It was the summer of 2006 and we had a car-problem. We had two aging Fords with V8 engines and gasoline had cracked $4 a gallon. Several months earlier we had taken a trip in the ’94 Club Wagon and kept running up against the pump’s dollar limit when trying to fill the 35 gallon tank. With $1.25/gallon gas in relatively recent memory, these $100+ fill-ups were becoming an issue. If that weren’t enough, the old girl (the Club Wagon, not Marianne, of course) was asking once again for money.
We were quoted about $2500 to rebuild the differential. That was what would be required to fix the electronic part deep within it that was causing our transmission to do wonky things (like shift into neutral with no warning on the interstate). That seemed high, but I could have gotten the job done at 1/4 the price and the finance committee at my house would still have withheld approval.
Marianne had loved the Club Wagon when we bought it, but she was ready for a new chapter. The Clubber was 12 years old, had over 160k miles and was (in her mind) an old car. Not that she was being unreasonable, and I had to admit that by then the Club Wagon would have been an old car in almost anyone’s mind (other than my own). Our other car was the ’93 Crown Vic. It had an effective age much younger than its actual years and still had under 70k on the clock. But as nice as it was, Marianne never really warmed to it (“It’s your mother’s car”). But even if she had been in love with it, a Crown Victoria was still no economy car. Marianne had been patient for a long time, but it was time for something new.
It had been a long time since we had made a vehicle purchase with a real plan – I think it had been the Club Wagon over a decade earlier. The plan, as I saw it, was to buy something economical. We had the Vic for local family travel, such as for church or going out to eat. A little gas sipper could become our go-to for errands involving just some of us – which was, by now, most of our driving. And for real family travel we could rent a minivan or SUV so that we would only pay for that added capacity when we really needed it. There was one other reason for a little car. I was on the verge of settling a large fire case, and expected to net a substantial fee that was going to permit us the luxury of a cash payment for a car – if we could keep the cost down. Now, hindsight tells me that we could have driven a heck of a deal on an Expedition EL or a Suburban, but that would have involved a big down-payment and one of those payment books I hated so much. A great deal on a really expensive car is still an expensive car, and we would have been back to those $100+ fill-ups.
Right around the 4th of July we took a drive (with all 3 kids) to a Honda dealer. I really liked the Element. I also liked that it came with a stick shift. But the Element’s seat design only accommodated 4 people. I saw no sense in buying any car that could not accommodate all of us in a pinch. The 2006 CR-V (right at the end of a design cycle) would hold all 5, but didn’t really seem all that economical, but also wasn’t all that roomy. This would break one of my car-buying rules – why buy something that isn’t really good at anything we need? Then we saw something intriguing, and I knew exactly what it was.
Honda had just introduced the Honda Fit a few months earlier. This dealer (Bob Rohrman on the south side of Indianapolis) had exactly one in stock, which they were using as a demonstrator. “Let’s try that” were the words I heard coming from Marianne’s mouth. And we did.
All 3 kids fit in back. Nobody had a lot of room, but none of them was very wide and it could be done. Importantly, there was plenty of head room. Our children have always been on the tall side – the two boys eventually topped out at 6’3″ and 6’6″. The oldest was about to start high school, and room for growth was essential. Marianne liked the interior of the Sport model and the car’s cute looks. And I liked the powertrain. This, even with 5 people in it, was the first 4 cylinder/automatic that did not make me want to start screaming in frustration.
Honda’s 5 speed automatic was actually its old 3 speed unit with two overdrive gears, mated to an extra-low axle ratio, so for the first time ever, an automatic gave a little 4 plenty of flexibility to do its thing. We were intrigued. The problem was that there were no cars available to buy. This car had dropped into the hottest demand for something of its type I could remember. No other area dealer had one we could even look at, so we were going to have to do a special order.
By the time we thought it over, the demo had been sold (“The Fit is Go?”) and we were told that the dealer was getting an allotment of 2 cars a month from the ships from Japan where they were built. Oooooh, a real Japanese Honda! In context, that 2-car-per-month allotment meant that if we got on the list in early July we could expect a car in late November. Yikes! That was almost 5 months! Marianne was ready to put in an order, and so we did.
This was the first time either of us had special-ordered a new car. Actually, Honda made it pretty easy. The choices were model, transmission and color. We wanted the Sport model because it added a bunch of nice equipment – most importantly, cruise control. Then after some discussion, I relented to Marianne’s pleas and agreed to the automatic. In those years she put more miles on a car than I did (car-pooling with school kids was a commitment!) so I didn’t think it fair to saddle her with a stick shift she didn’t want if she would be driving it most of the time.
