The numbers tell the story. The 2000 Honda Insight boasts 61 miles per gallon in the city and 70 m.p.g. on the highway, the highest rating ever scored in government fuel-economy rankings. Next closest rival in the fuel-economy derby was a Volkswagen Beetle averaging 42 m.p.g. city/47 m.p.g. highway with a 4-cylinder diesel engine. With Insight, you can drive from Chicago to Detroit and back and still have fuel left in the 10.6 gallon tank. But the Civic-sized Insight isn't for everyone, as we found in testing the subcompact that comes out in December in very limited numbers (4,000 units) to determine the demand for high mileage and low emissions. Environmentalists preach fuel conservation and clean air, but will 4,000 of them put their money where their pontificating mouths are? To get such incredible mileage, Insight is powered by a 1-liter, 63-horsepower, 3-cylinder gasoline engine teamed with an electric motor powered by 120 "D" size batteries that contribute an extra 7 h.p. Insight is tuned to deliver maximum torque at 2000 r.p.m. for respectable off-the-line performance comparable to that of 4-cylinder cars. Unlike other so-called hybrids that offer two sources of power in which either can be used, Insight's battery pack simply lends an assist when needed, such as when passing or climbing a hill. Unlike a Toyota Prius (Cars, June 17), which can run on either or both its gas and electric motors, Insight's nickel-metal-hydride batteries are never meant to work on their own. With the battery assist when it needs more power, Insight gets by with a very small gas engine to move the load, conserve fuel and boast of lower emissions. Also to help boost mileage, Insight's gas engine automatically shuts off at idle if you put the gear lever in neutral. The engine restarts when you shift back to first. Honda said more fuel is saved by the shutdown and then restart than wasted if left to idle. Two drawbacks, however. You need to warm the engine for 10 minutes before the automatic shutoff is activated, and, if you are out of gear at a rail crossing or intersection and need to make an evasive maneuver, you might not have time. Insight sold in the U.S. offers only a 5-speed manual for now. In Japan it will come with a 5-speed or a continuously v ariable automatic when it goes on sale next month. Stay tuned for the automatic in the States--hardly justified now based on 4,000 units. Unlike the four-door, four-passenger Prius, Insight is a two-door, two-passenger coupe to conserve size and weight and minimize demands on gas/battery power. Honda says two or fewer people are on board in 80 percent of all trips anyway. "Insight is meant to be the second or third vehicle in the family, the commuter or weekend car or the first vehicle for the college grad, while some buyers will come from the `early adopters,' those who have to be the first to have the latest of any new thing," said Honda spokesman Andy Boyd. Insight features a large, flat cargo floor in back, where you normally would find seats. Rear seating was sacrificed in the interest of weight and because the space below that flat floor was needed to hold the 120 batteries. When it comes to performance, Insight can be a Jekyll-an d-Hy de machine. Off-the-line performance is respectable providing you are on level ground. First time an incline appears, there's ample notice that a 3-cylinder, 63-h.p. engine is under the hood. Gauges in the dash advise of gas/battery activity. A series of orange bars lights up to say the 120 batteries are charged. Those bars stay on all the time, in large part because Insight is designed to recharge the batteries as you travel. The only time the orange lights would be in danger of dimming is if you travel up a steep incline in the Rockies for a long period or if you cruise at 100 m.p.h. for an extended time without letting off the pedal, said Boyd. To prevent battery-draining 100-m.p.h. jaunts, the electric motor is governed to shut off when the speedometer reaches 100. There also is a gauge with green bars and another small gauge with orange bars. The green bars let you know when only the gas engine is operating, the small orange-bar gauge lights up when the batteries kick in to provide a power boost into the passing lane, down the merger ramp or up the incline. The small orange bar gauge got a workout. The batteries frequently kicked in with that needed shot of power. Start from the light, approach a short rise in the road, linger too long in 5th gear and the orange flashed, which signaled the need to downshift or upshift to another gear. One gauge, however, justifies all the orange-bar activity: the fuel-mileage computer in the center of the instrument panel that gives a constant m.p.g. reading. In one 30-mile stretch, the computer advised we were averaging 50.9 m.p.g. though