Insight is the first car available in the United States with a hybrid propulsion system, a small gasoline engine supplemented by an electric motor. This combination yields the highest EPA fuel economy ratings ever 61 mpg city and 70 mpg highway. It qualifies as an ultra-low emission vehicle under California's air-quality standards. Insight goes on sale in December at a price yet to be announced, though Honda says it will be fully equipped for under $20,000. While the two-seat Insight is the first hybrid, it won't be the last. Toyota plans to introduce the Prius, a four-passenger sedan with gas and electric power, next spring. Other major auto manufacturers are planning similar models in the next few years.
The two bucket seats give adults ample room, but they have to travel light. A shallow, open cargo area behind the seats (over the battery pack) provides 5 cubic feet of space. A small covered bin at the rear adds 1.5 cubic feet. There also is a roomy glovebox but not much else for storage. A small, cluttered gauge cluster is dominated by a large digital speedometer. Smaller gauges and warning lights show instant fuel economy and when the electric motor is operating. The Insight's unusual styling creates a long, tunnel-like view out the rear, with a large window in the hatch lid and a smaller one below. Insight comes with power locks and windows, a cassette player and rear defogger. Air conditioning is the only major option.
The Insight is a two-door hatchback that looks like a Civic at the front but then morphs into a smooth, rounded shape with flared rear fenders that cover the top half of the wheels. The sleek profile gives it a coefficient of drag of 0.25, the lowest of any mass-produced car. The body and most suspension components are made of lightweight aluminum, and the Insight weighs a trim 1,856 pounds.
Under the Hood
Insight's unique drivetrain consists of a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine with 67 horsepower and a small electric motor that adds seven horsepower. The gas engine is the primary power source in the front-drive Insight. The electric motor kicks in for faster acceleration from low speeds and highway passing. A 48-pound battery pack behind the seats (the equivalent of 120 D cells) supplies power for the electric motor. When the car is cruising, the gas engine recharges the batteries, so there is no need to plug the car into a charger. Initially, the Insight will come only with a five-speed manual transmission. Honda plans to offer an automatic in the future. When the car is stopped and the transmission is in neutral, the gas engine shuts off to save fuel. It restarts automatically when the transmission is shifted back to a drive gear.
Insight shows surprising vigor accelerating from a stop, but by the time you shift into fourth gear, the engine feels like it's out of breath. A downshift to third or second gear is necessary to generate enough power for passing. This can make driving in fast-paced urban traffic a chore. However, even if you drive with your foot to the floor, most of the time you can still expect close to 50 mpg. Gentler driving should boost mileage closer to the EPA city rating of 61. Highway driving tests have yielded over 70 mpg. Because it is a two-seater with limited cargo space, Insight works best as an urban commuter or a second or third vehicle for an environmentally conscious family. Insight is an improvement over electric cars because it requires no battery charging or special fuels, just regular pump gas and not much of it.