Honda scored big points with environmentalists when it launched the two-passenger Insight the first gasoline/electric hybrid car in the United States. A five-speed manual was the sole transmission offered when the vehicle debuted in the 2000 model year, but a continuously variable transmission (CVT) became available in May 2001. This change makes the super-frugal hatchback more appealing to potential buyers who cannot or dont wish to drive a five-speed.
Instead of having four or five forward gears, the CVT operates in a manner more like a dimmer switch; it produces an infinite number of drive ratios. The CVT has been available for several years in the regular, gasoline-powered Civic.
Only small changes on the Insight will take place for the 2003 model year. The cars 1.0-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine is supplemented by an electric motor. As a result, the front-wheel-drive Insight got the highest EPA fuel-economy ratings ever issued: 61 mpg city and 70 mpg highway; these figures were later reduced to 61 mpg city/68 mpg highway. An Insight equipped with the CVT is rated at 57 mpg in city driving and 56 mpg on the highway. (City driving takes better advantage of the CVTs mileage-enhancing characteristics.)
Honda introduced a more conventional Civic Hybrid for the 2003 model year. It is equipped with a similar gasoline/electric powertrain and either a manual transmission or the CVT unit. Archrival Toyota offers a comparable hybrid powertrain in its five-passenger four-door. Ford intends to launch a hybrid-powered version of its Escape sport utility vehicle as a 2004 model.
The Insight is aero-profiled for efficiency. It roughly resembles a Civic in the front, but the hatchback body has a distinctively smooth, rounded teardrop shape. Flared rear fenders cover the top half of the wheels. The Insights sleek skin yields a 0.25 coefficient of drag thats one of the lowest of any mass-produced automobile in the world. In addition to the body, most of the Insights suspension components are made of lightweight aluminum.
Mounted on a 94.5-inch wheelbase and measuring 155.1 inches long overall, the Insight stands 53.3 inches tall. It weighs a slim 1,847 pounds when equipped with the manual shift or 1,967 pounds with the CVT. Special low-rolling-resistance tires help it consume minimal fuel.
Two bucket seats give adults ample room, but thats all the Insight will hold. Honda claims that the shallow, open cargo area behind the seats and over the battery pack provides a total of 16.3 cubic feet of space, but only a modest portion of that volume is usable for cargo. A small covered bin at the rear adds 1.5 cubic feet. Except for a roomy glove box, theres not much storage space. The Insights unusual exterior styling results in a long, tunnel-like view out the rear, and it is designed with a large window in the hatch lid and a smaller pane below it.
A large digital speedometer dominates a small, somewhat cluttered gauge cluster. Smaller gauges and warning lights display instant and average fuel economy, and they also indicate when the electric motor is operating. Power windows and door locks, a cassette player and a rear-window defogger are standard. Air conditioning is the only major option.
Under the Hood
The drivetrain consists of a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine rated at 67 horsepower which is augmented by a small electric motor that adds 6 hp. The gasoline engine is the primary power source, and the electric motor kicks in to deliver power for highway passing or a boost for faster acceleration from low speeds. A 48-pound 144-volt battery pack that consists of 120 cells is mounted behind the seats to supply power for the electric motor. A five-speed-manual gearbox and a CVT are the two available transmissions.
Honda calls its hybrid system Integrated Motor Assist. When the Insight is cruising, the gas engine recharges the batteries so that owners never have a need to plug the car into a charger. When the Insight is stopped and the manual transmission is in Neutral, the gas engine shuts off to save fuel. It restarts automatically when the transmission is shifted into a drive gear.
Antilock brakes are standard, and side-impact airbags are not available.
The manual-shift Insight is sporty in appearance and overall feel and is also fun to drive. It can be surprisingly vigorous when accelerating from a stop. Regular downshifting is necessary for passing, and like other small cars, you need to be in the proper gear to get adequate passing and merging performance. Dont expect a huge blast of energy when tromping on the gas pedal to pass. The electric-motor boost is helpful but not dramatic. Even with both engines operating, the Insight doesnt feel exactly packed with surplus power.
For many drivers, the CVT-equipped Insight is a better bet, even though its fuel-economy figures are less frugal. Acceleration is less lively with the CVT, but it operates effectively and with no need to think about the best times to downshift. Hondas idle-stop feature comes into play with either transmission by shutting off the gasoline engine when the car comes to a full stop.
The Insight starts up in the normal way by turning the ignition key but the starter motor is exceptionally quiet. In fact, its barely discernible. An upshift indicator suggests the best time to change gears in the five-speed for peak gas mileage, and the Insight can be driven in a higher gear than most cars for a given road speed. Keeping it in an upper gear ratio, which should ordinarily be avoided, is permissible.
A graduated fuel-economy meter keeps the driver abreast of mileage, and getting the most frugal result can be almost like playing a video game. Some effort might be necessary to avert ones eyes from the gauge, so keeping it concealed most of the time may be prudent. Honda claims that highway driving tests have yielded more than 80 mpg.
Because the Insight is a two-seater with limited cargo space, it works best as either an urban commuter car or a second or third vehicle for an environmentally conscious family. Recharging the Insight is never required. Even if the batteries go dead which could happen on a long uphill grade, for instance the gasoline engine continues to function normally, charging the batteries once the car begins to travel downhill.