Honda Insight now comes with automatic, a continuously variable transmission that not only frees the driver from the terrible hassle of having to shift gears but that actually doesn’t need to shift at all.

But first, let’s get one thing straight. Even though Insight has an electric motor and a bunch of batteries, it never has to be plugged in. Never ever. There is no plug. But you do have to fill it with gasoline. Got that?

Although Insight has been out for a couple of years, many people labor under the misconception that this gasoline-electric hybrid, and the similarly powered Toyota Prius, need to be recharged by plugging them into a recharging unit of some kind.

But that’s not how it works. In both Insight and Prius, a small gasoline engine is supplemented by an electric motor that boosts the power under acceleration or hill climbing. In turn, the gas engine provides the power to recharge the batteries.

In the case of the Insight, the slim electric motor slipped in between the engine and transmission runs as a generator when the gas engine is working alone, and especially under deceleration. Regenerative braking also helps with the recharging.

The gasoline motor is a tiny 1-liter, three-cylinder mill that couldn’t get out of its own way if not for the electric-motor boost. The overall effect is a little car that runs pretty much as well as a regular gasoline car, only with mileage that is much improved. Insight has the best gas mileage of any vehicle sold in the United States.

The horsepower and torque ratings may not sound impressive until you consider that the aluminum-bodied Insight weighs less than 1,900 pounds.

Although the Insight is very economical and fun to drive, Honda has had problems with marketing. Besides being just a two-seater, Insight has been offered only with stick shift. Since most drivers can’t deal with stick shift (mainly because they haven’t tried), Honda now offers Insight with the CVT transmission.

CVT is not original to Honda. It’s been used in other tiny runabouts, such as the Subaru Justy. There are no gears that shift. Instead, there is a belt-drive system that runs on a cone-shaped pulley that infinitely varies the drive ratios depending on power need and driver input. CVT is less complex than a traditional automatic and it provides greater efficiency and fuel mileage.

So far, engineers have not devised a way to use CVT on larger engines, although Ford is reportedly working on such a transmission.

Although the CVT works well and helps expose this environmental car to a greater audience, the automatic also blunts the otherwise enjoyable driving characteristics of the Insight. Instead of feeling quick and sporty as it does with the five-speed, Insight with CVT is sluggish and droning.

Under hard acceleration, such as freeway merging, the engine roars in a constant pitch, the system feeli ng as if it’s slipping as the transmission keeps the engine RPMs fairly even. Insight cruises easily at freeway speeds, although significant road noise is transmitted to the cabin.

The CVT compromises the MPGs significantly, lowering the five-speed EPA fuel-economy estimate from 61 city and 68 highway to 57 and 56. According to the dashboard computer, my fuel mileage wasn’t nearly what the EPA said it should be, hovering in the 40-mpg range.

Insight owners say that part of the challenge is seeing how high you can get the fuel mileage through judicious driving. The computer is a fun way for the driver to monitor gas mileage and recharging.

The spartan cabin is roomy enough for two, but there is scant space for little else. Luggage would have to go under the small glass hatchback.

The standard stereo is annoyingly tinny.

Honda plans to introduce a four-seater Civic hybrid car, with a system similar to Impact’s, in spring 2003. Als Ford is getting together a hybrid Escape SUV based on Toyota technology.

For now, Insight offers a sporty, fun excuse for saving gas and lowering air pollution.

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