Subcompact cars have become one of the most vibrant segments of the US auto industry, but Honda has been largely left behind—surprisingly so, for a brand that made its mark as a small-car expert. Through June, US sales of Honda's entry in the segment, the Fit, were only about 25,500 units, putting it in sixth place in a category where Nissan's Versa and Kia's Soul were fighting for leadership, each with about 63,000 sales.
Now, however, Honda appears to be pulling out all the stops in launching a completely new version of Fit in Japan this fall and in the United States by next summer. The tiny car will incorporate and represent a number of big firsts for Honda, placing stakes on the success of Fit that Honda executives couldn't have imagined even two years ago.
Among other things, Fit incorporates many aspects of the huge to-do list that Honda CEO Takanobu Ito put together shortly after he took over the job in 2009, which included shielding Honda from the surging yen, closing a widening hybrid-vehicle gap with archrival Toyota, and spicing up the brand's stale styling, according to Automotive News.
The third-generation Fit bears a strikingly different design language for Honda that includes a much more aggressive stance than the egg-shaped current Fit, dramatic creases in the side panels, a more tapered tail, and LED taillights that wrap around the rear hatch and create a distinctive nighttime signature when illuminated. "We wanted a more emotional contrast in the design," Toshinobu Minami, global exterior design chief, told the publication.
Meanwhile, stung by American consumers' reaction to the interior of the new Honda Civic in 2011 as cheap-looking, new interior design chief Yoshinori Asahi made sure to upgrade the 2015 Fit with better materials, a simplified layout and a striking high-tech center stack that appears as a blank sheet of black glass when the car isn't operating.
"We aren't going to take the attitude, 'This is our cost, so make an interior that matches it,'" Asahi told Automotive News. "My job is set high targets and achieve them with low-cost technologies. If you don't do this, design quality deteriorates. I think that was the problem with Civic."
The new Fit also will represent a big leap forward in hybrid technology, where Honda has slipped badly behind Toyota, without a hybrid entry that has caught on in the US. The 2015 Fit will feature a new one-motor, dual-clutch gasoline-electric drivetrain that Honda hopes will prove competitive with Prius c, the smallest member of Toyota's Prius family.
One more expectation for Fit: that, as the first version of the car to be manufactured in North America, it will help shield Honda from the still-strong yen. Made in Mexico, Fit also will be the first car coming out of Ito's overhauled global vehicle-development strategy.
That's a lot of hope to pile on top of one new model. Honda executives only hope it fits Fit.