The Insight arrived in the United States last year as the first gasoline/electric hybrid on the market. A 1.0-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine is supplemented by an electric motor to produce the highest EPA fuel economy ratings ever: 61 mpg city and 68 mpg highway.
The Insight is a front-drive, two-seat hatchback with a rounded, teardrop shape. Archrival Toyota offers a similar hybrid powertrain this year in the Prius, a five-passenger four-door sedan. More gas/electric hybrids are on the way, including a Ford Escape sport utility vehicle due in about two years.
Last year, the Insight was available only with a five-speed manual transmission. Next spring, a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) will be available. Instead of having three or four forward gears, a CVT operates like a dimmer switch, producing an infinite number of gear ratios.
The Insight 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.
The two bucket seats give adults ample room, but they have to travel lightly. 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 glove box 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 Insights unusual styling creates a long, tunnel-like view out the rear, with a large window in the hatch lid and a smaller one below.
The Insight comes with power locks and windows, a cassette player and rear window defogger. Air conditioning is the only major option.
Under the Hood
The Insights drivetrain consists of a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine with 67 horsepower and a small electric motor that adds 7 hp. 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 (the equivalent of 120 D cells) behind the seats 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.
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 into a drive gear.
The Insight shows surprising vigor accelerating from a stop, but by the time you shift into fourth gear, the engine feels like its 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 mpg. Honda claims highway driving tests have yielded more than 80 mpg.
Because it is a two-seater with limited cargo space, the Insight works best as an urban commuter or a second or third vehicle for an environmentally conscious family. The Insight is an improvement over electric cars because it requires no battery charging or special fuels just regular gas, and not much of it.