Don't let the unassuming looks and tidy, 13-foot length of Honda's new, small car fool you.
From the innovative fold-up/fold-down rear seats to its government fuel economy rating averaging 35.5 combined city and highway miles per gallon, the 2007 Honda Fit is a very practical vehicle. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency's fuel economy rating for the Fit is the third best for a gasoline-powered, nonhybrid, new car sold in the United States.
Yet, the affordable, five-door, five-passenger Fit comes standard with many features usually found on more expensive cars, as well as some innovations.
For example, six air bags, including curtain air bags, are standard. Buyers who want an automatic transmission get a five-speed automatic -- not a four speed which has been the norm in many small cars.
And in a first in the segment, the uplevel Fit Sport model with automatic transmission has steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. These paddles operate like those on race cars to let drivers quickly shift gears manually if they want.
Bound to make the Fit even more endearing to small-car shoppers is the fact the Fit debuts as Honda's lowest-priced car. It slots below the Honda Civic, which carries a starting price of $15,110 for a 2006 DX coupe.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $14,400 for a base, 2007 Fit with five-speed manual transmission. The Fit with a five-speed automatic starts at $15,200.
Note, though, that the Fit has the highest starting price of the three new, small hatchback cars being launched in the United States this year by the major Japan-based automakers -- Toyota, Nissan and Honda.
The 2007 Toyota Yaris starts at $11,530 for a base hatchback with manual transmission, and the 2007 Nissan Versa starts at $13,055 for a base hatchback with manual transmission.
Popular in Asia and Europe for years, the Fit comes to the States only as a hatchback. The sedan with forgettable styling is not being imported.
The Fit five door is rather plain in its outer styling, too, but at least its utilitarian shape is not boring.
Offered in two trim levels -- base and Sport -- the Fit uses interior space masterfully. Thanks to a taller profile than the Civic, the Fit's passenger room -- a total of 90.1 cubic feet -- is close to the 90.9 cubic feet in a Honda Civic sedan.
Passengers in front and back seats sit more upright than expected. For example, my legs in the test Fit dangled downward, not out in front of me. So I didn't feel like I was riding right down on the pavement, and it helped provide a sense of decent rear-seat legroom, too -- 33.7 inches, which is just an inch shy of that in the back of a Civic sedan.
Headroom, front and back, actually is greater than that in the Civic, and cargo room in the Fit behind the rear seats is a surprising 21.3 cubic feet. This is more than the 12 cubic feet in a Civic sedan trunk.
Able to travel an estimated 370 miles on a 10.8-gallon tank of gasoline, the Fit is powered by a 1.5-liter, single overhead cam four cylinder with Honda's VTEC variable valve system. This power plant generates just 109 horsepower, but this is OK because the Fit weighs less than 2,500 pounds. The car feels sprightly, and the engine does not sound like a straining, weak unit.
In fact, most of the time the Fit's four-cylinder engine was quieter than I expected as it went about its business.
Torque peaks at 105 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm, and only when I slammed the accelerator hard for instant response did I notice the engine booming as it worked to get up to speed.
The manual transmission in the Fit test car moved through the gears easily, and if I didn't mind listening to high engine revs, I could zoom forward with gusto.
The Fit is perfect for people who have to find curbside parking in congested cities. This small car can claim little parking spaces that other vehicles have to forsake. And getting into parking spaces is a snap. The front-wheel drive Fit maneuvers easily, and even parallel parking was far less of a chore than in most other vehicles.
The suspension -- MacPherson struts up front and torsion beam in back -- is packaged compactly to allow for the Fit's flat, low floor. Passengers feel pretty much like they're rolling over and atop road bumps and are rarely jarred or jolted.
Rear seats split one-third and two-thirds, and while seatbacks fold down as expected, they come to rest lower than in other vehicles. This, combined with the Fit's tall profile, helps explain the generous maximum cargo space of 41.9 cubic feet.
But I also marveled at the one-hand maneuver that raises the rear seat cushions up against the seatbacks, instead, thereby creating a sizable storage area for tall items right behind the front seats.
There are reminders that the Fit is a low-priced car. There's no center armrest in the back seat. The cargo floor in back is covered by cheap-feeling material. And the middle rider in back must watch that the shoulder belt doesn't chafe his or her neck.
The Fit earned five out of five stars for driver and front-seat passenger protection in government frontal crash testing, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports.
In side crash testing, the Fit received five out of five stars for front-seat passengers' protection but only three out of five stars for rear-seat passengers' protection.
Front-seat passengers in the Fit have standard seat-mounted side air bags. But rear-seat riders do not.
The early Fits that came to the States are among some 1.2 million Honda vehicles that have "incorrect contact information" for NHTSA in their owner manuals, resulting in a safety recall announced in July.