Gas-electric hybrid powerplants are a practical, workable response to high fuel prices, global oil politics, and the need to reduce automotive emissions. They are on sale now, use no exotic technology, and require no investment in infrastructure. For the most part, they drive like the cars we are already driving.
Several automakers offer hybrid versions of conventional cars, but for 2006 you could buy only two hybrids that were designed from the ground up for maximum fuel efficiency. The previously mentioned Toyota Prius, with its equal emphasis on family-friendly room and practicality, has been by far the more popular of the two. But what the Honda Insight sacrifices in utility, it makes up in slick, sporty individuality.
Honda Insight seats only two people, and it's fun to drive, handling well on winding roads and cruising easily at high speeds on the highway. It looks slippery and futuristic. And it is. According to Honda, it is the most aerodynamic production car on the road.
Insight's tail-pipe emissions are bettered only by a zero-emissions pure electric car. An Insight can squeeze 66 highway miles from a gallon of gasoline when it's equipped with a manual transmission, according to EPA fuel-economy estimates, compared with the Prius, at 51 mpg.
Drivers who can live with its limited cargo capacity should find the Insight to be an enjoyable long-term companion.
Insight is a great car for someone who cares about the environment. Although it costs a few thousand dollars more to buy than a conventional compact, it is actually a bargain. Honda probably lost money on every Insight it sold, considering the cost of the high-tech parts and the all-aluminum body structure, let alone the research and development for such a low-volume car.
Little has changed since we last reviewed the Insight in 2001. A continuously variable automatic transmission, or CVT, became available for 2002. For 2004, a four-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo replaced the original two-speaker AM/FM/cassette unit; and beige replaced black as the sole interior color choice. Safety and security were beefed up for 2004 as well, as Honda added seat-belt pre-tensioners and an engine immobilizer. A headlight warning chime was added for 2005. There have been no further changes for 2006 which, was the Insight's final year in production.
Honea Insight five-speed ($19,330); five-speed with air ($20,530); CVT automatic with air ($21,530)
The Honda Insight is small, almost 20 inches shorter than a Honda Civic Coupe.
This car is a technological tour de force in many ways. Its body structure is made out of aluminum, instead of steel, with some plastic body panels.
A small, 1-liter, three-cylinder gasoline engine provides primary power; an ultra-thin electric motor integrated into the transmission housing boosts performance when needed. Honda calls this system an Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) and it is the heart of the car. The electricity for the electric motor comes from a relatively small battery pack, which is kept continuously charged by the gasoline engine. The system is totally self-contained, so there is no need to charge the battery with an external cable. The driving range of more than 600 miles is defined only by the 10.6-gallon fuel tank, which does not need filling up very often.
Simply put, the battery supplies juice when the electric motor is being used. Whenever the gasoline engine's power is not required to move the car, it acts like a generator and recharges the battery. To maximize fuel economy, the engine stops running when the car stops at traffic lights and the gearshift is put in neutral. The engine then magically comes back to life when the gearshift is engaged.
The Insight is a small two-seater that has a reasonable amount of storage space behind the seats. It is a commuter car and should not be compared to a two-seat sports car. The unusual shape of the car is the result of wind tunnel testing to make it as slippery as possible for maximum fuel economy.
To the right of the instrument panel are three displays. One is a regular fuel gauge, and then there is battery charge gauge, which shows how much the battery is charged. Above these two is a bar that shows whether the batteries are being charged or whether they are being discharged to run the electric motor (IMA).
Honda describes these displays as being like a video game. Computer geeks and gamers will enjoy all the readouts. It's certainly true that they provide incentive to see if one can better one's fuel consumption from one trip to another.
Storage space is limited. There are a few cubbyholes and two cupholders. A flat area behind the rear seats provides room for luggage, and there is a hidden compartment under the floor that works well for keeping grocery bags from flying about. Access to the rear area through the large glass hatch is good. The floor of the storage area is high, as it covers the battery pack and electronic control unit underneath.
Despite being so miserly on fuel the Insight offers creature comforts such as climate control (optional), power windows and a remote key fob. But the rear-view mirror could be taller to make better use of the horizontally split rear window.
Overall, the Insight is comfy and cozy. The bucket seats are quite comfortable, although a large person might find them a bit small as they hug one's body quite nicely. All but the tallest people will find plenty of room in the cockpit.
In fact, driving the Insight is not much different from driving any other compact. If you drive it normally it is a relatively spirited small two-seater coupe. It is not a sports car, but it is perfectly capable of keeping up with and passing traffic. (We found it could cruise comfortably at 80 mph, where it feels quite stable.) The big difference is that you end up getting between 50 and 60 miles per gallon without trying to drive in an economical fashion.
On the other hand, if you start to learn new habits and follow the small arrow on the dash that tells you when to upshift or downshift you'll end up getting 70 or more miles per gallon. At first, driving the car in the most economical mode is disconcerting. The engine stops running when ever you come to a stop, as long as you put the gearshift into neutral and don't leave it in gear with the clutch in. As soon as you select a gear the engine restarts instantly, and moves off again in the normal manner as you engage the clutch.
On the highway one has to get used to the perception that the engine is lugging. It seems as if it needs to be downshifted into a lower gear most of the time. In fact it can be left in the higher gear as suggested by the upshift light as the electric motor adds torque as needed.
Insight handles quite nicely with a good ride for a small car. It has really skinny low-rolling resistance tires that make it look under-tired. Narrow tires don't offer the grip of wider tires, but a car as light as Insight doesn't need a lot of grip, and we had no complaints about how it cornered. You do feel and hear all the bumps on rough roads. The steering feels solid with some road feel and is not over assisted. The manual gearshift is smooth.
The optional continuously variable transmission drives like a conventional automatic, while providing a theoretically infinite number of gear ratios to optimize engine performance and efficiency. It retains the stop-idle feature of the manual-transmission model. EPA-estimated fuel economy suffers a little, dropping from the manual Insight's 60/66 city/highway rating to 57/56. In this way the automatic Insight is more comparable to the automatic-only Toyota Prius, at 60/51 city/highway mpg.
Honda's Insight is much more practical than an electric car, as its range is limited only by its fuel tank. Performance and ride are more than adequate for around town and occasional long trips. Because of this, Insight makes an ideal commuter car, a great runabout as a second car, and a good car for someone on a budget. It's just the ticket for early adopters of leading-edge technology.
Reporting by NewCarTestDrive.com correspondents John Rettie, John Katz, and Mitch McCullough.