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Walk into Honda Performance Development and the first thing you see is an Indy 500 winner. Not a man, a car, the yellow DHL-sponsored Dallara Ryan Hunter-Reay drove to victory at the Brickyard in 2014. Its twin-turbocharged 600-hp 2.2-liter V6 was built here at HPD, where the open-wheeler is plunked smack dab in the middle of its small lobby in Valencia, California, about 30 miles north of Los Angeles. You actually have to walk around it to get from the facility’s glass front door to its front desk.
Honda says racing has always improved its street cars. Even its least expensive model, the 2018 Honda Fit, benefits from the company’s vast motorsports involvement, according to Sage Marie, Honda’s assistant vice president of public relations. An amateur racer, Marie has raced Pikes Peak, as well as Baja, and in 2015 he won the 25 Hours of Thunderhill in a Fit fitted with HPD’s race package for the little hatchback.
Now in its third-generation, the Honda Fit has always been considered the subcompact class’ sports car. If you wanted a little inexpensive hatch at all entertaining to drive you bought a Fit. Those enjoyable dynamics, along with its innovative rear seat design, giving the Honda class-leading cargo versatility, has made the Honda Fit relatively popular — the car consistently owns 50 percent of retail hatchback sales in its class.
Although the small-car market has slowed with gas remaining cheap and the mass migration to SUVs, Honda has improved the Fit hatchback for 2018, adding safety and infotainment features, as well as a little style and steering feel.
Built in Celaya, Mexico, the Fit is offered in four trim levels: LX, EX, EX-L and the new Sport trim, slotting between the LX and EX. Base prices start at $16,190 and top out at $20,520 for an EX-L, with both leather and an automatic standard.
In an attempt to give the boxy five-door a lower, wider look, each trim wears a redesigned set of bumper covers with piano black trim, and the grille gets a little chrome. The changes aren’t radical, but the new look is an improvement, with a stronger family resemblance to the Civic and the Accord.
Fog lights are standard starting on the Sport trim. It also gets a small front spoiler with an orange pinstripe, black alloy wheels, a mild rear diffuser, a chrome exhaust tip and a rocker trim to remind your father of his IROC-Z Camaro. Inside there’s orange stitching. The new Fit Sport starts at $17,500.
The powertrain is as it was: All Fits use the same 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine still making 130 hp at 6,600 rpm and 114 lb-ft of torque at 4,600 rpm. A six-speed manual transmission and a CVT automatic transmission with paddle shifters are available.
Honda has, however, made changes to the hatchback’s suspension and chassis to improve dynamics. The engineers have reinforced the body, adding braces to the rockers, floor, roof sills and cowl, and they have retuned the dampers with more pressure. A stiffer bearing has also been added to the steering rack.
To quiet the interior, thicker glass has been added, as well as thicker soundproof material to the underbody and the firewall. And to reduce vibration, the manual transmission mount and torque rod have been reinforced. Honda says the changes add less than 10 pounds to the Fit’s curb weight.
Also new is a full complement of active safety systems, unusual in the subcompact class. The Honda Sensing Suite is now standard on EX and EX-L, but it’s available on all Fit models with the CVT transmission. It includes collision mitigation, road departure mitigation, lane keeping assist and adaptive cruise control, and it’s a steal at $1,000.
Honda has also replaced the audio system’s unloved touchscreen volume buttons with a conventional knob so it’s much easier to use while driving. Navigation is available. The large 7-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility is also new. It’s standard on Fit Sport, EX and EX-L trims.
The Honda Fit wants to be revved out with the meat of the power appearing above 3,000 rpm.
Through the winding canyons east of Valencia, not far from Magic Mountain’s massive roller coasters, the 2018 Honda Fit isn’t exactly a thrill ride, but it is fun. You can’t expect too much from a 130-hp front-driver on all-season rubber. Nonetheless, the Fit is small, light and responsive.
Our first go-round is in a Fit Sport with the six-speed manual transmission. It’s the combination to get. The shifter is tight with short throws, and the clutch action is light, so it’s stop-and-go friendly. There’s good power over 3,000 rpm, and the 1.5-liter likes the top of the tach. It remains smooth as it approaches its 6,800-rpm redline.
