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Honda’s updated compact more Fit than ever

Honda’s new Fit builds on the original car’s success as a small car that makes no apologies or excuses. MotorHead, by Dan Carney.
Honda’s all-new Fit is still compact without being cramped, efficient without being slow and affordable without being cheap.
Honda’s all-new Fit is still compact without being cramped, efficient without being slow and affordable without being cheap. Honda

The best way to think of the Honda’s all-new Fit subcompact hatchback is as one of the latest batch of concentrated laundry detergents — it’s basically more of the same product, but distilled into a concentrated strength. And considering all the accolades accrued by the original Fit for its singular combination of style, driving dynamics and value, this is good news indeed.

The cornerstone of the original Fit’s success was the fact that it’s a small car that makes no apologies or excuses. It’s compact without being cramped, efficient without being slow and affordable without being cheap.

With these strengths already in place, Honda wisely stuck closely to the original formula when it came up with the all-new 2009 Honda Fit, which went on sale in North America at the end of the summer. The goal was to concentrate the car’s strengths and shore up its weaknesses, and the good news is these goals were achieved.

Still, when a carmaker spends tens of millions of dollars on an all-new, clean-sheet design, you’d think you might be able to tell. But the changes to the new car are subtle as a taupe necktie.

In terms of style, the car has about as much dramatic range as a tight-lipped, stone-faced Keanu Reeves action character. And that’s even recognizing that Honda’s engineering department is so notoriously conservative it makes the Vatican’s College of Cardinals look recklessly impulsive.

“Fit” seems a suitable name for a little car with such an agreeably athletic stance. Too bad Honda had to spoil my appreciation for it by showing a concept sketch which looked more like four-door version of the “wedgy” original Volkswagen Scirocco. If only the company were sufficiently daring to put that design into production!

The new European requirement for impact protection for pedestrians — which demands a higher hood with extra crush space between the sheet metal and the engine — is one of the increasing number of design limitations placed on carmakers.

The loss of low-slung cars is a necessary trade-off, especially in crowded urban countries with a higher proportion of pedestrian fatalities than the United States suffers. In the Fit, Honda also took the opportunity to shore up crash protection for occupants and included the company’s Advanced Compatibility Engineering design philosophy — a commendable effort to minimize the blow one vehicle inflicts on another by designing some of the hard parts at the front of the car to collapse on impact rather than inflict a grievous blow on the other car.

This is really a more significant issue for massive trucks and SUVs than it is for one of the smallest cars on the market. Of greater concern for cars like the Fit is the welfare of its occupants, and on that count Honda is found unnecessarily wanting.

The company touts its slogan of “Safety for Everyone” for its latest models, but unfortunately in the case of electronic stability control — a computer that detects when a car is about to spin out of control and brakes each wheel independently to keep the car pointed forward and on the road — Honda only offers the safety feature to buyers of the top-of-the-line model, the Sport with Navigation .

If you have no Knight Rider fantasies about having your car tell you where to go and just want a great small car with all of the available safety features, you won’t be able to get a technology that has been proven to dramatically reduce the incidence of crashes.  Honda’s decision to limit electronic stability control to an option package it expects only 10 percent of Fit buyers to choose is unconscionable and makes its “Safety for Everyone” slogan ring as hollow as presidential campaign promises.

Still, if a crash does occur, Fit drivers can expect excellent protection thanks to a body that is 54 percent high-strength steel, which, combined with additional frame reinforcement, boosts overall rigidity by 164 percent. That strength also contributes to the impression of substance the Fit conveys, in contrast to the flimsiness of some of the dismal entries in the subcompact car Hall of Shame (cough, Geo Metro, cough).

Comfort and convenience features also distance the Fit from the miserable penalty boxes of the past, and Honda touts the availability of a navigation system as a key item on the wish list of Fit buyers. Honda also added a tilting and telescoping steering column to help drivers settle in behind the wheel, and the steering wheel and shift knob are leather-wrapped in the upmarket Sport model.

Curiously absent, even as options, are several other popular features. Where is the manual lumbar support and height adjuster for the front seats? Why does only the driver get an armrest on the Sport model? Passengers are people too. And in this age of monster-sized panoramic roofs, there’s no available sunroof. Shoppers also considering the Mini Cooper have higher expectations, and the Fit could win more of them if it offered more options.

The original Fit’s claim to fame was a unique flat-folding rear seat that conferred unique flexibility on the original model. Naturally, Honda has retained the Magic Seat in the new car and improved on it by making it easier to fold down in a single motion, with none of the fiddling and fussing sometimes required with the previous version.

That’s partly due to the 2009 model’s extra length, which is added in the rear seat area. Making the back seat bigger not only makes the Fit a more realistic family car, the increased legroom gives the Magic Seat more space to fold down without interference from the front seats. The Magic Seat also folds up, creating a deep, flat cargo space across the back seat area for bulky objects like bicycles and big-screen TVs.

The Fit is unlikely to inspire notions of racing, but in the era of 600-horsepower muscle cars it’s easy to forget that the Fit’s 117-horsepower and 2,500-pound curb weight compare well with the specifications of the much-loved original Acura Integra, a car that was considered quite sporty. (Full disclosure: I owned one of those Integras, a black 1988 model).

On the road, the Fit’s clutch and shifter are light and direct in the typical Honda fashion, and the brakes are responsive and effective even with the unfashionable rear drum brakes.

A curiously disappointing aspect of the Fit’s driving experience is its electric power steering. While the need for power assist to steer a subcompact car is questionable to begin with, the electric power unit in the Fit embodies all of the worst criticisms of electric steering. It’s numb and uncommunicative and has an unnatural refusal to automatically return to center by itself.

The puzzling aspect is that Honda insists that the power steering system was carried over from the previous model, with the only change being stronger mounts, which should have only improved its feel and responsiveness.

None of the test cars I drove approached the steering feel and feedback of the original Fit, which was on hand for comparison’s sake. Here’s hoping Honda can tweak the steering back toward the execution on the old model for those of us who enjoy enthusiastic driving.

But steering feel is the only ingredient of the nifty old Fit that hasn’t been concentrated to industrial strength in the new one, which should not only please old fans but also help attract new adherents during a time of national frugality. Just hope it doesn’t come splashed with huge “New and Improved” labels like those new detergent bottles.