Hondas Happy, High Tech Hybrid
A Gas Sipper for Commuters
By Jim Bray
Hondas most politically correct vehicle is a marvelous commuter car
thats 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 isnt this cars reason for being; its
the fuel economy.
The secret to the front wheel drive Insight is something called Integrated
which couples Hondas 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
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 youre inside Insights
very comfortable cabin you dont notice its looks, fortunately.
Youll notice other looks, though; I was greeted by innumerable thumbs
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. Theyve
also eliminated things like inner fenders in an attempt to cut the weight.
Insights 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.
Insights gas tank holds 10.6-gallons of regular unleaded. You dont
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 cars momentum is recaptured
during coasting or braking and recharges the batteries. Its slick.
It isnt known how long this battery pack will last, or how much itll
cost to replace it.
Inside Insight are most of the creature comforts you could want, including
an AM/FM cassette stereo, power windows and door locks. You dont get
cruise control or a tilt steering wheel, but so what?
You also dont get an ashtray, which is appropriate for a healthy vehicle,
and theres 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 motors engaged
and when the batterys being recharged, are also on hand.
Switchable trip odometers tally the distance youve 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 dont 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 Insights
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
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 cars currently sipping.
Using the shift up and down lights means youre in for a very leisurely
drive; Id be in fifth gear by around forty miles per hour, which felt
weird. Couple this with the cars tall gearing and if, like me, you tend
to keep the pedal to the metal whenever possible, youre tempted to get
out and push.
That isnt fair to the Insight, though, and if thats the way you
like to drive youd best look elsewhere.
For commuters whore 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.