By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Last week, I test-drove the new three-cylinder (and turbocharged) Ford Fiesta. It’s a neat little car — emphasis on little.
This week, I have the new Honda Fit, which is also little — but isn’t small.
At least, not where size matters.
Much as I enjoyed driving the Fiesta — with its admirably eager (and laudably fuel-efficient) turbo triple engine — I’d hate to have to ride in its severely abbreviated back seat. Or try to carry more than a couple of grocery bags home in it (much less a couple of 2x4x8s).
The Fit, on the other hand, fits — in both rows. Its back seat accommodations are as generous as what you’d find in several mid-sized cars. And you could carry a bundle of 2x4x8s home in one . . . with the rear liftgate closed.
And it’s fuel efficient.
But not slow.
WHAT IT IS
The Fit is Honda’s smallest big car — with more room inside than an Accord (really!) but with a much smaller footprint on the outside.
It features a uniquely configurable interior, too — with back seats that fold up as well as completely flat (the Fiesta’s and most others only fold sort-of flat) making it feasible to carry objects as large as a bicycle inside the car instead of strapped to the roof.
Base price is $15,525 for the LX with six-speed manual transmission. With the optional CVT automatic, the price tag is $16,325. A top of the line EX-L with navigation, 7-inch touchscreen display monitor, the CVT automatic, heated leather seats and a premium HD stereo system lists for $20,800.
Competitors include the Ford Fiesta — on the sportier-looking and driving (and slightly more fuel-efficient) side — and the Hyundai Accent and Nissan Versa Note on the more Plain Jane (and slightly cheaper-to-buy) side.
Though the basic shape is familiar — and the concept the same — the ’15 Fit is completely redesigned. It has a stronger — and more fuel-efficient — engine and is even roomier on the inside than before, despite being slightly smaller overall on the outside.
Exceptionally spacious — and versatile — interior.
Unique fold-’em-up rear seats that fold down — and flat — too.
Unique remote camera side-view/blind spot monitor.
Gas mileage nearly as good as class-leading Fiesta turbo triple… for $1,550 less.
Rev-happy i-VTEC engine.
Six-speed manual — or CVT automatic (Ford Fiesta EcoBoost is manual-only . .. and only has five speeds).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Side view camera only shows the passenger side.
Optional touch-screen LCD (like all such displays) looks “tomorrow” but isn’t the ideal interface in a moving vehicle.
Requires some gear-jamming to keep up with traffic.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Fit’s engine is still a 1.5 liter four, as before — but the engine has been updated with direct injection and horsepower is up to 130 from 117 previously. A new six-speed manual replaces the previous five-speed manual as the standard transmission — and a new continuously variable (CVT) automatic is optional, in lieu of the previously optional (and conventional/hydraulic) five-speed automatic.
Acceleration is — not surprisingly — quicker with the new drivetrain: Zero to 60 in 8.7 seconds with the manual six-speed. This performance puts the Fit at the top of the pile in this segment.
What is surprising is that fuel-efficiency is also improved over the previous generation Fit: 33 MPG city and 41 on the highway now vs. 27 city, 35 highway for the 2013 (technically, there was no 2014 Fit). That is truly a Great Leap Forward — especially given the also-upticked acceleration.
CVT-equipped models are slightly less fuel-efficient (unusually; usually it’s the reverse — with the CVT version being the more economical) but the disparity is slight: 32 city, 38 highway — which is still better than the old car delivered with either of its available transmissions.
These numbers compare very favorably with the new Ford Fiesta equipped with its optionally available 1.0 liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine. The Ford is no quicker (zero to 60 in about the same 8.8-8.9 seconds) and while its gas mileage numbers are slightly better — 31 city, 43 highway — the difference must be taken in context of the EcoBoosted Fiesta’s more-than-slightly-higher MSRP. While Honda doesn’t charge extra for the Fit’s updated 1.5 liter four, to get the turbo three in the Fiesta, you have to first buy the more expensive SE trim ($16,080) and then shell out another $995 for the Ecoboosted three-cylinder engine. This amounts to an up-front difference of $1,550 to buy the Ford vs. the Honda.
Is 3-5 MPG more worth it? Or rather: How many miles would you have to drive the Ford before its slightly better mileage numbers erase the car’s higher up-front cost? (There is also the possible issue of down-the-road turbo — and turbo-related component — replacement costs.)
It must also be mentioned that the Ford is only offered (as of late summer 2014) with a manual transmission — which automatically excludes buyers who don’t want to deal with a clutch.
