First Drive: 2007 Honda Fit honda first drives
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase
Photos by Laurance Yap and Greg Wilson

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To say that Honda’s been conspicuously absent from the hatchback segment in Canada over the past few years is an understatement. Little hatches are as big a deal now as they were back in the 1970s, when Honda’s first Civic – a hatchback, of course – opened Canadian motorists’ eyes to the practicality of these little cars with big trunks.

For 2007, Honda’s back in the hatchback game with the Fit, a five-door subcompact that the company hopes will help it take advantage of a recent boom in small, efficient cars that can hold a lot of stuff. Yes, it sounds like the 1970s all over again, but the difference is in the details: where the first tiny hatchbacks sold here, notably the Civic and Rabbit, were very basic forms of transportation offering little in the way of comfort or convenience features, the latest and greatest in practical compacts tend to be well-equipped and affordable enough for even the most budget-conscious buyer.

First Drive: 2007 Honda Fit honda first drives
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

From the outside, the Fit looks a lot like other small five-doors already on the market; you’d be excused for confusing it with the Suzuki Aerio, thanks to its tall-boy body style. So if the exterior look isn’t terribly original – the design dates back to 2001 when this car was first sold in Honda’s home market – it’s what the Fit’s interior can do that makes it stand out.

In the back is Honda’s “Magic Seat”, which, with the flip of a lever and flick of the wrist, can be configured into four different “modes.” Seriously, this is one of those new innovations that makes you wonder why it took so long for someone to come up with it.

First Drive: 2007 Honda Fit honda first drives
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

By moving the fuel tank forward to a spot under the front seats – instead of a more conventional location under rear-seat passengers’ bums – Honda freed up a whole bunch of space on the floor in front of the rear wheels. The result is a rear seat that not only folds down completely flat (Utility Mode), but the rear seat cushions can be flipped up to create a four-foot high cargo space between the front and rear seats (Tall Mode).

Fold down the right-hand half of the 60/40 split rear seat and flip the front passenger seat forward and there’s enough room for seven-foot-six Houston Rockets basketball star Yao Ming to stretch out, and with four inches to spare (Long Mode). Finally, the front seats can be folded back flush with the rears (Refresh Mode), which Honda says is perfect for reclining. No doubt some buyers will come up with other, uh, fun uses for this laid-back seating arrangement.

First Drive: 2007 Honda Fit honda first drives
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

Honda’s entry in the hot subcompact segment offers a couple of other firsts: it’s the only car in the class to offer a five-speed automatic (a five-speed manual is standard equipment) and the first to offer steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters for that transmission (though only in the range-topping Fit Sport). Both gearboxes work extremely well. The manual shifter moves through its gates with the kind of fluidity that many have come to expect from Honda, and the light clutch is easy to modulate. The automatic also shifts very smoothly and surprisingly, doesn’t suck the very life out of the Fit, as is often the case in little cars with autoboxes. While the paddle shifters in the Sport model may seem superfluous in an economy car, Honda deserves credit for making this manual-shift feature very effective.

First Drive: 2007 Honda Fit honda first drives
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

Leave the floor shifter in drive and the transmission behaves like any automatic; the driver can use the shift paddles to take control briefly, but the transmission will eventually revert to full automatic mode. Moving the shift lever into sport mode, though, and the transmission will obey every command from the shift paddles, saying no only to avoid over-revving the engine. In this mode, manual shifts are quick and smooth – more so, in fact, than in many larger and more expensive cars.

The only engine choice is a 1.5-litre four-cylinder that puts out 109 horsepower and 105 ft.-lbs. of torque. Like many small engines, most of the power comes on line at fairly high rpms, and that peaky nature is amplified by Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing system.

First Drive: 2007 Honda Fit honda first drives
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

Note that this isn’t the newer and more sophisticated i-VTEC system used on most of Honda’s other models, so under hard acceleration, the switch from the normal cam timing to the more aggressive mode – which happens somewhere around 4,500 rpm – is evident. The Fit’s fuel consumption ratings are what you’d expect in a little Honda. Natural Resources Canada’s numbers for it are 7.3 L/100 km city and 5.8 L/100 km highway for manual transmission models; DX and LX automatic are rated at 7.8 L/100 km city and 5.6 L/100 km highway, while the Sport automatic’s ratings are 8 L/100 km city and 5.8 L/100 km highway.

Subcompact cars tend to be fairly nimble, owing to their diminutive size and low curb weight, but Honda is confident that the Fit will trump its competition (namely the Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio and the Pontiac Wave, Chevrolet Aveo and Suzuki Swift+ clones) in the fun-to-drive category. So confident, in fact, that they gathered representatives from each of those platforms for writers to drive back-to-back with the Fit on a small handling course set up at Gatineau, Quebec’s Chateau Cartier Country Club.

First Drive: 2007 Honda Fit honda first drives
Photo: Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

For sure, the Fit handles like nothing else in the segment, with a firm ride and stable handling that make it feel decidedly sporty for a subcompact. Not even the Yaris, which up to this point was arguably the sportiest entry in the class, can match the Fit’s fun-to-drive nature. The Fit’s ride might even be a bit too harsh for some drivers, but at least the starchy suspenders are bolted to a stiff body structure that is free of squeaks and rattles.

Notable among the Fit’s features and amenities are the front side and side curtain airbags and ABS that are standard on all trim levels. For its base price of $14,980, the Fit DX also gets power windows as standard. The mid-level LX adds power outside mirrors and locks and air conditioning for $17,180. The range-topping Sport gets an underbody spoiler kit, fog lights and 15-inch alloy wheels (in place of 14-inch steelies) for $19,480.

First Drive: 2007 Honda Fit honda first drives
Autos Editor Greg Wilson relaxes in the back of the Honda Fit. Click image to enlarge

The five-speed automatic transmission adds $1,200 to the price of DX and LX models and $1,300 to the Sport’s bottom line, owing to the manual-shift feature that model gets.

That the Fit offers six airbags and ABS for less than $15,000 is significant. You can get those items in a Hyundai Accent, but only in the $16,659 GLS model. In fact, the Fit comes with a more comprehensive passive safety package than many compacts.

It’s great to see Honda get back into a market segment that it helped create more than two decades ago. What’s even better that they’ve done it with such a competent, affordable and well-equipped little car like the Fit.

At a glance: 2007 Honda Fit

  • Type: Subcompact five-door hatchback
  • Price: $14,180 (DX manual) – $20,780 (Sport automatic)
  • Freight/PDI: $1,300
  • Available: April, 2006