These new subcompacts aren't the cheapo penalty boxes they used to be. Each is a popular Japanese model, but each has been thoroughly Americanized for refinement, ride quality and safety. All that and thrifty, powerful engines, too. The interiors are roomy, and the styling is (mostly) acceptable.
And while their predecessors were cheap and built to stay that way, these offerings are not priced as giveaways, nor are they throwaways after the warranty runs out.
These models are good alternatives for those drivers ready to get into a smaller car without all the hybrid fever.
With starting prices at about $12,000, this segment is not intended to reach the youngest buyers. The cars are large enough to suit a young family of four and comfortable enough as a thrifty commuter.
The Honda Fit hatchback with five-speed manual transmission has a starting price of $14,400, which includes air conditioning and power windows, locks and mirrors. Add $800 for a five-speed automatic.
The snappier-looking Sport model is $15,720, or $16,520 with the five-speed sport mode automatic that adds steering wheel paddle shifters. The sport treatment also adds a sleek body kit, 15-inch wheels, remote keyless entry and a six-speaker audio system.
There's also a line of Honda Factory Performance equipment, including 16-inch wheels, sport exhaust and mesh grille.
Both models come with a 109-horsepower, 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission. Fuel economy for the manual is 33 mpg city and 38 highway; automatic, 31/38, or 31/37 for the automatic with paddle shifters.
There was a time that any car with a 1.5-liter engine was a gutless wonder, but the Fit Sport is lively, aided by Honda's variable valve timing and paddle shifters that keep the engine in its power range.
I like Honda's transmission engineering because calibrations allow for a simple downshift, or two, without having to mash the accelerator.
The transmission can be left in drive for automatic shifts, or the paddle shifters can be used for a quick shifts up or down. The transmission returns to drive mode in a couple of seconds.
In sport mode, the transmission automatically shifts up to third gear and holds it, which is ideal for the evening commute.
And when traffic opens up, a flick of the right-side upshift paddle will have the Fit at the freeway speeds all day with no effort.
The zero-to-60 mph sprint isn't astounding, but zero-to-30 is brisk. This engine is meant to be wound up to wring out the power.
With an automatic this slick, the manual seems old-fashioned, even if it can give one mpg better performance.
Handling is taut and controlled with a light touch to the steering and reassuring grip to the brakes. Those forces combine to encourage the driver to flick a gear and have some fun, with no harm done.
While the base model can be a little homely on the outside, upgrading to the Sport model adds some cool factor, inside and out.
The quality of materials is heavy-gauge Honda and the design is contemporary without kitsch. The gauges have an appealing blue backlighting and all controls are easy to find and operate.
The cabin is snugly soundproofed, but some road noise is transmitted into the cabin at high speed. Sightlines are mostly good for the driver, but the cab-forward design creates a large dashboard and a long stretch to the windshield pillars, which can complicate views at the side mirrors.
Honda is a master at packaging, and the interior has more little storage areas than anybody needs or should fill up. Plus, the cargo space is highly convertible.
Second-row seats can be flipped and folded four ways, which includes a flat cargo area and a "tall" mode with the second-row seat bottoms folded up for a fairly open rectangle of space that might be able to hold a bicycle.
There's a "refresh" mode in which the front seat-back is reclined to join the second-row seat bottom for something like a snooze spot, as long as you aren't too tall.
The flat second-row floor is helpful when three people are perched on the bench. And the cargo space behind has more grocery capacity than the space in many small SUVs.
Safety features include six air bags, including a side curtain and anti-lock brakes. These are good - and expected - features for drivers of all ages.
These more-premium subcompacts represent the creation of another category in the United States, says Jesse Toprak, a senior analyst at www.Edmunds.com, an automotive Web site.
"The forces for the introduction of these models is aligned and the perception of the consumer will be mostly positive," he says.
"Makers will have no difficulty selling what they can produce the first year," he says. "There's a reason why these cars are the best-selling cars in the rest of the world."
SIDEBAR: SPECS BOX
2006 Honda Fit Sport
Body style: Subcompact, five-passenger, four-door hatchback
Engine: Aluminum, SOHC, 16-valve, 1.5 liter four-cylinder with variable valve timing; LEV2 emissions rating
Horsepower: 109 at 5,800 rpm
Torque: 105 at 4,800 rpm
Transmission: five-speed manual or optional five-speed sport mode automatic with steering wheel paddle shifters
Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph, NA
EPA fuel economy: 33 mpg city, 38 highway; 31/37, automatic
Fuel capacity: 10.8 gallons; 87 octane recommended
Cargo space: 21.3 cubic feet behind second row; 41.9, seat folded
Front head/leg/shoulder room: 40.6/41.9/52.8 inches
Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 38.6/33.7/50.6 inches
Wheelbase/length: 96.5/157.4 inches
Curb weight: 2,471/2,551 pounds, manual/automatic
Standard equipment: Air conditioning, power windows-locks-mirrors, two-speed intermittent wipers, blue back-lit gauges, tachometer, driver's vanity mirror, 60/40 split-folding back seat, four-speaker 120-watt audio, rear window defroster with timer, cargo area storage pocket and tie-down anchors
Sport model adds: Rear roofline spoiler, aero body kit, fog lights, security system with keyless remote entry, cruise control, 160-watt six-speaker audio system and 15-inch alloy wheels with P195/55R15 tires
Safety equipment: Front dual-stage, dual-threshold air bags, dual front side air bags, side-curtain air bags and anti-lock brakes
Brakes: Power-assisted front discs, rear drums
Steering: Electric power assisted rack and pinion; turning circle, 34.3 (34.4, Sport)
Suspension: MacPherson front struts with a stabilizer bar; rear, torsion beam
Tires and wheels: P195/55 15-inch touring on alloy wheels; base, P175/65 14-inch with wheel covers
Base: $15,720, including $550 freight charge; price as tested, $16,520
Options on test car: automatic transmission, $800
The competition: Chevy Aveo, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Mazda5, Ford Focus, Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent
Where assembled: Japan
PLUSES: Zippy handling with solid Honda safety and quality credentials. Higher interior cool factor than Yaris.
MINUSES: Homely styling is almost cute.
Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at [email protected]