ANN ARBOR, MI – It doesn’t take long for foreign auto makers to supersize their cars once they reach U.S. shores, and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. is a perfect example with its Civic compact and Accord midsize sedans.

Now comes a new version of the quirky Honda Fit, a tall subcompact hatchback that at one time begged to be called “cute.” But no more.

The reengineered ’09 Fit, made available at a press preview here, is wider and longer, with a more aggressive face and lower stance. The 16-in.wheels on the up-trim Sport add boldness, and a horsepower boost matches the car’s super-forward “aero-form design” that encompasses a reinforced body structure.

This grownup Fit is enjoyable to drive, with a peppy spirit, welcoming interior, superb handling, excellent fuel efficiency and an attractive price.

It replaces the first-generation vehicle that launched in Japan in June 2001, arriving in the U.S. in April 2006.

Since its initial global introduction, the Fit has met with success in 115 countries. Called the Jazz in Europe, Australia and China; the City in Thailand and India; and the Aria in some South America countries, Honda says worldwide it has sold 2.5 million units to date, including some ’09 models.

The new-generation Fit went on sale in Japan in October 2007, followed by Asia/Oceania in March 2008, China in July and South American and Europe starting in the year’s second half. The car arrives in North America in September.

Honda says it has sold 136,415 Fits in the U.S. through July, since the car’s introduction two years ago, and is assuring dealers they no longer will be supply-constrained. Had the supply line been flowing, dealers insist they could have bested the Toyota Yaris, which sold 21,247 more cars this year through July, according to Ward’s data, based on the daily sales rate.

Indeed, John Mendel, executive vice president, American Honda Motor Co. Inc., tells reporters here he expects to sell 85,000 ’09 Fits in the U.S. in the car’s first 12 months, and Japan has assured the spigot will remain open if more vehicles are needed.

That’s because U.S. demand for subcompact cars finally has caught up with the rest of the world. Fit sales in the U.S. were up 72.9% through July to 52,053, Ward’s data shows, compared with the Toyota Yaris, up 34.1% to 73,300, and Nissan Versa, up 19.6% to 54,326.

However, there are no plans to build the new Fit in North America, Mendel says, noting two months of industry small-car sales is not a trend.

Perhaps, but it was enough to convince Detroit’s three auto makers to make an historic sea change, slowing or shuttering light-truck plants and speeding up production of smaller, thriftier cars and cross/utility vehicles.

Mendel acknowledges these are “extremely challenging times. We are witnessing a watershed moment in the industry,” including “tighter credit, skyrocketing fuel prices and environmental concerns.

“How consumers perceive value and how we build and market our cars gives us opportunity for growth,” he says, noting Honda’s overall U.S. sales are up 2%-3% in a down market. “Our business strategy is more like a tortoise than a hare. But over time, you won’t find a car company more consistent.”

The same consistency can be found in the ’09 Fit. With enhanced driving dynamics, the fun factor that makes this subcompact such a standout in its segment continues to impress as it exceeds the previous generation by nearly every measure.

’09 Honda Fit Sport
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel drive, subcompact hatchback
Engine 1.5L, 16-valve, 4-cyl. SOHC i-VTEC, aluminum block, aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 117 hp @ 6,600 rpm
Torque 106 lb.-ft. (144 Nm) @ 4,800 rpm
Compression ratio 10.4:1
Transmission 5-speed manual
Wheelbase 98.4 ins. (249.9 cm)
Overall length 161.6 ins. (410.5 cm)
Overall width 66.7 ins. (169.4 cm)
Overall height 60.0 ins. (152.4 cm)
Curb weight 2,534/2,615 lbs. with Navi (1,149/1,191 kg)
Base price $16,060
Fuel economy 27/33 mpg (8.7/7 L/100 km)
Competition Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Scion xD, Chevy Aveo
Pros Cons
Sporty, fun-to-drive Bigger but narrower tires
Comprehensive standard safety features Too much dashboard plastic
Available 5-speed automatic w/paddle shifter Top trim with navigation system pricey

The ’09 model’s new high-revving 1.5L, 16-valve SOHC I-VTEC gasoline 4-cyl., mated to a standard 5-speed manual or available 5-speed automatic with dual-mode paddle shifting, produces a very willing 117 hp at 6,600 rpm – an 8-hp bump from the current model – with maximum torque of 106 lb.-ft. (144 Nm) at 4,800 rpm.

Even with its smooth, but quick-off-the-line performance, the engine earns an ultra-low emissions rating. The Environmental Protection Agency rates fuel efficiency at 28/35 mpg (8.4/6.7 L/100 km) city/highway for the base Fit with automatic transmission, and 27/33 mpg (8.7/7 L/100 km) for the Sport with a manual or automatic gearbox.

