BBC Autos

Review

Honda's stuck – is the Fit the fix?

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The La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles are the final home of countless ancient animals that became mired in its primordial ebony goo. The more the poor animals fought to free themselves, the more hapless they became.

American Honda’s headquarters sits just 20 miles south of the tar pits, but the company has exhibited signs of stickiness in recent years, unable to recover the sense of youthful spunk it once commanded.

Indeed, the more the company has struggled to recreate its earlier success, the worse its situation has become. For every shining success like the Accord sedan and CR-V crossover, there is a slow-selling disappointment, including the second-generation Insight and CR-Z, the Acura ZDX and RL from Honda’s Acura luxury subsidiary, and some less incriminating nameplates such as the Ridgeline and Crosstour – all of which have prompted former Honda fans to wonder what became of the company that once promised to “make it simple”.

To this, Honda answers with a redesigned Fit – marketed in Asia and Europe as the Jazz – a car armed with all the quantifiable improvements that attend a big global relaunch. There’s an 11% rise in horsepower (to 130), a 7.5% increase in torque (to 114 pound-feet), 14% greater range of ratios in the new continuously variable transmission (CVT) and a 16% uptick in fuel economy. These numbers are abetted by improvements to the flipping, flopping and folding Magic Seat, now 21.7% more magical than before. Hocus pocus aside, there is in fact more rear leg and cargo room when the ingenious seat is employed.

Kudos to Honda for its unrelenting focus on delivering safety, even in this, its entry-level model. The company expects the Fit to be named a Top Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nonprofit financed by the insurance industry, when that group smashes a new Fit into its test barricade. Additionally, the car has a rear back-up camera as standard – years ahead of US government legislation that mandates such equipment – a convex driver’s side auxiliary mirror and a passenger’s side blind spot camera to help reduce collisions.

The 2015 Fit scores 36mpg in EPA combined driving with the automatic CVT and 32mpg with the slick six-speed manual, numbers that move the car from near the bottom of the subcompact class to the top. The CVT’s 41mpg highway rating delivers the kind of efficiency that justifies choosing a smaller, rougher-riding subcompact over a bigger, more comfortable one in a way that the old car’s averages simply couldn’t.

As has been true of other recent Hondas, the CVT is fairly unobtrusive when the car is driven gently, even mimicking gear changes at times. Driven harder, though, and the engine drones as the CVT lets it rev eternally at the peak of its power band. The result is aurally displeasing, even if the computer says it is for the best.

Salvation is as simple as selecting Honda’s excellent six-speed manual transmission, with its light, quick throws and accuracy. So good is it that it reminds a driver of the fun that can be had even in a “budget” car.

Headlight illumination, a shortcoming in the previous Fit/Jazz, has been addressed, as the new car’s lights actually do their job on the low beam.

Honda boasts of improvements made to hush the usual small-car racket inside the Fit, with an array of sound-deadening mats applied throughout. The effort is successful, although the engine’s  new direct fuel injection system, an inherently noisy technology, can give the impression of a farm tractor going about its chores in the distance.

Does this mean the Fit has powered free of Honda’s tar pit? For all the car’s many admirable and quantifiable virtues, it is frustrating and disappointing to find it let down by little faults that coalesce into a greater lament.

The relative quiet in the cabin serves to highlight the noisy ventilation fan, whose roar drowns out the music (and the engine) even at middle speed settings and not just at full blast.

The dashboard continues Honda’s current theme of mixing colours, shapes and materials in a seemingly random mélange that could be best summarised as cluttered. It is the same on the instrument panel, where a panoply of colours and designs vie for the driver’s attention.

Honda touts the car’s 7in infotainment display in the middle of the dash, but while it features iPad-like touch controls, the thing can be quite user-unfriendly, especially while driving. A finger swipe is not the most intuitive way to adjust volume, for example, or to toggle through radio stations. Drivers would do well to isolate such actions to the smart steering-wheel-mounted control buttons.

The system does provide good mobile device integration, with support for apps like Pandora in addition to iTunes music. When the Fit is parked, video can even be played through the HDMI cable. But these same features could have been included in a stereo with actual volume and tuning knobs a driver could easily operate while driving.

Outside, the Fit carries over its essential efficient shape, with some clear influence from the current Civic around the grille. The resulting car remains recognisably a Fit, but so similar to the original that its styling has to be considered stagnant, even in the test car’s resplendent Milano Red finish.

On balance, the Fit’s progress out of its tar pit is incremental. So many solid upgrades, undermined by less-than-intuitive infotainment controls and cluttered interior styling. This is unquestionably a better Fit, which immediately makes it one of the best subcompact hatchbacks on the market. It’s not enough to redeem an entire brand, but it is a confident step out of the oozy morass.

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