Payne: Honda Fit punches above its weight

Posted by hpayne on August 31, 2017

FIt_compactSport

‘Let Reagan be Reagan,” Sen. Paul Laxalt famously said in 1984 after his friend and incumbent President Ronald Reagan got stomped by challenger Walter Mondale in their first presidential debate. Over-schooled by his debate handlers, Reagan had looked hesitant and out of sorts. Laxalt’s prescription? The president should be his “aw, shucks” amiable self, not some pre-programmed autobot. He won debate No. 2, and a second term was no longer in doubt.

Honda might be taking that lesson to heart as it tries to make its small cars relevant at a time when buyers have gone ga-ga for crossovers. Honda’s answer? Let compacts be compacts.

The all-new 2016 Honda Civic compact doubled down on what separates cars from SUVs by lowering its center of gravity, increasing fuel economy and penning a wicked design. The result was Civic’s best sales ever as customers lined up for the showy athlete and its apex-carving variations: Sport, Si and Type-R. Honda’s CR-V crossover may be leading the ute revolution, but the Civic was a reminder that Honda knew what moved car-lovers, too.

Now it’s the 2018 Fit subcompact’s turn for a makeover and Honda is applying the same formula.

The Fit is only up for a mid-cycle refresh — the third-generation hatch debuted in 2014 — but it’s a racy redo. The wee Honda’s specs are unchanged — same 1.5-liter engine, same multi-purpose comfortable interior, same sippy fuel economy — but this is not the same adorable hatch. Fit gets a new outfit.

It’s called Honda Factory Performance, HFP for short. The racy package can be applied to any trim except the base $17,065 LX. New springs and shocks lower the hatch 10 millimeters, reinforcing a crouched stance signaled by a wider fascia and added rocker skirts. Borrowing the Civic’s mascara stick, the Fit takes its black eyeliner makeup tips from the Joker.

HFP Fit tops off its bad-boy look with black 16-inch wheels and a big, rear aerofoil that could shade my back porch. The package takes its inspiration from Fit’s successful history in motorsports where it’s competed for years.

The racing-obsessed brand has tracked everything from the supercar Acura NSX to the Civic in Pirelli World Challenge. If Honda announced it was entering its Honda Odyssey minivan in the 24 Hours of LeMans, I don’t think anyone would be surprised. As Honda founder and chief motorhead Soichiro Honda put it: “If Honda does not race, there is no Honda.”

I threw the eager, HFP-equipped Fit Sport — painted in its new “Orange Fury” war paint — into the twisty canyon roads northeast of Los Angeles.

The car was shockingly, pleasantly stiff thanks to its suspension upgrades. Its road-hugging qualities reminded of the Civic Type-R track fiend that I tested only weeks before, its front end porpoising purposely as the short-wheelbase subcompact tracked each undulation in road surface. True to Honda’s class-leading ergonomics, the steering was responsive, seats comfortable, and console roomy. Despite its subcompact size, your decidedly uncompact 6-foot-5 reviewer got generous knee-room.

The Sport version comes equipped with an excellent six-speed manual (the shifter topped off with a Civic Si-like silver ball). That’s important because the Fit needs constant rowing to maintain pace.

The meek, 130-horsepower (with manual, 128 with automatic), 1.5-liter, normally-aspirated gerbil wheel is Fit’s familiar engine, but it seems especially wanting now that the Civic’s 1.5-liter mill has received a dynamic, turbocharged upgrade.

The engine doesn’t do the Fit’s athletic new vibe justice. Readers of this column know I prefer manuals, but so wanting was the Fit for revs that I came to prefer the car’s CVT-with-paddles option. Stuff the shifter into manual mode, finger the steering wheel paddles, and the car will stay in manual. That allows for quick upshifts and downshifts as the CVT keeps the engine in the meat of the rev band. Nobody makes CVTs better than Honda.

The little fella badly needs a turbo like its bigger Civic sibling, and it is surely in the works when Fit gets its fourth-generation makeover in 2019. A turbo three-cylinder turbo is rumored to be on deck.

As the Fit turtled from zero-60 in an eternity, its four screaming gerbils nicely muffled by the cabin’s increased noise insulation, my mind wandered to the Civic Sport hatch. At just $2,000 north of the HFP-laden Fit, the Civic Sport would be the better buy for budget-minded motorheads. Or Ford’s turbo-3-powered Fiesta — Godzilla in a box — for just $18,000.

The Fit’s sporty trimmings are a nicely separate it from popular, subcompact sibling HR. But the best reason to buy a Fit remains its spacious, uniquely configurable interior.

Thanks to a clever packaging that moves the gas tank from under the rear to below the front seats, the Fit’s “magic” rear seats can flattened or flipped up in order to make room for, say, a bicycle behind the front seats. The deep cavity also benefits backseat occupants who will find substantial legroom despite the Fit’s short wheelbase dimensions.

And, of course, there is the equally magical front seat which can be flattened backward, creating a sort of BarcaLounger for the right-rear passenger. Readers will remember the Fit won my Best Post-Surgery Getaway Vehicle award a couple of years back. Unable to bend my heavily-sedated new knee, the Fit’s Magic Seat configuration was the perfect way for Mrs. Payne to get me around town.

The Fit’s interior versatility can also swallow a surfboard, grandfather clock or other long objects. You won’t pine for an SUV. What you might pine for is an Apple smartphone, because my Android Auto app connection proved unworkable. Honda was one of the first automakers to dangle the prospect of smartphone-connected Google maps in its infotainment systems, but the apps have proved glitchy. The Apple product pairs better with the Honda console.

Otherwise, the Fit is a fitting member of Honda’s all-star console lineup with a center console that easily accommodates phones, cups and more in its center-console box — a rarity in a subcompact ute or car. The Fit even throws in a flip-out cup holder at the driver’s left hand, a useful feature when you are trying to both sip and keep your eyes on the road.

Cute, maneuverable and cavernous, the Fit is a reminder of why we still love subcompact hatches. Turbocharge the gerbils and it has a bright future.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2018 Honda Fit

VEHICLE TYPE

FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE, 5-PASSENGER

SUBCOMPACT HATCHBACK

Powerplant

1.5-liter inline-4 cylinder

Transmission

6-speed manual;

continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT)

Weight

2,604 pounds

Price

$17,065 base ($20,175 Sport as tested)

Power

128 horsepower, 113 pound-feet torque (CVT)

Performance

0-60 mph, 7.7 seconds (Car and Driver est.);

top speed: 120 mph

Fuel economy

EPA est. 31 mpg city/36 mpg highway/33 mpg combined

Report card

HIGHS

INTERIOR ROOM AND DEXTERITY;

EAGER HANDLING WITH HFP PACKAGE

Lows

Needs a turbo; just 10.6 gallons of fuel capacity

reduces range

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