This sporty waif makes a strong statement for the future.

by Bengt Halvorson

With a Honda Insight in my garage, I had to chuckle the other day when I read a story in a major national newspaper about how the first two gasoline-electric hybrids, the Insight and Toyota Prius, are now trendy must-haves for the rich and famous -- and not just for Ed Begley, Jr. Yes, suddenly these little high-tech econoboxes are on the hot list for actors, rock stars, and politicians who want to show that they care about the Earth.

But do you think, public appearances aside, these image-means-everything celebrities will not actually eschew their Insights for the Diablo or Maranello, the ML55 or Escalade, waiting in the garage? Not as likely as you might think. The Insight is a sprightly little lean urban warrior that's fun to drive and returns more than 50 miles per gallon in spirited motoring.

At first glance, the Insight looks sporty yet peculiar. A low, aerodynamic front end leads to a steeply raked windshield and a gradually sloping roofline that ends in a tall, stubby rear end. Rear wheel covers and low bodywork that hangs around the back end add an odd styling element. A second rear window through the end of the hatch, like the old CRX (and the new Pontiac Aztek), helps with visibility.

A passenger thought that the Insight was a new derivative of the old CRX, which can be understood because the two cars are very close in shape and dimensions, although the hybrid has no similarities with the CRX or del Sol. Compared to the CRX HF (high fuel economy) model of a decade ago (which, at 49/52 city/highway, was also one of the most miserly cars of its time), the Insight is 6.5 inches longer and 800 pounds lighter, plus it has more than ten extra horsepower than that vehicle.

Sporty inside

Getting into the Insight feels a little bit like getting into a sports car. The long doors open wide, the seats are low, and the steering column is nearly level. A small black shift knob atop a center console, along with a very fashionable matte-silver and black interior trim treatment, make the Insight feel sporty and exciting.

But did I say the Insight has a diminutive three-cylinder engine? Utilizing E-TEC, an economy tuned version of Honda's V-TEC variable valve-timing system, the little 12-valve, 995-cc engine makes 67 hp at 5700 rpm. Fortunately, that's not all that powers the Insight. Through a system called Integrated Motor Assist, a six-horsepower electric motor, powered by a modestly sized nickel-metal hydride battery pack, contributes when needed, assisting the gas engine during acceleration or hill-climbing and enabling a total output of 73 hp. During deceleration and braking, a regeneration system, using the motor as a generator, recharges the battery pack, recouping enough juice such that the car never needs to be plugged in.

To demonstrate the process, an instrument panel graphic display shows exactly when the IMA system is assisting and when it is charging the battery, and another gauge shows the status of the battery's charge. To top it all off, there is an instantaneous, bar-graph fuel-economy gauge as well as several different ways to calculate average miles per gallon.

Despite the low horsepower figures and swarms of worshipping eco-freaks, the Insight is energetic and fun to drive in traffic. The little three-cylinder engine puts out an almost agricultural sound, though, and it's a shaky little powerplant, too, transmitting a fair amount of vibration through the steering column. The shift action is smooth and precise, and the light clutch engagement makes for easy launches.

Hybrid system adds pep

The Insight feels slightly sluggish at first while accelerating, but then the IMA system kicks in and helps the engine gather steam. The five-speed manual's gears seem quite tall. They're definitely optimized for economy and not pep, so dashes through traffic might require dropping down two gears. If you let the revs build above 3500 rpm, the engine feels a good deal more powerful, although it's really not worth revving it all the way to the 6000-rpm redline because it seems to run out of steam past 5000 rpm.

A pair of lights reminds you when to upshift and downshift for best fuel economy. If you want the best fuel economy and don't mind accelerating at the rate of an old VW Microbus, following the upshift light (one for up, one for down) causes the engine to hesitate and shake after upshifts. I know better than to ever lug the engine, just above idle, like this in any other small-engined car, but you have to assume that it's not doing damage with the electric motor helping out. The shift light requests fifth gear as early as 39 mph. After a slight bit of stumbling from the engine, the electric motor helps it out and smooths out the ordeal.

The Insight's hybrid system is usually unobtrusive. Without looking at the gauge that shows the level of assist or regeneration, it's really difficult to tell what's going on. The only time that this isn't true is at highway speeds, or when the gasoline engine is at extremely low rpms and lacking in torque. On the highway, in fifth gear, the phasing in and out of the IMA system with slight changes of the throttle pedal position makes it difficult to maintain a steady speed.