we were more focused on playing with the machine than conserving fuel. A lot of time was spent shifting the 5-speed. A lot of busy work. Ever drive a 5-speed and, as you pull to the stoplight, forget you have a manual and don't depress the clutch? You experience a chugging or shudder until the clutch is applied. With Insight, if you cruise the open road and reach an incline without pressing the gas pedal or downshifting and applying the gas, you find yourself at the junction of chugging and shudder. But, oddly, find yourself cruising on a long, level road and, while your mind tells you the scenery is passing at the posted 45 m.p.h. rate, the speedometer says you are doing 65 m.p.h. The reason the sensation of speed does not match the needle reading is that Honda was able to design a quiet 3-cylinder at a time when the smaller the engine, typically the louder the noise. Also, when electric power kicks in, there's no telltale noise, one of the benefits of battery power. But mainly, Insight is an example of aerodynamics at work and how smooth surfaces at just the right laid-back angles resist wind disturbance to limit cabin noise. The use of lightweight aluminum and plastic body panels not only saves mileage-robbing poundage, it also means you don't have t he typical metal flex that brings a variety of distracting sounds into the cabin. Without the noise, you can lose a sense of speed. Honda says special low-rolling resistance 14-inch tires also help mileage. Maybe so, but they are so hard and so narrow, they don't contribute much to vehicle handling and want to float on the pavement. From a styling standpoint, Insight looks somewhat like an old Honda CR-X sports coupe with a large and sharply slanted glass hatchback lid that contributes to aerodynamics, but is so slanted it makes it difficult to see out the back. With rear vision limited, Honda should have compensated with larger outside mirrors. It didn't. Insight goes on sale in the U.S. in December with a promise of "under $20,000 fully equipped." And you can't gripe about the amenities that are standard. Power windows/mirrors/locks, anti-lock brakes, remote keyless entry, dual air bags, tinted glass, rear window washer/wiper/defroste r, alloy w heels, AM/FM stereo with cassette and clock, cupholders and 12-volt power outlet to name the major items. To ease fears about replacing those 120 batteries, Insight comes with an eight-year/80,000-mile battery warranty. But then, Insight tips the scales at 1,856 pounds, so if you run into an 18-wheeler (or one runs into you), replacing 120 "D" batteries would be the last thing on your mind--or whatever was left of it. Only two options: Air conditioning, which will reduce mileage, and a compact-disc player. Insight will get a rival in June: the Toyota Prius hybrid, which runs on gas or batteries or in tandem. Like Insight, the batteries recharge while the car is running. About 12,000 will be shipped here. The Corolla-sized Prius is powered by a 1.5-liter, 58-h.p. 4-cylinder gas engine teamed with 240 "D" size nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Prius sells for about $18,000 in Japan and will sell here for $20,000 to $25,000, Toyota said. ABS, automatic transmission, dual air bags and air conditioning will be standard. No TV in the dash as in Japan, however. There's speculation that Prius, as well as a Chevrolet gas/electric hybrid, a Saturn hybrid and perhaps a small hybrid sport-utility, might be built in 2002 or 2003 at the Toyota/GM joint-venture plant in Fremont, Calif. It now builds the Toyota Corolla, Chevy Prizm and the compact Toyota Tacoma pickup. Prizm would be dropped to make room. >> 2000 Honda Insight Wheelbase: 94.5 inches Length: 155.1 inches Engine: 1-liter, 63-h.p. 3-cylinder with 7-h.p. electric motor assist Transmission: 5-speed manual Fuel economy: 61 m.p.g. city/70 m.p.g. highway Base price: Not available until it goes on sale in December. Price as tested: Not available. Only options will be air conditioning, CD player and freight. Pluses: Look at that mileage rating, which also promises low emissions. Extremely quiet operation thanks to aerodynamics and electric motor. Minuses: Batteries frequently come to assist of gas engine. Prepare for lots of shifting. Only a 5-speed, only a two-door, only a two-seater. So quiet you lose perception of speed at times.>>
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|Rick Popely||Cars.com National||December 1, 1999|
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|Alan Vonderhaar||Cincinnati.com||February 12, 2000|
|Royal Ford||Boston.com||December 12, 1999|
|Paul Dean||Los Angeles Times||October 21, 1999|
|Tony Swan||Detroit Newspapers||October 19, 1999|
|Jim Mateja||chicagotribune.com||October 17, 1999|
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