People shopping for low-cost but not low-rent transportation might also want to take a look at the Nissan Versa Note. Its price to start ($14,180) is lower than the Fit’s — and a lot lower than the Ecoboosted Fiesta’s. And its mileage — 31 city/40 highway with the optional CVT automatic — is just as good as the Honda’s and nearly as good as the Ford’s. It also has a very spacious back seat — rare in this class.
Just not quite as spacious as the Honda’s. (More on this below.)
And if you don’t mind something smaller — and slower — there’s the Chevy Spark. It comes with one of the tiniest four-cylinder engines this side of a motorcycle: Just 1.2 liters (only .2 liters larger than the Ford Fiesta’s three cylinder engine) but it only makes 84 hp (vs. the turbo’d Ford’s 123 hp and the Honda’s 130) and the thing needs almost 11 seconds to creep to 60 — while only managing 31 city, 39 highway — a hardly noticeable uptick over the larger/nicer/quicker and much more spacious Honda.
The Chevy Sonic is another option — if you don’t mind a larger, no quicker — and even less fuel-efficient car.
Equipped with its standard 1.8 liter engine, the Chevy maxxes out at 26 city, 35 highway (about the same as the old Fit) and needs about 9.1 seconds to get to 60 (slower than the new Fit). A more fuel-efficient (and turbocharged) 1.4 liter engine is available in the Sonic, but (as with the Fiesta) it costs extra — and as in the case of the Fiesta, it’s only available in the higher trims. For the extra money you’re asked to spend, the Chevy only returns 29 city, 40 highway — still not quite as good as what Honda gives you at no extra charge in the base trim Fit.
How ’bout them apples?
ON THE ROAD
If you drive the Fit and Fiesta back to back as I did, you will immediately notice the more relaxed demeanor of the Ford. Despite its much smaller 1 liter engine — and its five-speed manual transmission — the Fiesta’s RPMs are generally lower at any given road speed, in any given gear.
As an example, the Ford can reach 100 MPH in third gear before you buzz the rev limiter at just over redline. In the Fit — with a four cylinder and a six-speed manual — you’ll hit the rev limiter at 80 MPH in third; it takes fourth to reach 100 — and even just cruising along in sixth at about 70 MPH, the engine is buzzing at about 3,200 RPM.
This will appeal to people (like me) who enjoy a peppy engine that likes to be worked — and which comes with a transmission ideally suited to the task. The i-VTEC (variable valve timing) Honda has an Acura-esque pitch to it at full scream and the short-throw, precise-feeling action of the Fit’s six-speed’s shifter is a pleasure to play with, even in heavy traffic.
On the other hand, you do have to work it.
The 1.5 liter engine’s hp peak happens way up there, at 6,600 RPM; max torque is developed at 4,600 RPM. In contrast, the turbo Ford’s torque peak happens at just 1,400 RPM (the hp peaks at 6,350 RPM). Translated into everyday-driving-speak, it mean (cue Borat) the Ford’s engine behaves like a much larger — and much lazier — engine. Pick almost any gear — at any road speed — and you’re usually good to go. It’ll not bog in fifth at 35 MPH, which is remarkably for an engine that’s literally so small a fairly strong man could pick it out of the engine bay by hand and carry it home in his pocket. (Ok, that’s an exaggeration — but only slightly. Really. Go see under the hood for yourself.)
In the Fit, it’s all about keeping the revs up, keeping the gnarly little i-VTEC four “on the cams.” Fifth and sixth gear are flaccid below 70 — and passing road Clovers sometimes requires downshifting from sixth to fourth (and fifth to third) and so on.
This is fun — but it does require a more active driving style.
There is also more noise. It’s good noise (Honda VTEC engines are symphonic at speed) but noise nonetheless. The Ford is much quieter — in part because it’s not as rev happy, but also because it’s just a quieter engine.
But — again — there’s no other car in this class that can match the Fit’s gumption — and its economy — for the same money.
The car’s handling is also top-drawer. Even on the 15-inch steelies that come standard (16s on the higher trims) the grip threshold is remarkably high — and body roll’s low. Weighing in at just over 2,500 lbs., the Fit feels — is — light on its feet and will surprise you with what it can do when the proverbial envelope is pushed. It felt to me more agile than the Fiesta — and it’s much more athletic (and more powerful) than the practical and pleasant but slow-pokey Nissan Versa Note.