The problem was color. Marianne really wanted the beige interior, not the black interior. That presented problem – for reasons I have never figured out, a beige interior on a Sport model gave you a color choice of . . . white. It was happening again. My father had always driven white cars. Then I have accepted white car after white car down through the years of my many used cars, always wishing the thing had been painted some other color. Let’s see – two Plymouth Furies, an Imperial, a ThunderTurd (which I did to myself) and an Oldsmobile. I was just sick to death of white cars. And here I was, special ordering a new car and I was being forced into white? Yes, that is the kind of thing we do for love. So we put down our deposit and waited. And waited. Every now and then our sales guy would call with news that someone ahead of us had tired of waiting and a car was coming available, and did we want it. “Does it have beige interior?” was the question, and, of course, every time the answer was “No”.
I should add that the dealer experience was quite good. Part of me chafed at paying full sticker price for a new car. If you have been reading this series, you know that getting the price down on a car is one of the things I do. Dogs bark, cats purr and JPC bargains like an SOB when buying a car. But I was also a realist and understood that paying full sticker and nothing more on a hot product with a 5-month wait is a bargain in and of itself. How many dealer stickers have we seen over the years with mandatory add-ons for rustproofing and paint protection packages, or even the really honest ones that call it “additional dealer profit”. This dealer did not play those games, and I got out the door with a purchase order at full sticker, for better or worse.
It was shortly before November and we got The Call. By now, we had already donated the van and were making do with one car. That evening we drove down to the dealer, wrote a check and bought a car. I must say that it is a liberating feeling. It has happened once in my life, and I don’t expect that it will ever happen again, but what a great feeling for that one time – driving out of the lot in a brand, spanking new car, yet completely free of monthly payments. And it was the newest new car either of us has ever owned, with less than 5 miles on the odometer when we picked it up.
There was so much about this car that reminded us of the ’88 Accord. It was solid, well appointed and had familiar controls. It also reminded us of the Colt because it was a hoot to drive. And while it was small on the outside, the inside was incredibly versatile. It could handle two adults and three teens (although we probably blasted way past the recommended weight limit in doing so). With the seats folded up there was room for tall, bulky things that gave most sedans trouble.
With the seats folded down, there was a large, flat load floor that could handle all kinds of cargo. I remember the look of amazement from the guy at the store who helped us load new outdoor furniture. The boxes that contained an (unassembled) loveseat, two chairs and three side tables fit just fine.
There was even a “refresh” position that allowed a passenger (usually Marianne) to travel with her feet up, as if on a small recliner in the car – a feature that was still offered in the Fit at least as 2016 when this brochure was produced. I can report that it is quite comfy.
I have written quite a bit over the years about our Fit, and I am still driving it to this day. Readers who have followed this series have noticed that I have a genetic inability to commit long term to cars I do not enjoy. In writing this series it has occurred to me that my favorite cars have been either really big or really small. At first, I thought that the Fit was a good average between my VW GTI and my 83 Colt. But with a little further looking, the size and performance figures I could find show that the Fit (at least in Sport trim) is not far off from the capabilities of my old GTI and is a far larger, heavier and more powerful car than the Colt. Compared to the GTI, the Fit is on a slightly longer wheelbase, weighs more and has an extra 9 horsepower (though is not as strong at low rpms.) Those cars’ performance figures are remarkably close too. So maybe it’s more like a cross between my GTI and my Marquis Wagon (the smaller one, like a Fairmont).
The white Fit is now the old car in our garage, at 16 years and 155k miles. For the most part, it has treated us very well, just as a small Honda should. Our relationship has not been without hiccups, though. We got a new battery under warranty, and seemed to replace them at roughly three-year intervals. The car uses a teeny, tiny battery that just isn’t physically large enough to do what a car battery should, at least for any length of time in my climate. The last time I followed some advice from the forums and cut the plastic battery tray to accommodate (barely) the larger battery for a Civic. Also, the friction material on Honda’s OEM rear brake shoes (yes, it has rear drums) must have been the thickness of a stick of gum because rear brakes were done by 20k miles.
The car also uses a really oddly-sized tire. The Sport sports a 15-inch wheel and a wide, low-profile tire. I thought that selection for a P195/55SR15 tire would improve once these cars became really popular, but was wrong – about both the tires and the car. Each time we have bought tires, the number of choices has dwindled. I have also written about a really odd problem – the car’s use of old-fashioned single-stage white enamel paint. I did not realize until too late that our car did not use a modern clearcoat finish, by which time it became increasingly difficult to keep a good shine on it. At least we didn’t pick the red, which was the only other single-stage paint used on these cars. All of the ones painted other colors (which did use base/clear paint finishes) still shine like crazy. Damned white cars.