Lightweight, good handling

At 1887 pounds, Insight's lack of mass is what enables the small powertrain to feel so lively. The specially engineered body structure, made of aluminum, with extensive use of magnesium and plastics, is 40 percent lighter than a comparably sized steel-bodied vehicle. Despite its lean build, though, the Insight has earned four-star federal crash-test ratings for both driver and passenger safety.

The Insight rides well on smooth surfaces, but the stiff suspension calibration gives a jittery, active ride over rough pavement surfaces, possibly due to the body stiffness, light weight, and skinny tires. Highway expansion joints are felt as a jolt in the seat cushion. At highway speeds, a fair amount of road noise is transmitted into the cabin, although wind noise and engine noise are well muffled.

The Insight's handling is a pleasant surprise. The steering feel is extremely light, ideal for low-speed urban driving, while the suspension is firm and communicative, making for quick turn-in and responsiveness. There's also more grip than expected from the narrow 165/65R-14 tires, making the Insight confident and tossable from lane to lane. While in town the Insight feels at ease and sporty, at highway speeds the steering is oversensitive and requires frequent corrections. Also, the tires tend to tramline and want to change direction with different surfaces.

The seats are comfortable and give plenty of leg and head room, even for taller people. There's not much space behind the front seats, though, even for grocery bags, due to a high cargo floor.

The regenerative braking phases in and out in a much smoother fashion than in the Prius (The Prius brakes tend to feel jerky due to the regenerative braking function). The brakes feel normal and firm. Part of this might be due to the fact that the regenerative braking in the Insight doesn't seem to operate at speeds below 15 mph.

At the pump: It doesn't get any better than this

So what about the fuel economy? The Insight is rated by the EPA at a swaggering 61 mpg city and 68 highway. In a week's worth of urban and suburban driving, amounting to about 130 miles, we averaged 53 miles per gallon. Then I took the Insight through the same 36-mile fuel economy loop as I had with the Prius a few weeks before, made up of about two miles of dense stop-and-go city driving (averaging no more than 10 mph), 10 miles of suburban stoplight-every half-mile driving in which I averaged 30-40 mph, and then 24 miles of highway driving, ranging from 50 to 65 mph. On this loop, with a light throttle foot and strictly following the shift light, the Insight averaged 62 miles per gallon. For comparison purposes, the Toyota Prius averaged 44 mpg on this same loop.

Why the differences? A lot of it is simply due to the Prius's heavier weight, four-cylinder engine, and less impressive aerodynamics, but the hybrid systems are actually quite different, too. With the Insight, the gas engine and electric motor are packaged together as one unit, whereas in the Prius, the electric motor and gasoline engine are both strong enough to power the vehicle on their own, mounted independently on either side of the transmission.

Insight's drivability should be improved with the upcoming availability of a CVT automatic transmission. Honda tells us that CVT-equipped cars (which will feature the more stringent SULEV emissions certification) will begin reaching dealerships in May. Until then, automatic climate control air conditioning remains the only major option.

Hybrid Civic on the way

Better yet, Honda plans to make its IMA hybrid system available on the Civic soon. The hybrid Civic model will likely have a late spring 2002 introduction in the U.S., followed by a Japan-market introduction this December. Expect the hybrid Civic model to offer a different, more economical engine than any currently offered on the Civic line, combined with a CVT automatic. And yes, it will be a 'real' car, with Civic levels of refinement.

Honda is, no doubt, losing money on the Insight, just as Toyota is losing money on its Prius. But there's no doubt that both cars are excellent real-world tests and precursors to the application of the technology to mass-production models.

So, between the Prius and the Insight, which one would we take? There is no clear winner, and it really depends on the vehicle's purpose. The Prius has room for four, feels more like a 'real' car, and has a decent amount of trunk space for weekend trips, although its highway mileage isn't much better than other small cars. The Insight is a sporty two-seater, good for commuting, and it gets much better mileage but makes noticeable compromises in cargo space and overall smoothness.

Oh, and for the celebrities out there, and everyone else, we think the Insight makes a pretty strong statement.

2001 Honda Insight

Price: $18,980 base, $20,620 as tested
Engine: 1.0-liter three-cylinder, 67 hp (73 hp with IMA)
Motor: Permanent-magnet electric, 10 kW
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Wheelbase: 94.5 in
Length: 155.1 in
Width: 66.7 in
Height: 53.3 in
Curb Weight: 1887 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 61/68 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: IMA system display and mileage computer, keyless entry and security system, power windows, mirrors, and locks, alloy wheels, rear wiper/washer
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

© 2001 The Car Connection

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