Honda scored big points with environmentalists in 2000 when it launched the two-passenger Insight, the first gasoline/electric hybrid vehicle in the United States. A five-speed manual was the sole transmission, but a gearless continuously variable transmission (CVT) became available in 2001. A CD player is installed in 2004 models.
An electric motor supplements the 1.0-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine. As a result, the front-wheel-drive Insight got the highest EPA fuel-economy ratings ever issued: 61 mpg city and 70 mpg highway (later reduced to 60 mpg city/66 mpg highway).
Honda introduced a more conventional Civic Hybrid sedan for 2003. Archrival Toyota offers a comparable hybrid powertrain in its five-passenger Prius.
Aero-profiled for efficiency, the Insight roughly resembles a Civic in the front, but the hatchback body has a distinctively smooth, rounded teardrop shape. Flared rear fenders cover the top half of the wheels. The Insights sleek skin yields a 0.25 coefficient of drag, which is one of the lowest of any mass-produced automobile. In addition to the body, most suspension components are made of lightweight aluminum.
Mounted on a 94.5-inch wheelbase and measuring 155.1 inches long overall, the Insight stands 53.3 inches tall. Special low-rolling-resistance tires help it consume minimal fuel.
Two bucket seats give adults ample room, but thats all the Insight will hold. The unusual exterior styling results in a long, tunnellike view out the rear because of the large window in the hatch lid and a smaller pane below it.
A large digital speedometer dominates a small, somewhat cluttered gauge cluster. Smaller gauges and warning lights display instant and average fuel economy, and they indicate when the electric motor is operating.
Under the Hood
The drivetrain consists of a 67-horsepower (65 hp with CVT), 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine that is augmented by an electric motor that adds 6 hp. The gasoline engine is the primary power source, and the electric motor kicks in to deliver power for highway passing. A 48-pound battery pack is mounted behind the seats. A five-speed-manual gearbox and a CVT are available.
The gas engine recharges the batteries while cruising so that owners never have to plug the car into a charger.
Antilock brakes are standard, but side-impact airbags are not available.
The manual-shift Insight is sporty in appearance and overall feel and fun to drive. It can be surprisingly vigorous when accelerating from a stop. Regular downshifting is necessary for passing, and you need to be in the proper gear to get adequate passing and merging performance. Even with both engines operating, the Insight doesnt feel packed with surplus power. An upshift indicator suggests the best time to change gears in the five-speed to achieve peak gas mileage, and the Insight can be driven in a higher gear than most cars for a given road speed.
For many drivers, the CVT-equipped Insight is a better bet. Acceleration is less lively, but the CVT operates effectively and with no need to think about the best time to downshift. A graduated fuel-economy meter keeps the driver abreast of mileage, and getting the most frugal result can be almost like playing a video game.