Fine Fit for Honda

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SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Considering that its best-selling Civic has grown up and gotten a bit pricey, Honda sees the smaller, cheaper Fit as the perfect fit for its lineup.

OK, no more puns. But even Christina Ra, product planner for the 2007 Honda Fit four-door hatchback, finds it hard to avoid that play on words.

“The Fit name has begun to establish itself as a global brand,” she said. “People have been waiting for this vehicle to come (to the United States). It was a natural fit.”

The Fit goes on sale this month. At $14,000 to $16,000 and just over 13 feet long, the Fit is a few thousand dollars cheaper and 19 inches shorter than a Civic sedan.

Its size and price, combined with the fact that Honda maintains a reputation as a young people’s brand, should make the Fit an instant hit.

Some Civic models, such as the hybrid sedan and the Si coupe, cost more than $22,000. Some buyers don’t have that kind of money. In other cases, people don’t want to spend that much for a second or third car.

John Mendel, senior vice president at American Honda, said there will be a $3,000 to $5,000 difference in the average transaction price for the Fit and the Civic. The most affordable Fit costs $14,400, including destination and handling.

“Psychographically, it’s a very different attitude,” said Mendel in comparing the Civic and Fit. The Civic is a proven choice, he said, while the Fit is “fun, it’s funky, it fits my lifestyle, it’s functional.”

Over the years, sales of lower-priced Civics have decreased, and that gap in the market has been filled by cars like the Hyundai Accent and Elantra, Kia Rio and Chevrolet Aveo – all built in South Korea.

With the arrival of Toyota’s Scion brand and of cars like the Fit, Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris, the market for subcompact cars is expected to grow 58 percent by decade’s end.

Others say the market will double or triple.

“We think that there’s good growth there, and the time is right where that segment will start to seed itself fairly solidly in the American psyche,” Mendel said.

Honda will market the Fit as a premium subcompact, one with lots of attitude and a more-than-expected level of safety.

Dimensionally, it’s 19 inches shorter than a Civic sedan, and a few inches narrower, but it’s 3.5 inches taller. Its hatchback shape gives it a fairly generous cargo area behind the second row of seats.

To create a larger interior package on a small car, Honda engineers moved the gas tank from under the rear seat to under the front seat, Masayuki Uegane, a Honda assistant large-project leader, said through a translator at a news media introduction in Santa Monica.

Seats fold and stow to create a variety of combinations. With the rear seat’s back folded forward, the cargo capacity grows from 21.3 cubic feet to 41.9 cubic feet. The second-row seat cushions also fold up, which creates a tall space inside the middle of the car.

The Fit even offers something Honda calls the “refresh mode.” With the front seats all the way forward and their headrests removed and the rear seat back reclined as well, it creates a loungelike area where the occupant can take a nap or work on his or her computer.

Finally, the front passenger seat folds to create a cargo hold that’s 7 feet, 10 inches long – enough for a ladder or a surfboard.

But not Allan Butler’s long board. The 52-year-old television segment producer was getting ready to put his 9-foot-4-inch board atop his battered Toyota Tercel.

His wet suit still dripping from his day in the waves at Southern California’s Sunset Beach, Butler said he’s looking for a vehicle to complement his surfing lifestyle.

His short list includes the Nissan Xterra, Toyota 4Runner and Honda Element SUVs and the Chrysler PT Cruiser wagon. He wants something that’ll hold his board and come with a plastic bin for his wet stuff.

“As a surfer, I first think about the utility of a vehicle,” he said.

After inspecting the Fit, he pronounced it “a cool little car.”

The Fit comes with a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that uses the same variable-valve technology that’s found on other Honda engines. It makes 109 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque. That’s comparable to the performance of Toyota’s also-new Yaris.

The Fit comes with either a five-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters that gets 31 miles per gallon in city driving and 37 miles per gallon on the highway, or a five-speed manual transmission that achieves 33/38 EPA ratings.

The base Fit model comes with six air bags, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, a 120-watt AM/FM/CD stereo and 14-inch wheels. The Fit Sport model, which starts at $15,720, adds a rear spoiler, fog lights, keyless entry, a security system, cruise control, an upgraded stereo and 15-inch tires with aluminum wheels.

Ra said Honda expects many Fit buyers will be young first-time new-car buyers. But another group, empty-nesters, will likely find the Fit appealing, too.

“It’s for those who don’t need the utility anymore of a larger sedan or minivan or a sport-utility vehicle,” she said.

Neither group wants what used to be called an econobox.

“It’s a not a beer can, heater and keys kind of vehicle,” Mendel said.

So far the critics agree.

On the www.edmunds.com auto information Web site, Philip Reed wrote, “Honda has put so much fun in this Fit that it arrives like a breath of fresh air in an era of dwindling resources on a congested landscape of clogged roads and packed parking lots.” And Automobile magazine, in its May issue, calls the Fit “inspiringly spacious inside” and reports “seeing signs of coolness at the true entry level – say, under $15,000 – in what was previously a subcompact wasteland.”

Mendel couldn’t help but mention the cost of fuel as he talked about the Fit.

“With high gas prices and consumer demand, the timing couldn’t be better,” he said.

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