If there’s any good news in the wake of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico it could be that ahead of this catastrophe many Americans were already thinking about both fuel economy and the consequences of oil exploration.

Now, perhaps, even more of us are.

This isn’t about left or right: Oil is an environmental problem even if you think global warming isn’t happening. It’s also a political one because nobody wants to use more of it; nobody wants the country held at knife point so they can drive a gas guzzler. Again, that’s not about left or right. That’s about being an American (or a Brit or Italian for that matter).

There you have it. Oil is political. It always has been. We who revel in horsepower and tire shredding know this, too. We also know that as oil grows more costly there need to be choices for consumers that combine the things we all need/want—spacious, intelligent packaging, fun handling and reasonably safe power output for freeway travel—without breaking the bank.

Luckily, for a change, carmakers are thinking that a car that gets great fuel economy can and should still be practical and even fun to drive. Not that we’ve yet seen a perfect combination of all of the above just yet, but Honda’s really good, but not perfect Fit, is a car that’s gone a long way toward that ideal.

Fit Means Fit

Ask Fit owners why they love their cars and somewhere near the top of the list will be how the name is so apt. Interior cargo volume (rear seats folded) is an insane-for-the-subcompact-segment 57 cubic feet. That smokes every other choice in the segment; the Kia Soul is closest with 53 cubic feet, and at $13,300—$18,195, also competes closely on price for this buyer. (Our tester Fit cost $19,110 with a paddle-shift automatic, Nav and stability control but a base Fit starts at $14,900). And spending more than the Fit, say $19,995 for the Subaru Impreza Outback Sport, doesn’t necessarily get you more cargo volume, since that Subie only manages 44 cubic feet.

More clever than sheer volume is brilliant packaging. There’s adult-level headroom in the back seat, and those rear seats fold dead flat, creating a totally level load floor that’s much more like what ex-SUV buyers are used to. A lot of other cars in this segment (Nissan Versa; Toyota Yaris, Nissan Cube) hinge the rear seatbacks off the load floor, creating a highly inconvenient bump in the middle of the space. Honda also takes a cue from the pickup truck realm and allows the rear seat bottoms to hinge upwards, against the seatbacks. This frees up a tall space from footwell to ceiling behind the driver and front passenger seats, so tall objects that need to stand upright (a potted plant, for instance), can be carried that way.

Perhaps most appealing of all is that the Fit’s dials and controls are conveniently laid out, somewhat cute but not cloyingly so, and smartly deployed. For instance, radio presets sit high on the dash (on cars without Nav) so the driver can quickly stab them without taking his eyes off the road. The climate control knobs for vent choice, fan speed, temperature and so on are big and sit close to the steering wheel, again for easier, quick changes and these are rotaries not buttons, which demands less hunting and pecking and allows more focus for the task of driving.

“Sport” but not a sports car

The Fit is a fun car. And the paddle-shift five-speed is indeed sporty as well. Shifts are darn quick, and gears will be held by the transmission right up to the rev-limiter at the 6,800rpm redline. The Fit Sport automatic is slower to 60mph; Car and Driver says by 1.4 seconds (about 10 seconds vs. 8.5 in the manual), but considering the whopping 117hp engine you’re not going to be gunning down Ferraris in your Fit in any case.

Still, the automatic gets the identical fuel economy (27 city/ 33 highway) as the manual gearbox, and revs at interstate speed run a little lower (and quieter) in the autobox, so if you’ll be commuting on the highway the Fit Sport with an automatic and its fun paddle setup may be the way to go. The automatic non-Sport gets even better mileage, 28 city / 35 highway, but lacks a few niceties like remote entry, fog lamps, USB iPod interface and the option of stability control, and rolls on narrower, smaller 15-inch tires vs. the 16-inch tires of the Sport.

The Fit Sport isn’t a sports car, though. The steering is communicative enough without being twitchy, and you can get this car into and out of trouble in fairly straightforward fashion and push the chassis fairly hard before understeer sets in and you wait, and wait some more, for the tires to hook up and receive your inputs.

That said, in a back to back test of a Fit Sport with paddle-shift transmission vs. the 2011 Ford Fiesta (and a very overmatched Toyota Yaris) on a rain-soaked autocross course the Fit suffered most on uneven pavement. The Ford remained composed, has better steering, and a stiffer suspension. This makes the Fiesta sportier than the “sport” Honda Fit, but probably makes the Honda a more comfortable car. And, yes, that Fiesta gets superior mileage to the Fit, but its autobox double clutch transmission lacks a paddle-shift option and the interior space is cramped when compared to the Honda.

That doesn’t make the Fit better—unless what you want is a more flexible cabin and are willing to sacrifice some curve-carving agility and a little fuel economy to get it.

What it comes down to, then, is choices. Yes, at last, there are choices, even with economy cars!

And both this Fit and that Fiesta are leading that charge—and you can bet that as more smaller cars like the Fiat 500 get here, we'll see the segment heat up further, melding and merging the priorities of fun, pragmatism and sports car flavor. That, at least, is the fondest hope of this reviewer, who would prefer the steering of the Ford, the handling of the Ford, the gearbox of the Honda, the mileage of the Ford, and the flexible cabin of the Honda. Maybe the new Ford Focus (in 2011) will fit the bill? Or maybe an RS version or at least the ST.