Background:  The Honda Fit is here! But why did it take so long? honda first drives
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Story and photos by Laurance Yap

The Honda Fit, which goes on sale this month, has already received a number of major awards in other parts of the world. In Japan, it was named Car of the Year in 2002. It topped the J.D. Power survey for owner satisfaction in the UK in both 2004 and 2005. So why, exactly, is a car that’s already been a major success in 117 countries around the world, only JUST coming to Canada?

Partly, it’s because the four factories that build the Fit – Japan, Thailand, China and Brazil – have been cranking them out as fast as they can. Indeed, the little subcompact was the first car in decades to wrestle away #1-seller status in Japan from Toyota’s perennially popular Corolla.

It’s also because the drivetrains that the Fit was initially launched with – 1.0- and 1.3-litre four-cylinder engines coupled to your choice of manual or continuously-variable automatic transmissions – weren’t suited for the North American market. Large Project Manager (or, in other words, chief engineer) Tetsuya Nomura says North Americans’ taste for instant acceleration and bottom-end flexibility didn’t, ahem, fit with the original car’s powertrain setup, so they developed a 1.5-litre engine along with a North American-exclusive five-speed automatic transmission to give customers the peppy feel they expect from a small car.

Background:  The Honda Fit is here! But why did it take so long? honda first drives
Click image to enlarge

On cars fitted with the automatic, the electronically-controlled throttle has also been tuned to provide quick, almost jumpy tip-in, with lots of speed produced by just a mere twitch of your right toe.

Despite its resemblance to Fit and Jazz models sold elsewhere in the world, the North American version is also a substantially different car from a structural standpoint. Indeed, everything from the A-pillar forward is brand-new and engineered to meet our crash standards, which explains why the Fit’s nose looks a bit longer than its worldwide counterparts. The rear bumper also had to be changed.

What’s interesting about the Fit, though, is that despite it being almost a generation old in Honda terms (where they usually redesign cars completely after five or so years of production), it still brings a lot of fresh thinking to the compact-car class.

Background:  The Honda Fit is here! But why did it take so long? honda first drives
Click image to enlarge

None of its competitors offer a centrally-located gas tank, and thus they don’t have the flexibility afforded by the Fit’s “Magic” rear seat. The best most of them can do is a fold-flat rear seat with a moveable parcel shelf – and none have the low floor of the Fit’s cavernous cargo area.

Still, it gets you thinking: what other clever small cars are out there in the world that we can’t have?

Most of coolest ones, it seems, come from France. The cleverest, and maybe most outlandish-looking, is by far the Peugeot 1007, a two-door tall hatchback with minivan-style powered sliding doors. While the big doors look really weird, and give the 1007 an almost cubic shape, they make perfect sense for a small car. Being small, you will park it in tight parking spaces, ones that make swing-out doors impractical: why NOT have a door that slides, and is long enough that one is sufficient for both rows of seats?

Background:  The Honda Fit is here! But why did it take so long? honda first drives
Renault Clio

Background:  The Honda Fit is here! But why did it take so long? honda first drives
Citroen C2

Background:  The Honda Fit is here! But why did it take so long? honda first drives
Fiat Panda. Click image to enlarge

Over at Citroen, the C3 not only offers a SensoDrive transmission – it’s a manual without a clutch pedal – but you can also get a version called the Pluriel, which has a canvas roof that slides back like the old 2CV, giving it a giant sunroof. Remove the roof rails, and it’s a convertible. Remove the roof package from the rear, and it’s a pickup truck. Just don’t ask any questions about what happens when it rains.

Its smaller cousin, the C2, features translucent interior trim that reminds one of the early Apple iMacs – cheap to build, but really cheerful. The larger C4, on the other hand – which is about the size of the new Civic – has an instrument panel gone wild, a string of LCDs at the base of the windshield that are backlit by natural light and can be colour-shifted in the evening. All of the C4′s major controls are mounted in the centre of the steering wheel, which doesn’t move – all you do is handle the rim around the edge.

Renault, on the other hand, makes its small cars seem big with the infusion of high-end features and luxurious finishes. The Megane and Clio both are activated by a key card and are started with a pushbutton; their interiors are rich to the touch and gorgeous to look at. The Modus, which kind of resembles an even taller Fit, has a neat two-piece rear tailgate that allows more flexibility in loading.

Wherever you look in Europe, it seems like small cars are growing up – literally. Fiat found that they could cram near-midsize-car space into the tiny Panda, just by making it higher and higher. The more upright you sit, the less floor space you need for a car to feel roomy; since most Pandas are driven in cities, anyway, it didn’t matter that the car’s centre of gravity was made higher as a result. Some of the most popular small cars in Europe for tax purposes are in fact converted small delivery vans – Citroen’s Berlingo and Renault’s Kangoo are tin boxes with seats bolted to their floors and storage bins in their tall roofs.

Background:  The Honda Fit is here! But why did it take so long? honda first drives
Click image to enlarge

The Japanese, on the other hand, are finding new ways to configure what space they have. The Fit’s lounge-lizard setup, with the backrest of the front seat acting as an extension of the rear, is just the beginning. Small vans in Japan now have rear seats that can be turned into beds, and are often fitted with TVs, super-sized stereos, and other big-ticket electronic items. With the whole country short of space, it’s no wonder that young Japanese are using cars as an extension of – or indeed, a replacement for – their living areas. Why not, when traffic in Tokyo moves at such a snail’s pace?

Some of the best ideas from Japan and Europe (where it has also been a best-seller in its class) will no doubt make their debut on the next-generation Fit, which will probably be unveiled within the next two years. It won’t take Honda nearly as long to bring that car to Canada as it did the first version.