A Lot of Thought in a Small Package

2009 Honda Fit
2009 Honda Fit (Courtesy of Honda)
By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2008

BEAR MOUNTAIN, N.Y. -- The new king of the hill is a subcompact car that has the utility of a minivan, the attitude of a sports coupe and the fuel economy of an automobile deemed socially acceptable in an era of high-priced gasoline.

"Socially acceptable" means "good," which is not enough to prompt a hallelujah chorus, especially not for a car as tiny as the front-wheel-drive Honda Fit.

Completely redesigned for 2009, a scant three years after its introduction in the United States, the Fit gets a combined city-highway 31 miles per gallon of regular unleaded fuel.

Again, that performance deserves no raves. But the genius of the Fit is its overall packaging and presentation. It is small enough on the outside to be blessed with the parking ease of a teeny-weeny Smart ForTwo but gifted with the interior space and versatility of a well-designed minivan.

The Fit's target audience includes men in their early twenties: often single, adventurous types not likely to be attracted to anything having a minivan persona. But they have nothing to fear.

The "minivan" reference speaks to the Fit's utility, which is astonishing for a subcompact car -- perhaps the best in that category. The Fit, in fact, is the quintessential multipurpose vehicle, capable of carrying most of the toys of young, active living and of pulling duty as a people-hauler on daily commutes.

But the Fit's overwhelmingly practical nature does not relegate it to the status of drudge-mobile. It's a funky little car -- a mini-tubular, bug-eyed, wide-mouthed thing with a "let's go" personality. It looks like it wants to do something fun, entertaining.

The Fit's body is tight, purpose-oriented -- a motorized arrow. Honda's marketers call the car's styling "super-forward aero-form design," which is just a way of describing common sense. Arrows move through the air much more easily than boxes, and they consume less energy.

Similar sanity in design carries into the Fit's passenger cabin, which includes what Honda calls "the magic seat." That, too, is little more than applied common sense, a 60-40 split rear seat that falls flat to the floor -- truly flat to the floor -- at the flip of a lever. Working that lever instantly turns the Fit into a little van capable of handling 57.3 cubic feet of cargo, more than any of its subcompact rivals.

The seats can be arranged to handle tall loads, such as plants, that otherwise would be thrown willy-nilly around the back of a car, or long loads, such as surfboards. The design is remarkably intuitive. One wonders why Honda didn't think of it years ago and why so many of Honda's rivals don't offer similar accommodations in subcompact cars now.

Common sense increases joy of use, and that, in turn, adds to the Fit's fun factor. It's the seemingly little things, such as cup holders smartly placed in the left and right corners of the Fit's instrument panel, out of the way of gearshift levers and other things that could trigger spills. Duh. Why didn't the Chevrolet Aveo designers think of that? Instead, the Chevy people installed a retractable cup holder directly in front of the Aveo's manual gear lever -- the perfect location for upsetting cups and dumping their contents.

The bottom line is that the Fit's designers really thought about what they were doing. They set out to make more than a little car that gets good fuel economy. They had a higher goal -- to make a little car that people would like, even swear by.

They've done that with the new Fit. It offers good fuel economy, brilliant packaging and maximum utility, all in a little car with zippy acceleration and super handling. This one, folks, is hard to beat.

ON WHEELS WITH WARREN BROWN Listen from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays on WMET World Radio (1160 AM) or http://www.wmet1160.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company