PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- Ripping up Bagdad Road, a cliff-hugging course on route 96 that climbs out of Arizona's cactus-spiked Sonora Desert to reach dense forests of tall pines in the Weaver Mountains, we're pumping the go-pedal and flicking shift paddles on a leather-bound steering wheel while testing the limitations of tire traction in a revamped 2013 Fit Sport, Honda's eensy-weensy economy car conformed as a five-door hatchback and rigged with a fuel-stingy engine yet surprisingly sporty road manners.
The agile little hatchback, cast on a rigid chassis with a four-in-line engine directing all torque to front wheels wrapped in 185/55R16 rubber, slithers up the curlicue trace like a slot car locked on a track.
It's obviously playful, and in the hands of a skillful driver allows a creative expression of kinetic movement in linear form which can be both exhilarating and satisfying.
But Honda's smallest four-door car is more than fun to drive: It's also a relatively inexpensive set of wheels.
As a bottom-dollar entry issue, the 2013 Fit base model carries a price tag of $15,325 with a five-speed manual shifter or $16,125 with a five-speed electronic automatic.
The upscale Fit Sport edition lists for $17,060 with the five-speed manual and $17,910 for the automatic with sport mode added plus those paddle shifters mounted on the leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Top model Fit Sport with Navigation stocks the auto shifter for $19,690.
With a roof barely five feet high and the pint-size body about 13 feet long, little Fit resembles a sleek bullet dominated by a quick-sloped windshield and hood capped by a narrow grille separating large headlamp clusters mounted on front corners.
On each side, the vertical lines tip slightly inward as sharp corners fade into rounded edges to disguise an otherwise boxy form.
Flanks carry undulating ripples coursing front to rear with flares around wheelwells filled by tire rubber.
Sporty ground effects wrap around the Fit Sport, with front fascia housing a broad air intake port and foglamps.
Fit Sport also adds black headlamp bezels, larger alloy wheels, an underbody aero kit and a roofline spoiler extending over the tail.
The rear liftgate stretches down to the back bumper, its bottom edge aligning with the floor of a rear cargo bay.
Fit's structure with polygon-shaped frame rails and a bowed crossmember below the dashboard was designed to distribute the energy of a crash impact away from the passenger compartment. Underpinnings are comparable to Honda's global small urban car sold in more than 70 countries and called Jazz in European markets.
The suspension design is compact to carve out more space for the passenger compartment and forge a low floor for easy entry. Honda installs independent MacPherson struts in front with a stabilizer bar and an H-shaped torsion beam with stabilizer bar in the rear.
The steering system employs electric power assistance, which eliminates a load of hydraulic equipment and contributes to the efficiency of Fit's modest engine.
Brakes utilize front ventilated discs and rear drums with electronic linkage to a standard anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA), plus vehicle stability assist (VSA) with a traction control system (TCS).
Fit's front-wheel-drive powertrain consists of a thrifty four-cylinder engine linked to either the manual or automatic transmission.
The single-cam 1.5-liter in-line-four is constructed from aluminum with a drive-by-wire throttle and Honda's i-VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valve valvetrain technology to precisely manage engine breathing and combustion in order to maximize horsepower and disperse torque across a broad band. It produces 117 hp at 6600 rpm plus torque of 106 lb-ft at 4800 rpm.
A small stature and the curb weight around 2500 pounds factor into the car's high fuel economy scores. Fit with a manual transmission earns fuel consumption figures of 27 mpg for city driving and 33 mpg on a highway. With the automatic transmission Fit achieves 28/35 mpg city/highway.
Take a seat in Fit's cabin and you'll find it's surprisingly roomy, despite overall dimensions which tie the Fit to the smallest category of all cars.
Fit's designers counterbalanced spatial confinements of a small car by raising the roof and lengthening the wheelbase to fashion a cabin which seems spacious even for backseat passengers and also provides 20.6 cubic of cargo room (or 57.3 cubic feet with rear seatbacks down).
A clean and efficient layout for the cockpit sets the instrument panel below an arched bonnet. Circular analog instruments in white-on-black fields include a large speedometer and tachometer.
Seat plan shows twin bolstered sport buckets in front of a bench with 60/40 seatback split.
Honda calls the bench a "Magic Seat" as seatbacks dive down and bottom sections flip up to vary configurations for passengers and cargo. The rear seatbacks can fold away to form a virtually flat cargo floor or the front seats will recline flush with rear seat bottoms to make a long and flat cushioned area like a bed.