I drove it like I stole it — and never averaged less than 34.1 MPG during my weeklong test drive.
AT THE CURB
The aptly named Fit does just that. It fits almost anywhere — and almost anything.
It also fits more than last year’s Fit.
The new one is 1.6 inches shorter overall (160 inches vs. 161.6 for the previous generation) yet it has epic legroom — in both rows: 41.4 inches up front and 39.3 inches in back.
The previous Fit had 41.3 inches of legroom up front — and 34.5 inches in back.
To give you some perspective on the spaciousness of the Fit, let’s look at the specs of a much larger (on the outside) Honda — the current Accord sedan. It is about two-and-half feet longer overall (191.4 inches; or 15 feet, 11.4 inches vs. the Fit’s 13 feet, 4 inches) yet only has 38.5 inches of legroom in the backseat (and only slightly more legroom up front, 42.5 inches).
Especially relative to the otherwise very appealing Fiesta — which is killed by its killer (on your circulatory system) backseats, where there’s an impossible 31.2 inches of legroom. Do the math. The Fit has eight inches more legroom than the Fiesta in the second row.
Even the Versa — previous champ, space-efficiency-wise — comes up short. Its 38.3 inches of second row legroom is good. Just not quite as good as the Fit’s.
But stats don’t tell the whole story. Because the Fit’s seats are not static. You can fold them up as well as down — and when folded up, the footwell created is deep enough to make it feasible to slide a bicycle or two back there (sideways). Or various other tall — and long — objects.
With the front passenger seat folded — and the second row also folded (down) — the Fit can carry 2x4x8s home from Home Depot… with the rear liftgate closed. The cargo area behind the front seats is 52.7 cubic feet — almost twice the total cargo capacity of the Fiesta (26 cubic feet).
The Fit is the only vehicle in this class that offers this degree of versatility — as well as this much space — in this small a package.
PS: An interesting cross-shop aside: The Chevy Spark, though smaller than the Chevy Sonic, has a more accommodating back seat than its bigger brother: 34.6 inches (for the Sonic) vs. 35.2 for the Spark.
Either way, neither can match the Fit’s accommodations.
In fact, nothing else in this class can.
EX trims come with a LaneWatch blind spot system that pipes a closed-circuit camera view of the area around the passenger side of the car onto the LCD display monitor in the center stack. The system activates whenever the right turn signal is operated — or whenever the driver pushes the button on the end of the turn signal stalk.
Unlike other systems on the market, the Honda system is not a low-speed-only system that automatically turns off once the vehicle is moving faster than about 15 MPH. It operates at any speed — and can be set to stay on for as long as you like (just push the aforesaid button).
However — and oddly — the system does not come on when you signal to turn left. It only shows the passenger side view. I suppose the theory is that visibility is a non-issue on the driver’s side — especially curbside parking wise (though one wonders whether the system is reversed for countries like Britain, where you drive on the “wrong” side of the road).
In truth, visibility is a non-issue with this car — because of the sheets of tall glass all around — making the Lane Watch system entertaining but not necessary.
I’m not a fan of the touchscreen LCD display because it’s awkward to use while the car’s moving. Everything’s flat — so there’s no going by feel. This forces you to look at the screen — which means taking your eyes off the road, however briefly. I found I often missed my mark, too — because my finger moved with the motion of the car. An iPad-style interface is great when you’re sitting at Starbucks. Not so much when you’re moving along at 65 MPH. The rotary control knobs for the AC and fan, on the other hand, are pleasingly tactile and easily operated by feel.
Loved the extra cupholder for the driver — mounted up high, on the dash, to the left of the steering wheel. There are two more in the center console, as well as molded water bottle holders in each door panel.
The center storage console is, however, tiny. It’s the one area where the Fit comes up short — and it’s easily made up for by the abundance of space everywhere else.
To maximize fuel economy, the Fit comes standard with 15 inch steel wheels, which reduces rolling resistance and also lowers your tire replacement costs. Higher trims get 16s — but Honda ought to offer the 15s as a credit option given this car’s mission — and given how excellently the car drives (and handles) on those fifteens. Adding 16s only roughens up the ride, increases rolling resistance — and your tire replacement costs.
EX and EX-L trims also come with an HDMI port, which works with apps such as streaming navigation. All trims get iPod/USB hook-ups as well as cruise control, power windows and locks, AC and a back-up camera.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Honda took a lot of flack — rightly so — for the merely-mediocre redesign of the Civic last year.
This ought to right the books.