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First Drive: Honda Fit Shuttle Hybrid


Like much of Japan's industry, Honda's operations were massively disrupted after the March earthquake and tsunami, and new model launches were delayed. The super-sized Fit's debut was knocked back three months, and production temporarily relocated from the earthquake-damaged Saitama plant near Tokyo to Honda's Suzuka plant some 250 miles to the west. Now that things are back on track, we had a chance to take the HONDA SHUTTLE for a spin.

Based on the current model Fit's platform, with its superb center tank layout and low, flat floor, the HONDA FIT Shuttle is basically a HONDA FIT with a bigger, heavier body. It also inherits the 1.3-liter hybrid and 1.5-liter gas engines. In Japan at least, all models come with Honda's continuously variable transmission.

Some 20 inches longer than the current Fit, roughly 0.6 inch taller, and 154 pounds heavier, the HONDA FIT Shuttle employs the bolder, more substantial-looking nose from the U.S.-spec Fit. As you'd expect, the new HONDA SHUTTLE offers more head and legroom, and significantly more luggage space. While the increased space is its main reason for existence, the new HONDA SHUTTLE also delivers a better interior with higher-quality materials and trim, especially in the area of dashboard plastics. Honda is targeting customers downsizing from sedans, but still looking for acceptable ride quality and better quality and comfort levels than most small minivans. On those points the HONDA SHUTTLE delivers.

It delivers on the road, too, thanks to its proven hybrid IMA 1.3-liter i-VTEC engine, which generates 88 hp at 5800 rpm and 88 lb-ft of torque at 4500, while the electric motor produces 13 hp. Surprisingly, Honda engineers have managed to achieve mpg numbers that should match or beat the U.S.-spec Insight's roughly 40/43 mpg city/highway (the same as its smaller, lighter HONDA FIT brother) by employing strategic aerodynamic revisions and friction reduction measures. These modifications make the HONDA SHUTTLE feel adequate but not quick, with a 0-60 mph time in the 10-second range. One aspect that impressed was the Shuttle's newfound quietness. Specially developed pile carpet, including synthetic inserts into the wheel wells and underbody, has significantly lowered the amount of noise and vibration reaching the cabin. You can hardly hear the engine laboring when pushed, or the CVT revving high to get the car up to speed.

Since the HONDA SHUTTLE went on sale last month in Japan, some 80 percent of customers have opted for the hybrid, which makes a lot of sense considering the post-earthquake mood here and the desire to save energy after the ensuing power cuts. However, Honda also offers a 1.5-liter gasoline model that delivers 117 hp and 106 lb-ft. For those looking for a HONDA FIT that has the get-up-and-go to propel five adults and their luggage, we'd recommend the gas-powered Shuttle. HONDA THAT S not to say the hybrid doesn't cut the mustard. It does -- just not as well. The 1.5 jumps from 0-60 mph in around 8.5 seconds and delivers strong torque from as low as 2000 rpm. This for us was the pick of the crop, and it still delivers roughly 30 mpg combined.

On the road, the HONDA SHUTTLE has the Fit's sporty feel and handy road manners, combined with a more stable level of ride comfort. Its steering response is not quite as direct as the base Fit, but it still delivers good weight and channels ample feedback to the driver. Our only real gripe with the car was with its air conditioner, which periodically turned the compressor off to save fuel, blowing hot air whenever it flicked into fuel efficiency mode at idle.

One Honda source we talked with suggested the HONDA SHUTTLE is being considered for export by mid-2012, with the U.S. as a long shot. A more likely scenario, however, would be for Honda to wait until the next-generation HONDA FIT lineup rolls out in 3-4 years before deciding on any U.S.-market launch. "We cannot send a soon-to-be-obsolete Fit, even if it's a bigger, more practical car," the Honda official told us. Stay tuned.

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