For years, we've heard it preached to us by sapling-holding tree thumpers, overpaid politicians and ozone-knowing scientists: "Reduce pollution or die! Carbon monoxide is killing the planet! The internal combustion engine must cease to exist!" And while these extremists do have a legitimate gripe about the state of global warming, the internal combustion engine will still be around for a long, long time - only more efficient, less pollutant, and married to other forms of propulsion. Case in point: the first gasoline-electric hybrid ever to come to market - the Honda Insight.
While I'd driven a fair number of the latest electric-powered "green machines," I wasn't prepared for my first experience in the Insight. Granted it looked a lot like General Motors' EV-1, but this had an exhaust pipe that emitted 46 percent less hydrocarbons and 50 percent less carbon monoxide than Honda's low-emission Civic CX. And unlike the electric "whoosh mobiles," that putter around town and need to be recharged after driving only 70 miles or so, the Insight can travel that distance on one gallon of gas. Like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps going...and going...and going -- over 500 miles more on a single tank.
The heart of the Insight is a new ultra-low-emission 1.0-liter, 12-valve three-cylinder VTEC-E engine coupled with an ultra-thin electric motor that Honda engineers call an Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) that aids the gasoline engine under acceleration. Although the engine alone provides enough power for flatland driving, the nearly transparent electric motor-assist is needed for sustained speeds on mountain grades.
If you're expecting to make the trip over the Rocky Mountains, be prepared for a long ride. The Insight's 144-volt nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries drain quickly under continual use (as we found out on a 15-mile, 5 percent uphill grade), leaving the driver with no choice but to select a lower gear and poke along until reaching the summit. Since the electric motor is a secondary propulsion source, Honda engineers took a different approach in the battery pack department. In a space no more than 16 by 18 inches (and weighing only 48 pounds), Honda managed to cram (and we are not making this up) 120 D-sized NiMH batteries in series to power the electric-assist motor. If you're traveling up Pikes Peak, we humbly suggest you either plan on taking a full day for the trip or rent something from Avis.
The plus side is that the system features regenerative braking, so by the time you reach the base of your descent, the batteries will be charged again and ready for the next assault. And unlike the all-electric EV-1 and Ford Ranger EV, the Insight requires no external power supply to recharge the battery packs. The package features a way-cool idle-stop feature, which shuts off the engine to save fuel when the driver places the shift lever in neutral and releases the clutch pedal. Depress the clutch, engage first gear, and the Insight's IMA electric motor gently spins up the gasoline engine to idle speed just like an E-Z-GO golf cart.
Available only with a five-speed manual transmission (designed with special gears to reduce rotational mass), the transmission has relatively short first, second and third gears for good city driving performance, with tall overdrive gearing in fourth and fifth to maximize fuel economy. Gear changes are short and smooth (thanks to shortened synchronizer sleeves), similar to the S2000, but with wider gates and without the positive "tink" as gears are selected.
With the standard issue 165/65 R14 78S low-rolling resistance tires keeping the Insight trucking down the highway, we caught every groove in the concrete, which made for difficult straight-line tracking in even the best of conditions. And God forbid if a semi should pass you at MACH 2 - between the skinny tires, narrow rear stance and the light weight (the Insight weighs in at 1,856 pounds, wet), the Insight is extremely susceptible to instantaneous lane changes due to wind or massive amounts of vacuum.
Driving the Insight requires a combination of defensive and offensive driving techniques. No matter where we went, other motorists tended to box us into lanes as they stared googly-eyed at the Insight's futuristic bodywork. It was great for a while, but when trying to get around a semi traveling at 40 mph on a 70 mph highway (and our battery pack fully depleted), we were left to downshift to second, change lanes and chant "I think I can...I think I can...I think I can..."
Off the proverbial Highway from Hell, the Insight handled the twisties like a crazed skateboarder. Turns were sharp and precise with the standard electric-powered steering transmitting a fair amount of road feel and chuckhole shock through the steering wheel. We'll blame our newly found carpal tunnel syndrome on the stiff tires, not the steering system. Given its diminutive size, body roll was moderate as the rear of the vehicle tried to tuck in sync with the front end.
In order to achieve the Insight's 70 mpg fuel rating, Honda needed more than a state-of-the-art powertrain package. Like the Acura NSX, the Insight's unitized body/chassis is made of aluminum (except for the front fenders, which are made from plastic) and boasts a drag coefficient of only .25.
From the rear, the Insight looks very EV-1-ish with the narrow rear track (the rear is 4.3-inches narrower than the front) and rear Kamm-style aerodynamic treatment, but that similarity ends quickly after looking at the front of the Insight, which carries a very strong Honda identity in the front fascia and headlamp treatment. Lateral surface areas are also wind-cutting, reducing drag further with removable wheel arch coverings.
Thanks to its aerodynamic bodywork, flat underbody, and extensive use of plastic and other lightweight materials, the Insight requires 30 percent less power to operate at highway speeds than the Honda Civic.
Like the exterior, the Insight's interior is just as futuristic. With a sweeping dash, aluminum trim surround and high-tech LCD analog/digital instrument display, the interior looks more like a Las Vegas techno-lounge than your average commuter car. Divided into three sections, the instrument cluster displays engine rpm, coolant temperature, and the engine's idiot lights in the left binnacle; a large digital speedometer, odometer, lifetime fuel economy bar graph and instant fuel economy (a mesmerizing bar graph that responds instantaneously to throttle input) in the middle; and fuel level, battery level indicator, and the IMA charge and assist indicator on the right bank.
Dual high-back bucket seats feature good lateral and lumbar support while controls for the standard power windows, mirrors, AM/FM cassette stereo, ventilation and available automatic HVAC controls are within easy reach. But two large adults will find themselves knocking elbows in the tight cockpit. Built fully equipped (the only option is the automatic air-conditioning system), the Insight is an incredible value for a hybrid vehicle.
Is it worth driving the Insight from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City on one tank of gas? Well, we wouldn't do it (Honda's seats are good, but aren't that good), but you certainly could if you wanted to. And despite its shortcomings in the handling department and quick-to-drain batteries, Honda has finally brought a realistic option to gasoline engine-only cars with an ultra-low-emission vehicle that can be driven anywhere without the worry of having to find an electrical outlet.
At a base MSRP of $18,880 (add $1,200 for the automatic climate control), the Insight is a heck of a deal, considering the amount of technology Honda has invested. Granted, you can get a low-emission Civic HX for $6,500 less, but you won't score any points with your tree-hugging friends. And while Ford and GM continue to primarily sell their electric vehicles to government fleets, we'd be surprised if consumers don't snatch up every Insight Honda can produce.