Honda says the ’09 model’s larger-diameter intake valves and a resonator chamber in the intake manifold contribute more power and a smoother torque curve, while improvements to coolant flow and piston crown design result in increased low-end torque.

Front MacPherson struts and a rear torsion-beam suspension enhance the Fit’s excellent handling and ride quality during our drive along the winding back roads spilling out from this tree-lined university town. High-capacity electric power steering and antilock brakes with electronic brake distribution add to a feeling of control.

The chassis has been further refined to match the more rigid body, achieving a pleasing balance between a smooth ride and the Fit’s crisp, nimble handling that allows for higher speeds – all the way up to its 6,800 rpm redline – with less understeer.

In short, this Fit has heart. Adding to the fun-to-drive quotient, the ’09 model takes on a sportier, lower profile as its wheelbase is extended 1.9 ins. (5 cm) and overall length stretched 4.2 ins. (10.7 cm).

The added dimensions in part are due to the addition of Honda’s Advanced Compatibility Engineering body structure, which provides improved protection for vehicle occupants while helping mitigate damage to other vehicles. The Fit is the last in the auto maker’s lineup to benefit from the technology.

The cab-forward design also helps absorb energy in a frontal collision with a pedestrian, a key safety regulation in the European Union.

Additionally, says Jeff Swedlund, Fit senior product planner for Honda America, while the first-generation’s styling was popular, “customers asked for more,” complaining the tall, narrow vehicle looked too much like a minivan.

“Five years ago, compacts were not sought-after, nor fun to drive,” he says, noting econoboxes no longer are acceptable.” Such cars used to be shopped for strictly for the price, “but now (consumers) want quality, functionality and fuel economy.”

The ’09 Fit reflects all of these factors with its higher beltline, sweeping windshield, creased hood, tighter face with meshed grille and larger jeweled headlights set at a more rakish angle. Eight exterior colors are offered – three of them new.

Inside, Honda’s packaging efficiency comes to the fore with a spacious passenger volume of 90.8 cu.-ft. (2,571 L) and an additional rear-cargo volume of 20 cu.-ft. (566 L). Rear-seat legroom also is improved.

Honda adds its signature, wider and more-supportive “Magic Seat” throughout, with easier-than-ever rear fold-flat seats that push up against the cargo bay to create a tall space suitable for slender cargo such as bicycles.

The interior retains its blue LED instrument panel, while a tilt and telescopic steering column, lower tailgate opening for easier loading and wider-opening rear-passenger doors are new features.

An important improvement is a new climate-control system with air-conditioning performance that Honda says meets the additional demands of the expanded glass area. Controls are moved closer to the driver for easier operation.

The new Fit also features a 4-speaker, 160-watt AM/FM/CD auto system (six speakers in the Sport version), with an auxiliary input jack for an MP3 player and Windows Media playback capability. A USB audio interface for connecting an iPod or other compatible auto devices also is included as standard.

Honda says the design of the cabin materials and trim is intended to convey a more premium feel, including the layout of the gauges and leather-wrapped automatic shift knob and steering wheel.

However, one glaring difference between the ’09 Fit and its predecessor is the smooth, cheap-looking plastic covering the extended cab-forward dashboard. The former Fit used a non-glare, textured surface generally found in more upscale vehicles, which set it apart in the subcompact segment.

Mitigating this disappointment is an available satellite navigation system with a 6.5-in. (16.5-cm) touch-screen display with voice recognition. PC card playback capability is offered on the Sport version in tandem with Honda’s Stability Control Assist.

Swedlund expects the Sport model to account for 86% of ’09 Fit sales in the U.S., despite a hike in price that Mendel blames on soaring material costs.

Minus $670 destination and handling charges, the base Fit with a manual gearbox and 15-in. wheels is priced at $14,550, while the Sport trim with manual transmission and 16-in. alloy wheels is $16,060.

With the addition of an automatic transmission, navigation and stability-control systems, the Sport tops out at $18,760, placing it squarely in Civic territory.

Swedlund says American Honda “had a lot of input in the new Fit, particularly in its size and capability.” That’s good news considering the auto maker expects the U.S. subcompact segment to grow 11.4% next year, “after seven years of truck domination.”

Swedlund predicts Fit competitors will triple over the next three years, including new entries from the Ford, Chevrolet, Hyundai and Kia brands.

No worries. Honda’s smallest car is bigger, bolder and ready to rumble.