A seam where the rear part of the roof meets the quarter panel developed a crack (a common problem in these) and I discovered water in the spare tire well. A tube of body sealant fixed that problem. And I wrote before about the need to remedy the common “Honda rust spot” – a job that turned out to be only a temporary solution. The rust is back and I have pretty much stopped caring about the car’s appearance. Yes, I know that this is not like me, but I am done putting effort into making it look nice. We are starting the descent into full-beater status.
The biggest problem was when a front axle shaft snapped about five years ago. This is another common problem with Hondas of this era, where rust starts under a rubber vibration damper on the shaft and eventually eats enough metal until the meager torque from the 1.5L engine is more than it can handle. The cost of Honda parts was exorbitant and I went with cheap aftermarket axles through my indy mechanic. Then, about a year ago, Honda did a recall and I got them replaced again.
One lingering disappointment has been the gas mileage. I remembered my old Colt and how it would return tank after tank of 30+ mpg, no matter how aggressively I drove it. The Fit has not been like that. I am one of those people who records every fuel purchase and calculates mpg. My little notebook proves my long struggle to hit 30 mpg. The car’s EPA rating was 31/37. The car’s tall, blunt shape and short gearing murder the gas mileage at any speed over 55-60 mph. But even driving gently, about 26-27 around town and maaaayyybe 32 on the interstate is what we get. Early research on the Fit forums revealed that some cars seem to do better than others on mileage, with maybe 65% of owners saying how great it was, and the rest being unable to get decent numbers. Our car is the second kind.
After these 16 years (so far) I have become really comfortable in this car. Several years ago, I traded cars with my daughter for a summer and found that I like the Fit far better than I liked her ’98 Civic. The Fit’s (electric) steering has a much faster ratio which makes driving more fun, and the taller height makes it easier for the car’s slowly aging owners to get in and out. I also love the car’s simplicity – there are no screens and the HVAC controls are simple and mechanical. And best of all, it has reached an age and condition where fear of damage to the car (be it a parking lot ding or a something worse) is no longer a thing for me.
I am, however, a realist and have come to accept that the car cannot last forever – particularly in my climate. I was ready to look for something new a couple of years ago, but then new cars became scarce and used cars became crazy-expensive. I have always wondered what it was like to want a car in 1943, and now I think I know. Also, I have wondered what I would want for a replacement. It is a funny feeling when there are so few new cars out there that really interest me. Really, my first choice would be a car just like what I have, only with lower miles and from a southern or western climate. And that is not white. But those are extremely rare (and seem awfully expensive for something I already have). So last year I gave the Fit another round of tires and brakes and am wondering how far I can reasonably count on it as the kind of car I can drive out of town on a moment’s notice.
All my life there have been three kinds of cars. “Good cars”, “Old cars” and “Beaters”. I have owned a handful of the first kind, lots of the second kind and a very small number of the third kind. In this Fit, I have been behind the wheel as it has moved through each of those three stages. Long gone are the days when I thought I could keep a car in perfect condition forever. And it is funny how I am back in the same class of car as the ’71 Scamp I had when I was a student. Only this Honda Fit is now older and has more miles on it than the Scamp had when I sold it. But on the plus side, the interior is one good detailing away from looking like it did when new – which I could never say about the Scamp. But just like the old Scamper, the Fit starts right up and seems ready to take me to the ends of the earth, even at its advanced age. And also like the Scamper, I still enjoy driving it.
Only if I had known I would be its primary driver for more than 2/3 of its life, I might have lobbied harder for one with a clutch pedal. At least I can slip the gearshift lever into “Sport” mode and use the paddle shifters for when the boy-racer urge resurfaces from time to time. I will tell you that when you can keep the revs of the VTEC engine between 4500 and 6000 rpm, the little car’s personality changes completely (as does that of its driver).
I have been telling this extended story about my life through its cars in the order those cars came into that life, and this Honda covers a long stretch. But we are not at an end because there have been other automotive comings and goings that followed our purchase of the little Fit. After about five years something else came along to displace the Fit from “First Car” status, and its story will be told soon. But before we get there, we will have to go back and cover a couple of others. We have come along way, and by my count, I think there are five cars (no, wait – it’s actually six!) that await the telling of their stories. So your Sunday mornings aren’t rid of me yet.