- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

To understand why Honda’s subcompact Fit hatchback has achieved a kind of cult following, you have to get in the car. On the outside, the Fit looks like nothing more than another one of those slightly weird, melted-box Asian economy cars that seem to be multiplying on American roads.

Slide in, though, and it’s as though Honda has discovered how to manipulate black-hole physics or something. Nothing this small on the outside could be so ridiculously accommodating of people and payload.

The Fit is only working with a 98-inch wheelbase, for heaven’s sake. (Honda’s compact Civic sedan has 8 inches more between the front and rear axles.) Yet even the Fit’s rear seats provide a delicious 35.5 inches of legroom. The Fit is narrower than most compact cars, such as the Civic or Ford Focus, but never pinches. Four occupants ride in virtual mini-limousine spaciousness.

If the Fit’s people-holding prowess is impressive, then its cargo-carrying capacity is practically Herculean. The tall roofline is a major factor, but the Fit’s signature feature is the rear “Magic Seat” design: one flip of a lever and all or a portion of the 60/40-split seat obediently flops down to a level dead flat with the cargo floor. A simple return push gets everything ready for passengers again. And, oh, that cargo space is vast: more than 57 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down. Between the Fit’s cargo cavern and the wide-mouthed hatchback opening, fear not that trip to Best Buy for a new flat-screen TV - it’s going to fit.

The rest of the Fit’s interior is delightfully arranged and executed with the precision Honda has led us all to expect. The blue-backlit gauges are a treat; all the controls work like fine-tuned tools; and the plastics are in no way cheap-looking.

We tested the $19,630 Fit Sport with Navigation. It’s the accelerator pedal that ultimately reminds you the 2009 Fit, spacious as it is, remains a denizen of the subcompact segment when it comes to go-power.

All Fits use a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder which, at 117 horsepower, is fizzy when it comes to sheer pull. Getting five ratios in the Fit’s optional automatic transmission is a nice upgrade in this segment, but in addition to costing an extra $850, having an automatic is a conspicuous impediment to getting the Fit’s small corral of horses on the gallop.

Luckily, no matter how hard you work the Fit’s meager dynamo, it’s always exceedingly smooth and aurally rich - a longtime Honda engine attribute. The Fit engine’s character is premium, but if you live in a place with mountains, hills or long grades, it will struggle.

I often disrespect “sport” models, but for the Fit, going for the Sport is worth the extra $1,500-odd dollars, if nothing else than to get the Sport’s nice-looking extra body trim and larger 16-inch wheels. Inside, Fit Sport gets a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a handy USB port, more speakers and new map lights.

Where Honda marketers and I butt heads is over the Fit’s general packaging. Hondas typically are simple to buy, with little subterfuge on the option sheet. But in the case of the Fit, Honda offers its Vehicle Stability Assist stability-control system only for the Fit Sport with Navigation - the most expensive model in the lineup.

Stability control probably is the most effective safety advance in 20 years. But to force buyers into the top-of-the-range model to get the system is counterproductive and slightly off-putting from a company that apparently can find a way to cost-effectively jam so many other safety features into its smallest cars.

Now that we’re past that mini-rant, the 2009 Fit brings a substantial number of improvements to a car that already was a winner. The Fit is more sophisticated and useful than a subcompact car has a right to be.

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