EXPERT REVIEW

KansasCity.com's view

Rolling west on Interstate 70 at a steady 58 mph in Honda’s Insight hybrid gas/electric car, one eye glued on the fuel readout and the other on the rearview mirror, I held my breath as 18-wheelers loomed ever larger in the mirror. Just when I thought I was about to become another bug-smack on their bumper, they would heave into the passing lane and rock me with their wake of wind.

So why was I crawling down the interstate in this tiny coupe? To see if it was really possible to achieve the 70 mpg that Honda touts this car can achieve.

I used every trick I know: coasting downhill, accelerating uphill like I had an egg under my foot and keeping my speed as constant as a human cruise control. By the time I got to the Lawrence, Kan., exit the readout blinked 72.6 mpg and I stopped to make a picture of it.

It was with considerable relief that I gave up being a rolling traffic hazard, ducked off the interstate and grabbed a bite of lunch. On Kansas 10 back to Kansas City I kept pace with the 70-mph flow of traffic on all but the longest hills and still averaged 68.5 mpg for more than 85 miles. With the 10.6-gallon tank you could drive nonstop to Denver and still have fuel left.

After a couple of days trying to squeeze every last mile out of each drop of gas, I resorted to driving like any other sport coupe and it was surprisingly fun. When you flog it like you’re late for dinner the little 3-cylinder has a charming wail. Full-throttle acceleration is on par with a regular Civic I would guess. Even when mashing the throttle a lot I got better than 55 mpg.

Pretty impressive. Technology works.

The CRX-size Insight is as much about what it portends as what it does. Sure, it sips fuel as delicately as m’lord at high tea, and its bullet-shaped body slips through the wind as unnoticed as a teen-ager sneaking in past curfew, but its real beauty is how successfully Honda has integrated a gasoline engine and an electric motor into a viable powerplant that is not only extremely frugal but very low in emissions.

Honda calls the gasoline/electric system Integrated Motor Assist (IMA), and it says it will apply it to future “mass-market” cars, without being more specific. It doesn’t take much work to deduce that the only cars Honda sells in high volume are the Civic and Accord, so we might see one of those with the IMA system one of these years.

IMA consists of an aluminum, 1.0-liter, 3-cylinder engine and an ultra-thin electric motor that assists the gasoline engine during acceleration. The gasoline engine alone cranks out 67 horsepower, but the total for the IMA is 73. The gasoline engine weighs only 124 pounds, which makes it, according to Honda, the smallest and lightest 1.0-liter engine in the world. Of course, it uses Honda’s various technologies, such as a lean-burn VTEC-E cylinder head, offset cylinder bores and a “nitrogen oxide adsorptive catalytic converter” to reduce emissions.

Since an electric motor is part of the IMA, one might assume that it has to be plugged in to be recharged, but that is not so. A compact nick-metal hydride battery pack resides under the cargo floor, and it gets recharged when coasting or braking. To quote Honda’s press material, when coasting or braking, the “electric-assist motor becomes a generator, converting forward momentum into electrical energy instead of wasting it as heat during conventional braking.” This is called regenerative braking, and most hybrids use it.

The electric motor also recharges the batteries under some cruising conditions.

Power steering is electric so as not to drain power from the engine.

The Insight meets California’s most stringent ULEV, or Ultra Low Emission Vehicle, standard.

You might think a car of this sophistication would cost a ton, but Honda has priced the Insight at $20,577. Only about 4,000 will be imported this year, so be prepared to wait a long time to get one.

Although it is natural to focus on the IMA powerplant, the Insight is a complete package. First, its body and chassis are made of aluminum. Suspension pieces, rear brake drums and engine mounts are also aluminum. The basic vehicle is about 40 percent lighter than if it were made of steel.

Second, its shape is extremely aerodynamic. The 0.25 coefficient of drag is one of the lowest in the world for a mass-produced vehicle. The windshield is steeply raked and the rear track is 4.3 inches narrower than the front. A teardrop shape is used for efficiency. The alloy wheels have flat faces, the rear wheels are covered and a flat underbody leaves a minimum of turbulence in the air.

Tires are a special design with low rolling resistance and they feel hard like they are overinflated. The ride is occasionally rough, but the handling seems more responsive than a standard Civic.

Settle down into the heavily contoured bucket seats (there is only room for two) and you feel like you’re driving a sports coupe. The seats and door panels are covered in very tasteful cloth that is slick and shiny, almost like a high-tech corduroy or neoprene. I liked the material a lot.

The instrument cluster is tiny and all digital, much like that of the S2000 sports car. The small gauge to the right of the speedometer shows battery level, fuel level and whether the system is assisting the engine or charging the battery.

The stereo is an AM/FM/cassette unit, climate control is fully automatic and power window switches are located on the instrument panel, which is not very convenient. Cruise control is not supplied.

Although the Insight is plenty comfortable on the highway, it is probably best used as a commuter because luggage space is fairly small. (There is no back seat.) There is a small compartment for valuables under the cargo floor.

While the Insight is not for everyone, it goes about its daily business so well that most folks wouldn’t know just how sophisticated it is unless they were told. Or until they wondered how they were getting over 50 mpg around town.

Doomsayers who think cars can’t be fun if they are clean and efficient will just have to find another parade to rain on because the Insight proves them wrong.

Price

The base price is $20,080. With floor mats and delivery, the sticker price was $20,577.

Warranty

Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: The gasoline/electric hybrid Insight is a wizard of technology. It is light, efficient and entertaining. A great conversation piece, it will run all day on one tank of gas and is rated as an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle.

Counterpoint: There are only two seats, the hard tires ride firmly and only 4,000 will be available nationwide.

SPECIFICATIONS:
ENGINE: 1.0-liter, 3-cyl. plus electric
TRANSMISSION: Five-speed
CONFIGURATION: Front-wheel drive
WHEELBASE: 94.5 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 1,856 lbs.
BASE PR ICE: $20,080
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $20,577
MPG RATING: 61 city, 70 hwy.

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