SEE ALSO: Honda Buyer's Guide
The Honda Insight was the first gasoline-electric hybrid car to be sold in the U.S. when it was introduced nearly two years ago.
While no longer the only hybrid available, it has been extremely successful, and it is still the most fuel-efficient car you can buy. The Insight has been criticized as not being a "real" hybrid, as it never runs as a pure electric car. So? It is an elegant engineering solution to the problem of making an ultra-low emissions, fuel- efficient automobile that is practical for everyday use. Honda engineers reached into their racing heritage, and designed and built a car that is efficient primarily because it is light in weight. A lightweight car needs less power to operate effectively, and less power means less fuel to make the power. It can also accelerate, stop, and maneuver better than a heavy car. So the Insight makes extensive use of lightweight aluminum alloys in its chassis and powertrain. Fuel efficiency is further improved by high gearing, and by slippery aerodynamics. So the Insight is geared high, and has the lowest coefficient of drag of any passenger car produced for sale today.
None of the previous is radical new technology, just appropriate application of proven engineering. And the electric part of the powertrain is not strictly necessary for low-emissions, high- mileage operation. A low-boost turbocharger could do almost as well. But the Insight's "Integrated Motor Assist" (IMA) electric motor has some interesting advantages. Electric motors make maximum torque immediately upon starting, and so can boost a car's performance in the low- and medium-speed acceleration situations common in everyday driving. Electric motors can also be used as generators under deceleration, helping to slow the vehicle because of magnetic drag, and generating electricity to be stored in onboard batteries. Batteries included - and recharge as you drive, no wall plug needed. Because of the boost from the electric motor, the Insight's gasoline engine can be smaller, and therefore use less fuel.
I've just completed a week with a 2001 Insight. In over 250 miles of mostly city driving, I used just half of a 10.6 gallon tank of unleaded regular, for a 50 mpg average. If that's less than the 61 mpg EPA rating, I live in a hilly area with plenty of stop-and-go traffic and the need for quick acceleration. And 50 mpg is nothing to be ashamed of, particularly since the Insight is a real car, albeit a small one, with all of the amenities expected at its approximately $20,000 price point. As a one or two-person commuter or urban/suburban runabout, it's hard to beat. And it can be used for long-distance travel, but be careful. You'll have to stop for fuel before it does.
APPEARANCE: Form follows function, and the primary function of the Insight's body is to have the lowest coefficient of aerodynamic drag of any production car, 0.25, to help fuel economy, while providing space for two people and luggage. So it is a tiny two-door hatchback coupe with a decided resemblance to the Honda CRX of the late 1980s and early 1990s, right down to the horizontally-split rear window. Stylistic details are contemporary Honda.
COMFORT: If it is small and light in weight, the Insight is not lacking in accommodation and comfort. There is good space for two people, with six-footers fitting easily into the twin sport seats. The instrument panel and steering wheel look right out of the S2000 roadster in design, and the Insight uses a liquid-crystal display (LCD) similar to that of the S2000. The LCD is well-shaded and easy to read, with a digital speed display and analog displays of tachometer, fuel level, engine temperature, and motor assist or charging. A locking glove box, net pocket behind the seats, and small console tray provide some storage for small items, and a picnic cooler-sized compartment beneath the rear of the rear cargo area will hold moderately-sized things out of sight. A ridge at the front of the cargo area helps keep things in their place, and there are tie- downs to secure cargo. Visibility is good to the front, sides, and directly to the rear, but, as is common with fastback designs, somewhat obscured to the rear quarters. Power windows, mirrors, and door locks with remote entry are standard.
SAFETY: The Honda Insight meets worldwide 2003 safety requirements. It has safety-cage construction with front and rear crumple zones, side-impact protection, dual air bags, and antilock brakes.
ROADABILITY: Thanks to a rigid, Acura NSX-inspired aluminum- intensive structure, the Insight's suspension is comfortably compliant. Because its tires are designed for low rolling resistance, not high cornering performance, the Insight is not as sporty in handling as its looks may indicate. But it is still very maneuverable, and its small size makes parking a breeze. Interior noise levels are no higher than in any other small car. The Insight uses the electric power steering system pioneered in the NSX and also used in the Honda S2000. The antilock front disc and rear drum brakes stop it quickly, and are aided by regenerative braking. When decelerating, the IMA electric motor acts as a generator, recharging the battery pack and slowing the car. It feels unusual at first, and much like a pre-smog high-compression car with engine compression braking, but you'll quickly get used to it, and even appreciate it.
PERFORMANCE: Ask a racer. Weight is everything. With only 67 horsepower and 66 lb-ft of torque available from its lightweight 1.0- liter, three-cylinder gasoline engine, plus an extra 6 hp and 25 lb-ft of torque from the electric motor under acceleration or when climbing a steep hill, the Insight's 1887-lb curb weight is the key to its ability to hold its own in traffic. The top two gears of the five- speed manual gearbox are overdrives, so downshifting is necessary when climbing hills, even on the highway. But that also necessary in any other small-displacement car. Low-rpm torque is quite strong, thanks to the IMA motor, while the gas engine develops its maximum power at higher speeds. Performance is equivalent to a regular, and heavier, less-efficient 1.5-liter car. One key to the Insight's great fuel economy is that the engine stops when the car is stopped and placed in neutral, as at a stop light. If it was running at that time, it would be getting 0 mpg, and, at least where I live, long stop lights are a fuel economy-destroying fact of life.
CONCLUSIONS: If the Honda Insight is any indication, future automobiles should be economical and comfortable, with no loss of practicality or fun.
SPECIFICATIONS 2001 Honda Insight Base Price $ 20,180 with air conditioning Price As Tested $ 20,620 with $ 440 destination charge Engine Type single overhead cam 12-valve 3- cylinder with VTEC-E Lean Burn and Integrated Motor Assist electric motor Engine Size 1 liter / 61 cu. in. plus IMA permanent magnet electric motor Horsepower 67 @ 5700 rpm, 73 @ 5700 with IMA Torque (lb-ft) 66 @ 4800 rpm, 91 @ 2000 with IMA Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 94.5 in. / 155.1 in. Curb Weight 1887 lbs. with air conditioning Pounds Per Horsepower 25.8 Fuel Capacity 10.6 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P165/65 SR14 Bridgestone Potenza RE92 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, antilock standard (auxiliary braking provided by the IMA electric motor in generator mode) Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / twist beam axle Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive EPA Fuel Economy miles per gallon city / highway / observed 61 / 70 / 50 0 to 60 mph 11 sec (est)