Itty-bitty shootout

2007, Honda, Fit Sport

Well, the first day of the year 2007 has come and gone, and gasoline has sHave 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 the world sounded something like, "O! Where will it all end?" Otherwise rational people were predicting $10.00-per-gallon by New Year's Day.ettled to somewhere between $2.20 and $2.65, depending on where you're reading this. Phew! Crisis averted.

Not so fast there, commuter-prole. While the Chicken Littles of the world were running around misunderstanding energy politics and the economics of fuel, some rather remarkable folks at Honda and Nissan were taking the long view. Just when fuel-price hysteria reached its inflammable zenith, these two Japanese powerhouses released a brace of fuel-efficient micro-cars that were perfectly timed to attract buyers. The Honda Fit and the Nissan Versa both achieve over 30 miles-per-gallon. Both are available, well equipped, for under $16,000. And both are incredibly clever annoyingly so, in fact, if you're an automaker based in Detroit.

Did Nissan and Honda exploit the situation? You bet! Last summer, people wanted fuel-efficient cars, so they got 'em. Now gas is cheaper, yet the Fit and Versa are still selling well, because in addition to being frugal they're both fun as heck and versatile too. The sky isn't falling. Yet. But it looks like automotive tastes are changing anyway.

We North Americans are always the last one to know. The European-market Honda Jazz is one great car. It seats five; tallies 31 mpg/city and 37 mpg/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 Fit instead on the presumption, perhaps, that ultra-subcompacts now fit into the American Dreamscape.

A Fit Sport model, with a five-speed automatic transmission, costs $15,970 as-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 that Fit's 1.5-liter overhead-cam inline-four is a jewel. It makes only 109 horsepower and 105 ft.-lbs. of torque, but it responds quickly and thrillingly to driver inputs; and it sounds great. Mated to a five-speed automatic, it negotiates both traffic and the open road with wonderfully smooth gear shifts.

But it's the packaging that sells the Fit. It's only 13 feet long, so parking is a dream and maneuvering in tight circumstance is almost magical. Five adults will fit (pun intended) in reasonable comfort with 21 cubic feet of luggage space left over. Fold both split rear seatbacks, and cargo space expands to 42 cubes.

Honda, in other words, has done its homework. Maneuverable car that's fun to drive: Check. Versatile interior for people and stuff: Check. Auxiliary jack in the sound system for your iPod: Check. It all sounds so simple. So why hasn't anyone else managed to accomplish the same thing?

What's surprising about Fit is how perky it feels to drive, even though its architecture is hardly exotic. The mix of front-disc, rear-drum brakes is old hat. Ditto the front independent suspension, rear torsion beam. But the standard anti-lock brakes and front, side, head-curtain airbags are a real coup for this size and price of car. Honda's new microcar is a good fit with America's changing automotive preferences. But underneath, the Fit is still pure jazz.

In price and category, Nissan's new Versa is a virtual twin to the Honda Fit. But they're clearly fraternal, not identical twins. And yet any parent would love them both.

For starters, the Versa is a smidge bigger, inside and out. It's about a foot longer, weighs 200 pounds more, and boasts eight more cubic feet of maximum 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 to forego optional anti-lock brakes ($250), for example, and the power door and window package ($700). Rock-bottom base price is $13,250, and that is an impressive number for this much car.

The Nissan features a larger 1.8-liter twin-cam four, and it delivers more horsepower (122 hp) and torque (127 foot-pounds). But the combination of a six-inch longer wheelbase with slightly greater weight have a calming effect upon ride and handling. Suspension tuning is a bit softer than the Fit as well. (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 comfortable transportation than in sporty barnstorming. It is, perish the thought, a bit more grown up than the Honda. Moreover, the interior is slightly roomier for occupants; but curiously, luggage space with all seats in use amounts to a smaller 18 cubic feet. Still, luggage's loss is rear passengers' gain. One glaring oversight, however, is the lack of a center armrest for the driver. Audiophiles will rue the lack of an auxiliary jack for iPods. And aficionados will wince at the four-speed auto transmission. Each of these details seems an unwise cost cut; they only serve to cheapen what is otherwise Versa's mature, refined persona.

WIDA Indices for the Versa are 76.3 with all seats in use, 90.7 for maximum cargo space. Both are marginally inferior to the Honda Fit's numbers (91.2/103.3); and slightly thirstier fuel economy is largely to blame (28 mpg/city, 35 mpg/highway or 30.3 mpg/weighted average). A 12,000-mile year will cost about $1,050 in fuel, or $88 a month (if gas costs $2.65 a gallon). But these comparisons partially obscure the fact that Versa is comfortable, capable and small in ways that have big, positive implications for U.S. drivers.

By Marc Stengel

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