Honda scored points with environmentalists in 2000 when it launched the two-passenger Insight � the first gasoline/electric hybrid vehicle in the United States. At the time, a five-speed manual was the sole transmission, but a gearless continuously variable transmission became available for 2001.
In Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system, an electric motor supplements the 1.0-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine. An "idle-stop" feature automatically turns the gas engine off when the car is stopped. The Insight achieves an EPA-estimated 61 mpg city and 66 mpg highway fuel-economy rating. Nothing has changed for 2005.
Honda introduced a more conventional Civic Hybrid sedan for 2003 and an Accord Hybrid for 2005. Rival Toyota offers a hybrid-powered Prius hatchback.
Aerodynamic for efficiency, the Insight roughly resembles a Civic up front, but its hatchback body has a distinctively smooth, rounded teardrop shape. Flared rear fenders cover the top half of the wheels. The 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. Low-rolling-resistance tires are installed.
Two bucket seats give adults ample room. The unusual exterior styling results in a long, tunnel-like 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 indicate when the electric motor is operating.
Under the Hood
The total output for the 1.0-liter three-cylinder and electric motor is 73 horsepower when the hybrid system is teamed with a five-speed-manual transmission; horsepower drops to 71 when connected to the CVT. The gasoline engine is the primary power source and the electric motor kicks in to deliver additional power. A 48-pound 144-volt battery pack is mounted behind the seats.
The gas engine recharges the batteries while cruising, so owners never have to plug the car into a charger.
Antilock brakes are standard, but side-impact airbags are not available.
Sporty in appearance and overall feel, the manual-shift Insight is fun to drive. It can be surprisingly vigorous when accelerating from a stop. Regular downshifting is necessary for passing; you need to be in the proper gear to get adequate passing and merging performance.
Even with both the gas engine and electric motor operating, the Insight doesn't feel packed with surplus power. An upshift indicator suggests the best time to change gears in the five-speed manual 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, with no need to think about the best time to downshift.