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Honda Insight

Honda’s Happy, High Tech Hybrid

A Gas Sipper for Commuters

By Jim Bray

Honda’s most politically correct vehicle is a marvelous commuter car that’s cheap to run and environmentally friendly to boot.

The Insight is a “hybrid” automobile that pairs a conventional – though very high tech – gasoline engine with an electric motor to provide what power there is.

Blistering performance isn’t this car’s reason for being; it’s the fuel economy.

The secret to the front wheel drive Insight is something called “Integrated Motor Assist,” which couples Honda’s all-new VTEC-E 1.0 liter, 3-cylinder engine with an electric motor that seems to act almost like a turbocharger, in that it comes on as a boost when the car thinks you need an extra bit of “oomph.”

The IMA system also includes a feature called "Idle-stop," which actually shuts off the engine at times when you're idling - usually in neutral though not necessarily so. This is a bit strange at first and makes you think the car has stalled. Slipping it back into first gear, however, powers the motor back up virtually instantly.

This gets the Insight an EPA-estimated 61 city and 70 highway miles per gallon as well as allowing it to meet California's stringent Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) standard.

The two seater looks like a cross between an old Honda CRX and a squashed ladybug – especially in the bright red color of the vehicle I test drove. I found the styling relatively repulsive, but once you’re inside Insight’s very comfortable cabin you don’t notice its looks, fortunately.

You’ll notice other looks, though; I was greeted by innumerable “thumbs up” gestures from other motorists, and the car often attracted interested spectators.

Honda uses a lot of aluminum in the Insight, for lightness; the 1847 pound car is apparently 47-percent lighter than a comparable steel vehicle. They’ve also eliminated things like inner fenders in an attempt to cut the weight.

Insight’s aerodynamics are enhanced with little tricks like rear wheel fender skirts and “low-rolling-resistance tires” to achieve a miniscule 0.25 drag coefficient.

This is a double edged sword, however. I discovered that the aerodynamics let the Insight slip through the air beautifully, but the light weight made it prone to being affected by large wind gusts.

Insight’s gas tank holds 10.6-gallons of regular unleaded. You don’t need a power cord for the electric motor, because its batteries (which take up most of the section behind the two seats) are recharged by “regenerative braking.” This means that energy from the car’s momentum is recaptured during coasting or braking and recharges the batteries. It’s slick.

It isn’t known how long this battery pack will last, or how much it’ll cost to replace it.

Insight Interior

Inside Insight are most of the creature comforts you could want, including an AM/FM cassette stereo, power windows and door locks. You don’t get cruise control or a tilt steering wheel, but so what?

You also don’t get an ashtray, which is appropriate for a “healthy” vehicle, and there’s a DC power socket that, in previous incarnations, would have held a cigarette lighter.

The digital dashboard gives you all the usual gauges, like speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, engine temperature, etc. I wish Honda had made the speedometer read out as if it were analog, as it did the tachometer, but what can you do?

A few “hybrid-related” displays, including ones that tell you when the electric motor’s engaged and when the battery’s being recharged, are also on hand.

Switchable trip odometers tally the distance you’ve traveled while giving a running total of your gas mileage.

Rear visibility is okay, though you'll want to use the mirrors as much as possible: left and right rear views are fairly blind otherwise. The view out of the rear window takes some getting used to; Insight's steeply sloped rear window makes for a narrow slot. A secondary rear window, a la CRX, gives a view straight out the back for those times you're backing up.

The high back bucket seats are very comfortable for the commute, though I found them to be not nearly as nice on an all-day cruise. Controls are located within easy reach. In short, it's a nice cabin - nearly perfect for the commutte.

Insight, which also features an electric power steering system, is a very pleasant car to drive, as long as you don’t treat it like a sports car. Unfortunately, I tend to treat every vehicle as if it were a sports car, so I had to learn some new methodology to get the most out of the Insight’s gentle nature.

This is easy, though, because the car gives you hints as to the best ways for exploiting its gas saving demeanor. There are “shift up” and “shift down” lights that recommend when to pop the five speed transmission (the only one available) into the next gear, and a bar graph lets you know how much, or how little, gas the car’s currently sipping.

Using the shift up and down lights means you’re in for a very leisurely drive; I’d be in fifth gear by around forty miles per hour, which felt weird. Couple this with the car’s tall gearing and if, like me, you tend to keep the pedal to the metal whenever possible, you’re tempted to get out and push.

That isn’t fair to the Insight, though, and if that’s the way you like to drive you’d best look elsewhere.

For commuters who’re looking for a “keep the pedal off the metal” car that provides pleasant and ultra-efficient transportation, however, the $18,800 Insight is a winner.

Very Insight-ful, Honda.


Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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