LOS ANGELES -- The Honda Fit is a big hit, what with fuel prices near all-time highs. And company executives expect the redesigned 2009 version, which arrives in dealerships this week, to be just as hot.
The new Fit is longer, wider and heavier and boasts more passenger and cargo space. It has a more powerful engine with better fuel economy on the automatic version. The exterior design is sportier.
"The 2009 Fit arrives during conditions like the '70s, when gas prices started to rise," says Dan Bonawitz, head of corporate planning and logistics at American Honda Motor Co. "Small on the outside, big on the inside -- this is the right car at the right time."
The basics: The Fit is a five-seat hatchback that comes in three trims: base, Sport and Sport Navi. The new 1.5-liter I4 engine delivers 117 hp, an increase of 8 hp, and 106 pounds-feet of torque. The five-speed manual transmission gets 27 mpg in the city and 33 on the highway, down one mile each from the 2008 model. But on the five-speed automatic, mileage is up one mpg for both city and highway driving, to 28/35.
Passenger volume is 90.8 cubic feet, compared with 90 cubic feet for the 2008 model. Most of the added space is in the rear. With the rear sear folded down, cargo volume is 57.3 cubic feet, compared with 41.9 cubic feet for the current model.
The cab-forward design makes for larger front windows for better visibility. Tires are one size larger -- 15 inches on the base model and 16 inches on the Sport.
Notable features: The Fit gets Honda's ACE body structure, which protects occupants during frontal crashes. Other new safety features include active head restraints for the driver and front passenger.
The rear passenger seats now fold flat with one touch of a button. The new Sport Navi trim offers a satellite navigation system and stability assist for the first time.
What Honda says: "The Fit has two kinds of customers," says Jeff Swedlund, the Fit's senior product planner. "The Gen Y looking for value and features and the downsizers who want something smaller and are concerned about the environment. The features are aimed at satisfying both types of customers."
The market: The major competitors are the Toyota Yaris, Scion xD and Nissan Versa. Swedlund expects the number of new entrants in the segment to triple by 2010. Honda expects to sell at least 80,000 Fits annually, with the Sport representing 70 percent of sales. About 10 percent of the mix will be the top-of-the-line Sport Navi model with stability assist and navigation.
Compromises and shortcomings: Customers can get stability assist only with the top-of-the-line Sport Navi model, priced at $19,430.
The skinny: Sales of small cars are heating up in this country, and it doesn't appear to be a fad. But consumers are not just looking for bland tin cans. Besides good fuel economy, they want all of the bells and whistles, and they want it all at a small-car price. So the Fit fits the bill.