Tensions already ran high at Honda Motor Co. in October 2011, two months after Consumer Reports ridiculed the onetime favorite Civic as a substandard car, when President Takanobu Ito saw drawings of the next Fit. He ripped up the plans and summoned his top two designers.
“The design had no character and looked very much like its predecessor,” said Yoshinori Asahi, who co-designed Honda’s top-of-the line NSX supercar. “That made us worried about the future of the car.”
Almost two years later, Tokyo-based Honda is unveiling the overhauled Fit, with a stretched front grille, tapered headlights and indented doors. Ito has said much is riding on the Fit, singling out the car as a driver of Honda’s global growth until at least 2015, especially in emerging markets, as motorists increasingly shift toward smaller automobiles.
“The new Fit will be very important for the carmaker,” said Koichi Sugimoto, a Tokyo-based auto analyst at BNP Paribas SA. “It will also be important for Honda in changing the perception among investors that the carmaker is solely dependent on sales from North America.”
Though the Fit, called Jazz in markets such as China and U.K., is the smallest-sized car in Honda’s global product portfolio, it’s also the company’s best-seller in Japan and ranks fourth worldwide after the Civic, CR-V and Accord.
The Fit goes on sale in Japan in September and the gasoline-electric version will run about 86 miles per gallon under Japanese standards, according to the carmaker. That’s better mileage than Toyota Motor Corp.’s most fuel efficient hybrid, the Prius c, which gets 83 miles to the gallon, by Japanese measures. Honda said the new hybrid Fit will probably be priced higher than the previous version, which starts at 1.59 million yen ($15,855), or 100,000 yen cheaper than the Prius c.
The next Fit will reach U.S. dealerships in the spring of 2014, said Makoto Konishi, chief engineer of the new vehicle.
Besides fuel economy, Ito, 59, is betting that traditional buyers of small cars — singles, young families and retirees — will embrace the new look. The slimmer headlights give the previous bug-eyed Fit more of a scowl, the rear lights have been stretched and the indented sides are meant to create the illusion of perpetual motion, according to Toshinobu Minami, global creative director at Honda, Japan’s third-largest carmaker.
As differences between brands narrow in terms of fuel economy and other specifications, carmakers are under mounting pressure to sharpen their designs, said Yoshiaki Kawano, a Tokyo-based analyst at industry researcher IHS Automotive said.
Designs were in focus in 2011, when the then-new Civic compact flopped in tests by Consumer Reports and failed to receive the magazine’s “Recommended” rating. The redesigned car was less agile, had poorer interior quality, offered a choppier ride and was noisier than the last Civic, the magazine said at the time.
Honda, in the quickest turnaround of a car in the company’s history, rolled out a new version of the Civic in about 19 months and regained the “Recommended” status from Consumer Reports. The Civic debacle rippled through other vehicles.
“The first thing that President Ito ordered us to do was to build a car that’s cool,” said Minami.