June 18, 2014

News & Features

Auto review: Honda updates Fit in all the right ways

New York Times News Service

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The 2015 Honda Fit starts at $16,315. (Honda)

If a building contractor arrived on time, performed heroically and charged a fair price — this is a New York fantasy, stay with me — would you complain that he wasn't good-looking? Would you refuse to hire him if he didn't come with a fashionable tool belt?

That disconnect between looks and performance sums up the Honda Fit, which has been variously described as dorky, frumpy, a doorstop and — cover the children's ears — a minivan. But don't feel sorry for the Fit. By exceeding customer expectations for a budget-friendly subcompact, Honda's hatchback has forged a near-consensus as the one that most deserves your business.

To keep it that way, Honda has redesigned the Fit for 2015. The new car is more powerful, yet it consumes less fuel. It's a smidgen shorter on the outside, yet it carves out even more passenger space from an already efficient cabin. Honda says it has added some $1,000 to $1,800 of features to the 2015 model, while keeping the price virtually the same.

That sounds like a recipe for continued success, even if Honda's chefs are serving up a Mexican dish. Fits sold in the United States are now coming from an assembly plant in Celaya, Mexico. The move is saving Honda money, and that is reflected in its hold-the-line pricing: $16,315 to start for the Fit LX with a six-speed manual transmission, just $100 more than the 2013 version, the last model offered.

The move may also help Honda sell more of the cars: American demand had sometimes outstripped supply, with a single Japanese plant having to meet global demand for the Fit (or the Honda Jazz, as it's called overseas).

The midprice EX is likely to continue to be the most popular version, starting at $18,225. As with the LX, an extra $800 buys Honda's latest fuel-saver, a continuously variable automatic transmission. A six-speed manual is offered, replacing the previous five-speed unit.

I tested a Fit EX-L, a new leather-clad $20,590 version; an optional navigation system lifted the sticker price to $21,590.

More than ever, the Fit is ridiculously well-suited to city living. It seats four adults, swallows plenty of gear, parks almost anywhere, sips fuel, has excellent outward visibility, dices traffic and loves to get out of Dodge for weekend adventures.

The redesigned model still won't win beauty prizes — the Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Sonic are all more attractive, in my book — but the Fit does look more attractive than before.

Slimmed-down horizontal headlamps flow naturally into a new gloss-black grille, rather than being shoved awkwardly up the stubby hood. High-rise LED taillamps frame the hatch. A concave slash of metal runs along the doors, as though a sharp talon had raked the sides.

The new version is 1.6 inches shorter than the previous model over all. But because partly of a wheelbase 1.2 inches longer, the Honda adds an eye-opening 4.8 inches of additional rear legroom, giving it more than the midsize Honda Accord. Even 6-foot-plus adults will have few complaints back there. The trade-off is 8 percent less hatch space when the rear seat is down. Still, the Fit holds nearly 53 cubic feet of goods when the back seat is folded, on par with some small SUVs.

That enormous hold is aided by Honda's split-folding Magic Seat; its one-touch operation pivots the rear seat cushions forward to create a fully flat cargo floor. The secret to that abracadabra packaging is a flat fuel tank under the floor beneath the front seats, rather than the conventional placement toward the rear. For anyone apprehensive about sitting atop the fuel supply, Honda says the tank is as impervious to crash damage as any rear-mounted unit.

In recent Honda fashion, the interior styling is somewhat nondescript, especially for a car aimed at young and first-time buyers. The gauges wouldn't look out of place in, well, a minivan.

But the fit and finish seem excellent for the price, with softer, richer materials replacing hard plastics. And the Fit ladles on features: All models get Bluetooth connections and a backup camera. My EX-L test car also had heated front seats, a moonroof, push-button start and LaneWatch, which presents a high-resolution camera image of the car's right-hand blind spot.

But if the Fit's sophisticated performance and packaging are enough to counter any doubts about the styling, there's no free pass for Honda's audio and navigation interfaces, which have degenerated into some of the industry's most overengineered, underwhelming units.

The new Display Audio screen does some things well. Like a smartphone, it responds to finger gestures like pinch-and-spread to zoom in or out. Through HondaLink, the central screen can manage iPhone apps, including travel, weather, Aha, Pandora or a phone-based navigation system. (Android compatibility is coming, but Honda can't say when.)

But those screen controls are mainly tiny slivers and tinier icons that proved maddeningly difficult to pin down in a moving, bouncing car. Worse, the volume knob has been replaced by obtuse flush-mounted switches.

Using the system was such a sad exercise in coordination and spatial logic that I felt I deserved a food pellet each time I successfully pecked the screen. I resorted to anchoring a thumb and three fingers on the screen frame while using an index finger to manage the functions.

Yes, there's a redundant volume switch and basic audio controls on the steering wheel, along with voice commands. But why bother to offer a touch screen that seems designed to elude your touch?

The consolation is the pleasure of driving the Fit, a constant reminder of what Honda can still do very well: Making Everyman cars that feel like more expensive machines.

The new chassis is lighter yet more rigid, and new suspension geometry and rear dampers improve the Fit's already excellent confidence and stability.

Power jumps to 130 horsepower, from 117, from a 1.5-liter four-cylinder that's been reworked with direct injection and variable valve control.

While some small cars feel less confident as speeds climb, the Fit is the opposite: Straight-line stability is outstanding, even in strong crosswinds. And when the road begins to curve, the frisky Honda takes full advantage.

Drivers who prize the Fit's direct steering and cheeky handling may want to amplify those qualities with the manual transmission. That's because the Fit has adopted a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, as the only automatic available. A CVT replaces stepped gears — the familiar first, second, third and so on — with a belt-and-pulley system that operates in drive and never shifts. Instead, as in most hybrids, the CVT constantly varies the transmission ratio to maximize acceleration or fuel economy.

As CVTs go, Honda's is among the best. The little four-cylinder engine doesn't rev and drone incessantly every time you pick up the pace. But there's still that feeling of engine surge-and-release as the transmission translates commands from your right foot into action.

Dropping the lever into Sport mode mimics the stepped gears of a conventional automatic, but in the way that a wedding-hall band mimics the Beatles or Beyoncé.

The payoff is fuel economy that rivals any nonhybrid gasoline car in America. The Fit LX, with less weight, an aerodynamic underbody and tires with low rolling resistance, jumps a full 5 mpg in the city, to 33, and 6 mpg on the highway, to 41, when equipped with the CVT, or 29/37 with the stick shift.

The EX and EX-L models are rated 32/38 mpg. In my testing, the EX-L returned an even better 41 mpg on the highway.

And there you have it. The new Fit is an affordable, fun and ultra-efficient hatchback, with the expected reliability and strong resale value of a Honda.

Which only proves that looks aren't everything.

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