kit/rear spoiler, cruise control, keyless entry and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The Sport’s audio system is also enhanced with six speakers instead of the base’s four speakers, and it features MP3 capability in addition to an auxiliary audio jack. When the automatic transmission is added, the Sport also gets steering wheel-mounted shift paddles.

Other than the wheels, all mechanicals are the same for both models. A 109-horsepower 1.5-liter four is responsible for the get-up-and-go. This doesn’t sound like a lot of guts, but this engine does a better-than-expected job of generating forward thrust for Fit’s less than 2,500 pounds of curb weight. It is no rocket ship, but Fit answers the call of the accelerator with Little-Engine-That-Could enthusiasm. Merging onto an expressway doesn’t have you glancing around the cockpit looking for baggage or personnel to toss overboard. The manual transmission shifts smoothly and with authority. Fuel economy is good, garnering the manual an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 28 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway. Opting for the less-fun-to-drive automatic only scrubs one mpg from each of these numbers.

MacPherson struts up front and a torsion-beam suspension in the rear provide a fairly decent compromise between ride quality and handling with the accent on handling. Whether maneuvering around city traffic or blasting along a winding road, the Fit feels settled and even somewhat athletic. Discs in the front and drums in the rear are the cornerstone of the stopping system that includes four-wheel antilock and electronic brakeforce distribution. Four-wheel disc brakes, traction control and stability control aren’t offered.

Six airbags that include front side-impact airbags and front-to-rear head curtain airbags join other safety features such as a tire pressure monitor and the LATCH child-seat system to help protect occupants.

If the Fit’s 157.4 inches of total length and its 66.2 inches of width sound small, looking at it won’t change your mind. Sitting inside its roomy cabin, however, you will probably be amazed at how Honda managed to coax so much interior space out of such a tidy package. In this regard, the torsion-beam rear suspension makes a lot of sense because it doesn’t require much space under the car. Moving the gas tank forward to the center of the car also contributed to the low cargo floor. With all seats in place, there is 21.3 cu.-ft. of cargo room. Folding the entire 60/40 split rear seat down flat with the cargo floor increases cargo space to 49.9 cubic feet. The bottom cushions of the second-row seat also fold forward for carrying taller items.

The materials used and interior design create a more expensive-looking cabin than expected at this price point. Easy-to-find instrumentation and intuitive controls produce an extremely user-friendly environment. The seats are comfortable and passenger space is generous up front and adequate in the backseat.

If the current fuel-cost scare has you pondering a subcompact, be of good cheer; it’s no longer 1991. Entry level today is far and away better than it was then. The Honda Fit is on the front row of the current crop of subcompacts that you don’t have to be ashamed to drive.

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