Despite the additional insulation, Honda still lets you hear the Fit’s engine. Unfortunately, its exhaust note is kind of nasal. It sounds like Ray Romano doing an impression of a double overhead cam four-cylinder. There’s also some remaining vibration in the throttle pedal, just enough for enthusiast drivers to feel a mechanical connection with the powerplant.
The Honda Fit Sport makes max power at 6,600 rpm.
While all four trim levels get the same engine and transmissions, the Sport, EX and EX-L models handle better than the base LX thanks to 16-inch wheels and lower-profile tires. The newly tuned suspension is firm but comfortable. You can feel the road’s surface, although larger impacts are soaked up well. Still, this is a small car with a short wheelbase, so there is some chop over rough patches.
The real standout is the Fit’s steering; it’s the best in the subcompact class. It’s quick, linear and provides plenty of feel.
Run some sprints through the canyons and the 2018 Honda Fit Sport is ready, willing and able. Front end grip is impressive and small midcorner corrections aren’t a problem. You can place the Fit anywhere you want, and it responds well to a little trail-braking, but with only 130 hp (128 hp with CVT), you better be in the right gear on the way out and back on the gas early.
Bend it into a sweeper and the Fit’s suspension doesn’t do anything nervous or unexpected. Body roll is well controlled, and the hatchback quickly takes a set as it weights its outside tires. Push too hard and it understeers at the limit, but it’s mild and easy to get back in line.
There’s plenty of orange trim to go around on the Fit Sport.
Later, I have a chance to also drive a Fit EX-L with the CVT automatic transmission and a sport suspension package available through Honda Factory Performance, the company’s accessories line. The HFP suspension lowers the car 10 mm and dials up the spring rates significantly, 103 percent in the front and 149 percent in the rear.
The resulting ride is stiff. If you were born before Reagan was president, it could aggravate your lumbago, but it’s nothing a young enthusiast can’t handle. Surprisingly, larger impacts are still dealt with quite well. There’s also less secondary suspension movement over rougher road.
With the CVT, the Fit is a little harder to love. Left in “D,” it’s always maximizing fuel economy, so the four-cylinder is near idle, where it’s making about as much horsepower as a moped. Throttle inputs feel ignored. In “S,” it’s much more responsive as it keeps the engine above 3,000 rpm, and its paddle shifters allow you to click through seven “gears.” It even matches revs on the downshifts.
Overall, the Fit feels like a quality product. Its doors feel substantial and close with a satisfying thud, and there isn’t a hint of chassis flex over rough roads. Even its exterior door handles have a positive action and require a firm pull.
Smartly, Honda didn’t mess with the Fit’s famous so-called Magic Seat, maximizing cargo space and versatility. Split 60/40, the Magic Seat not only folds flat, but flips up as well, so carrying tall items like my recently restored 1982 Redline MX-II is possible.
The Fit’s last full redesign was back in 2015, so this refresh is well timed to keep the hatchback ahead of such rivals as the Ford Fiesta, Chevy Sonic and Hyundai Accent. The 2018 model is just as versatile and economical as ever, but now it’s also safer, quieter and its steering feel and suspension tuning are again the segment benchmarks.
The Fit’s new Sport trim level also adds drama with its black wheels and orange pinstriping, and it’s a strong value when you consider its standard equipment. Honda expects it to make up 18 percent of sales. That said, it’s still no hot hatch. Until Honda decides to make a Fit Si or a Fit Type R, those looking for performance over ultimate practicality should still shop the Ford Fiesta ST, packing 197 turbocharged hp and 17-inch wheels and tires.
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $16,190
Drivetrain: 1.5-liter four-cylinder, six-speed manual/CVT auto, FWD
Output: 130 hp @ 6,600 rpm (128 hp @ 6,600 rpm with CVT); 114 lb-ft of torque @ 4,600 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,522 lb (LX with manual); 2,597 lb (Sport with automatic); 2,644 lb (EX with automatic and Honda Sensing); 2,648 lb (EX-L)
Fuel Economy: 29/36/31 mpg (manual), 33/40/36 mpg (automatic, LX), 31/36/33 mpg (automatic, Sport, EX and EX-L)(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Great steering feel; fun to drive; versatile interior; improved connectivity and safety; hooray, a volume knob
Cons: Expensive for the class; Honda Civic is larger, more powerful and only about $2,000 more
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