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This Honda's especially Fit for an era of high gas prices

Here's a car that is Fit to be tried.

In these times of explosive gasoline prices, there's finally a buzz about small cars. Americans returning from Europe or Asia no longer have to ask, ''How come we don't get small cars here like they do over there?"

But don't mistake small for cheap and boxy, particularly in the case of today's test car, the 2007 Honda Fit. It is priced at $14,000 to $16,000 and comes in two models -- both five-door hatchbacks -- called Fit and Fit Sport (as tested).

It's a blast to drive and has one of the most flexible, utilitarian interiors you will find in a small car. It's also packed with safety features, as standard fare.

Our test car had a four-cylinder inline engine that delivered 109 horsepower and 105 lb.-ft. of torque.

Fits come with either five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmissions. (The latter costs about $800 more.) We tested the standard and found it to be sharp in its shifts, letting the car be driven hard just for sporting fun.

I cruised Interstate 95 from Boston to Stamford, Conn., in commuter traffic and had no problem holding my own along what has to be one of the fastest stretches of highway anywhere.

Aiding that effort was cruise control, an option I'd encourage. When you are dealing with a small engine on a long straight climb of highway, it's sometimes easy to end up decelerating by mistake -- not good with a semi rolling up behind you faster than he should. With cruise control on, the car took care of itself.

On the return trip, I drove the hills and twists that lead off Interstate 91 out of Massachusetts, into Vermont, and up and down to Keene, N.H. I felt as if I was in a nifty little sports car, working the gas, running the r.p.m.s up before shifting.

The engine got a bit whiny when it was pushed really hard, but climbing a mountain spine with horsepower and torque figures that barely break three digits is bound to work an engine hard.

And yet for all my highway cruising and playing on the back roads, I still managed 34.2 miles per gallon.

This car's performance bodes well for the small car and shows what can be done with a vehicle class that in the days of cheap gasoline and lumbering SUVs was considered dead. More small cars are coming or are already here. Toyota has its Yaris, Nissan is introducing a subcompact called the Versa, and Hyundai, Kia, Dodge, and Suzuki all have small, affordable cars on the roads.

The Fit has been sold overseas in a slightly smaller version for five years -- in Asia under the same name and in Europe as the Jazz.

For those who worry about driving a small car on highways still dominated by behemoths, Honda continues to pack standard safety gear into even its smallest, least expensive cars. The Fit comes with an antilock-braking system, front dual-stage air bags, front side-impact air bags, and front and rear side-curtain air bags.

That was comforting knowledge as I looked out the window at the chrome wheels of a Ford F250 pickup rolling by on the interstate.

Power windows and door locks are also standard on the basic Fit. Opting for the Sport adds a rear spoiler, an aerodynamic body kit, keyless remote entry, the cruise control I liked so much, upgraded audio, and 15-inch aluminum wheels. Go for the automatic transmission and you can have boy-racer, steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Further enhancements -- and this is where $16,000 rolls quickly into view -- include 16-inch alloy wheels, sport exhaust, chrome exhaust tip, rear bumper accents, and a mesh grille.

But in either form, this is one remarkably versatile car that in no way feels small inside. Rear seats fold down to the flat floor, even with headrests attached. The passenger side of the 60/40 split rear seat can tumble forward, meeting a flattened front passenger seat and creating a trunk-to-dash cargo channel. Further, the bottoms of the rear seats can be folded up and back against the seat backs, providing good space that is easily accessed through the rear doors.

Much of the versatility is possible not only because of the hatchback's high rear roofline, but also because the fuel tank has been moved beneath the front seats, leaving that expansive flat rear floor.

Yes, definitely a car Fit to be tried -- in many ways.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

2007 Honda Fit

THE BASICS

Base price/as tested:$14,000/$16,000 (est.)
Fuel economy: 34.2 m.p.g., Globe test
Annual fuel cost: $1,080 (at $2.842 per gallon, regular, 13,000 miles per year)

THE EARLY LINE

One of the hottest vehicles in anincreasingly hot segment: the small car.

THE SPECIFICS

Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive
Seating: Five occupants
Horsepower: 109
Torque: 105 lb.-ft.
Overall length: 157.4 inches
Wheelbase: 96.5 inches
Height/width: 60.0/66.2 inches
Curb weight: 2,481 pounds

THE SKINNY

Nice touch: The versatility of the interior. People, tall objects, long objects -- there's a place for everything in the right combos.
Annoyance: Why do the backs of front seats fold flat into the rear compartment? For sleeping on the side of the road?
Watch for: More safety equipment making its way into small cars as standard gear.

Shop it against:

TOYOTA YARIS Three-door hatchback or sedan. It should go head-to-head with Fit, but doesn't have as much standard safety gear. Power is about the same. Probably about $12,500 to start.

NISSAN VERSAThis also will be available as a hatchback or sedan, is likely to start at about $13,000, and offer about 120 horsepower.

HYUNDAI ACCENTStarting at around $13,000, it's a sedan with about 110 horsepower and six air bags, standard.

DODGE CALIBER This sure looks better and more refined than the old Neon. It will have an all-wheel-drive option and an engine hovering in the 150-horsepower range. Probably $15,000 and up.


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