Marc K. Stengel, Wed, 28 Feb 2007 08:00:00 PDT
Well, the first day of the year 2007 has come and gone, and gasoline hassHave you noticed? The sky hasn't fallen. Yet. About mid-summer last year,when gas prices were toying with $3.00-per-gallon, the wail heard 'round theworld sounded something like, "O! Where will it all end?" Otherwise rationalpeople were predicting $10.00-per-gallon by New Year's Day.ettled to somewhere between $2.20 and $2.65, depending on where you'rereading this. Phew! Crisis averted.
Not so fast there, commuter-prole. While the Chicken Littles of the worldwere running around misunderstanding energy politics and the economics offuel, some rather remarkable folks at Honda and Nissan were taking the longview. Just when fuel-price hysteria reached its inflammable zenith, thesetwo Japanese powerhouses released a brace of fuel-efficient micro-cars thatwere perfectly timed to attract buyers. The Honda Fit and the Nissan Versaboth achieve over 30 miles-per-gallon. Both are available, well equipped,for under $16,000. And both are incredibly clever annoyingly so, in fact, ifyou're an automaker based in Detroit.
Did Nissan and Honda exploit the situation? You bet! Last summer, peoplewanted fuel-efficient cars, so they got 'em. Now gas is cheaper, yet the Fitand Versa are still selling well, because in addition to being frugalthey're both fun as heck and versatile too. The sky isn't falling. Yet. Butit looks like automotive tastes are changing anyway.
We North Americans are always the last one to know. The European-marketHonda Jazz is one great car. It seats five; tallies 31 mpg/city and 37mpg/highway (or 33 mpg in a weighted average); and parks almost anywhere.But we can't get the Jazz here in the States. So Honda gave us the Fitinstead on the presumption, perhaps, that ultra-subcompacts now fit into theAmerican Dreamscape.
A Fit Sport model, with a five-speed automatic transmission, costs $15,970as-tested; and calculations for the WIDA Index predict fuel costs of about$960 for a 12,000-mile year, or $80 a month (if fuel costs $2.65 a gallon).The Fit is a Honda, and that says almost everything. First, it says thatFit's 1.5-liter overhead-cam inline-four is a jewel. It makes only 109horsepower and 105 ft.-lbs. of torque, but it responds quickly andthrillingly to driver inputs; and it sounds great. Mated to a five-speedautomatic, it negotiates both traffic and the open road with wonderfullysmooth gear shifts.
But it's the packaging that sells the Fit. It's only 13 feet long, soparking is a dream and maneuvering in tight circumstance is almost magical.Five adults will fit (pun intended) in reasonable comfort with 21 cubic feetof luggage space left over. Fold both split rear seatbacks, and cargo spaceexpands to 42 cubes.
Honda, in other words, has done its homework. Maneuverable car that's fun todrive: Check. Versatile interior for people and stuff: Check. Auxiliary jackin the sound system for your iPod: Check. It all sounds so simple. So whyhasn't anyone else managed to accomplish the same thing?
What's surprising about Fit is how perky it feels to drive, even though itsarchitecture is hardly exotic. The mix of front-disc, rear-drum brakes isold hat. Ditto the front independent suspension, rear torsion beam. But thestandard anti-lock brakes and front, side, head-curtain airbags are a realcoup for this size and price of car. Honda's new microcar is a good fit withAmerica's changing automotive preferences. But underneath, the Fit is stillpure jazz.
In price and category, Nissan's new Versa is a virtual twin to the HondaFit. But they're clearly fraternal, not identical twins. And yet any parentwould love them both.
For starters, the Versa is a smidge bigger, inside and out. It's about afoot longer, weighs 200 pounds more, and boasts eight more cubic feet ofmaximum cargo space. Equipped comparably to the Fit, Versa stickers out to$15,065 as-tested. But it's available for much less, if you're willing toforego optional anti-lock brakes ($250), for example, and the power door andwindow package ($700). Rock-bottom base price is $13,250, and that is animpressive number for this much car.
The Nissan features a larger 1.8-liter twin-cam four, and it delivers morehorsepower (122 hp) and torque (127 foot-pounds). But the combination of asix-inch longer wheelbase with slightly greater weight have a calming effectupon ride and handling. Suspension tuning is a bit softer than the Fit aswell. (Versa also employs front independent and rear torsion-beam layouts,as well as disc/drum brakes).
In general, Versa is better versed in the techniques of comfortabletransportation than in sporty barnstorming. It is, perish the thought, a bitmore grown up than the Honda. Moreover, the interior is slightly roomier foroccupants; but curiously, luggage space with all seats in use amounts to asmaller 18 cubic feet. Still, luggage's loss is rear passengers' gain. Oneglaring oversight, however, is the lack of a center armrest for the driver.Audiophiles will rue the lack of an auxiliary jack for iPods. Andaficionados will wince at the four-speed auto transmission. Each of thesedetails seems an unwise cost cut; they only serve to cheapen what isotherwise Versa's mature, refined persona.
WIDA Indices for the Versa are 76.3 with all seats in use, 90.7 for maximumcargo space. Both are marginally inferior to the Honda Fit's numbers(91.2/103.3); and slightly thirstier fuel economy is largely to blame (28mpg/city, 35 mpg/highway or 30.3 mpg/weighted average). A 12,000-mile yearwill cost about $1,050 in fuel, or $88 a month (if gas costs $2.65 agallon). But these comparisons partially obscure the fact that Versa iscomfortable, capable and small in ways that have big, positive implicationsfor U.S. drivers.