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Honda Insight Hybrid (2000)

SEE ALSO: The Auto Channel Honda Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ For The Auto Channel

Honda Full Line Video footage (14:23)

Care for a little insight into the future of automotive transportation? OK, bad (if irresistible) pun, but nonetheless true. Honda's Insight gasoline-electric hybrid is the first such vehicle to be sold in the U.S., and points the way to the near-term future of ultra low-emissions, high-fuel economy personal transportation. The Insight is a "hybrid" vehicle, so called because receives power from multiple sources. It doesn't use any radically new technology, it's "merely" an excellent application of existing ideas and methods. Unlike some other hybrid concept and production vehicles, the Insight is relatively simple. It is primarily a gasoline- powered car that uses an electric motor for extra power when needed. The gas engine is small - one liter or 61 cubic inches in displacement - and tuned for low-speed operation. The car is geared high -- the top two gears of the five-speed manual gearbox are overdrives. And it's small and very light, with a curb weight of under 1900 lbs.

Most importantly, the Insight works just like any other car, and it works very well. It runs on regular unleaded gasoline, to the tune of 50-plus miles per gallon in normal operation, with 70 mpg theoretically possible. A 10-gallon fillup will get it at least 500 miles. Unlike other, more complex hybrid vehicles, the Insight never operates as a pure electric car. The "Integrated Motor Assist" (IMA) system's electric motor operates in parallel with the engine, and only when needed. It adds a very noticeable extra 25 lb- ft of torque when accelerating hard from a stop or climbing steep grades at low to medium engine speeds. The electric motor is smaller than would be necessary if it was at any time the sole power source for the car. It's only 2.3 inches wide, and mounted between the engine and transmission. It does triple duty, also serving as the engine's starter motor and, under deceleration, generating power to recharge the nickel-metal hydride battery pack located underneath the rear cargo area. This regenerative braking also helps slow the car.

During my week with the Insight, it attracted plenty of attention. Honda is only selling 4,000 or so, and should have no problem selling all. Or more. It's a real car, not a semi-finished "beta test" vehicle, and works very, very well. If you think "economy cars" are boring, or that future technology will lack performance and interest, think again. The two cars closest to the Insight in engineering philosophy and style are both Honda products: the Acura NSX and Honda S2000. And the Insight is more advanced than either. If it is indicative of future cars, good things are coming.

APPEARANCE: Remember the Honda CRX of a decade or so ago? The Insight looks like a CRX for the 21st Century. Like the CRX, it's a tiny two-door fastback hatchback with a sleek, aerodynamic look and a horizontally-split rear window. Looks are not deceiving in this case, as form follows function. The Insight's coefficient of drag (Cd) of 0.25 is one of the lowest of any production passenger car. This means that it requires less power to operate at highway speeds than a less aerodynamic car. The smooth shape is augmented by rear wheel spats which further reduce drag. >From the front, the Insight has a definite Japanese animation- inspired Honda face, with two complex headlights flanking a small unadorned air intake.

COMFORT: The Insight is small and light in weight, but not lacking in accommodation and comfort. It is, if anything, a bit upscale from a Civic hatchback in appointment, with plenty of S2000 influence. There is reasonable 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: Despite its light weight, careful attention to aerodynamics keeps the Insight stable even at highway speeds in strong winds. Wind is noticeable, with attention on the driver's part necessary (as is the case with all vehicles), but the Insight keeps to its intended path. Although its two-seat hatchback specification may sound like that of a small sports coupe, the Insight's low- rolling-resistance tires are optimized for fuel efficiency, not cornering. It handles like a Civic, but the tires impose a relatively low limit on cornering fun compared to, say, a Civic Si. Still, it's nimble, easily parkable, and no noisier than a Civic inside at any time. Thanks to a rigid, NSX-inspired aluminum-intensive structure, the Insight's suspension is comfortably compliant. It uses the electric power steering system pioneered in the Acura NSX and also used in the Honda S2000. The 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. This recharges the battery pack and slows the car.

PERFORMANCE: Honda claims that the Insight's 995cc three- cylinder engine is the smallest, lightest, and most efficient mass- produced automobile engine of its size. It weighs 124 lbs, and produces 67 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 66 lb-ft or torque at 4800 rpm. Lightweight materials and low-friction design contribute to its efficiency and power. Its single-overhead cam, 12-valve cylinder head uses Honda's VTEC-E variable valve timing and lift system for increased efficiency and the ability to burn extremely lean gasoline/air mixtures for improved fuel economy and ultra-low exhaust emissions. The IMA electric motor's extra 25 lb-ft of torque give the feel of a low-boost turbocharger. The Insight's five- speed manual gearbox is designed to contribute to fuel economy. Both fourth and fifth gears are overdrives, so downshifting to third is necessary for climbing steep grades, even on the highway. Third is a near-direct drive, equivalent to fourth gear in most other gearboxes, and the lightweight Insight has no problem climbing steep grades in third gear. The Insight's performance in everyday use is perfectly satisfactory, and while my average of 53 mpg was not the EPA estimated 61city, 70 highway range, it was hardly poor. That is real-world fuel economy, with hard acceleration in traffic and sustained 70-plus mph highway speeds in a hilly area.

CONCLUSIONS: If future cars are like the Honda Insight, the future will work. It's real, and has none of the limitations of pure electric cars.

Base Price                   $ 19,295
Price As Tested              $ 20,495 with air conditioning
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. and  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 / 54
0 to 60 mph                   11  sec (est)