So what the heck is a hybrid car?

That's the question many consumers might be asking themselves these days and it's one we've pondered ourselves. But since we've spent some time in the 2000 Honda Insight, which uses both gasoline and electric power, we're beginning to appreciate the concept.

The Insight has two virtues - unbelievable fuel economy of up to 70 miles per gallon and amazingly clean operation because of the electric motor. It's really the first mass-produced vehicle of its kind on U.S. roads. And it's the forerunner of many more. Best of all, the Insight, although it has a few design flaws of its own, eliminates many of the problems of other pure electric cars. And it costs less than $21,000. All things considered, we loved it.

He: I really liked driving General Motors Corp.'s EV-1, one of the first modern electric cars which is no longer in production. It was fast, it was quiet, and it was pretty sleek, but it had some major drawbacks, including extremely limited range between charges. And that huge battery pack took up all kinds of space. Honda has solved some of those problems by adding a small three-cylinder gasoline engine to the electric motor, which is why this is called a hybrid. You don't have to worry about a massive battery pack. You can go hundreds of miles before refueling. It gets truly awesome fuel economy. And you never have to plug it in because the gas engine is constantly recharging the batteries.

She: I feel like you're lecturing me - and everybody else. But you do tend to get preachy if you've been sold on the hybrid concept. I found the Insight soothing to both the psyche and the purse. After years of what felt like pigging out on sport-utility vehicles that get 14 miles per gallon, it was refreshing to be in the Insight. I loved passing gas stations advertising regular gas for $1.69 a gallon. The Insight gives you the same feeling you get when you've eaten fast food for weeks and now you are on a healthy regimen. Very cool.

He: Which is not to say the Insight is without problems of its own. For one thing, it can only fit two people. There is virtually no cargo space in the rear, which means you're not going to be able to haul many groceries. And unless you can drive a stick, forget about it. There's no automatic transmission available. Finally, I wish Honda would have had the foresight - the insight? - to have installed side air bags, especially on a car this small. It would improve my own peace of mind.

She: You need to adjust to the Insight in a variety of ways because it's not a conventional automobile, nor is it perfectly designed. I had the most problems with visibility. Two issues: The driver's seat has no height adjustment for a shorter person like me. That's compounded by a rear window that split into two sections, and tends to be disorienting. And the instrument panel takes some getting used to because there are digital gauges that you don't see in a regular car - like the ones measuring battery capacity and range.

He: But shouldn't we talk about all the good things? If you don't pay much attention to the gaudy instrument cluster, you'd almost never guess you're driving a hybrid electric car. It's seamless. You jump in, turn the car, fire up the gas engine, slip the transmission into gear, goose the throttle, and you're off. It's literally that simple. Honda used lots of parts from other car lines, including the Civic, so the Insight really feels pretty much like a regular car in terms of how it rides, handles, steers and brakes. The ride is a little rough, but that's partly because the car is small and so light. It's really nimble and easy to park.

She: I think a lot of guys in particular will appreciate how Honda tried to give the Insight a sporty feel. The cabin has a three-spoke steering wheel and sporty bucket seats, similar to the S2000 sports car. Outside, it's kind of wedge-shaped and very aerodynamic looking.

He: With the EV-1, you almost had to be an environmental activist to want to drive one. With the Insight, if you're willing to put up with a few compromises, you don't have to be a tree-hugger to appreciate its virtues.

2001 Honda Insight

Anita's rating: world class

Paul's rating: world class

Likes: Awesome fuel economy. Seems more sophisticated than earlier EVs we've tested. Don't have to plug anything in.* Nothing else like it on the road. Surprisingly well-equipped. Affordable at under $21,000.

Dislikes: Only seats two. No automatic transmission. Restricted visibility. No side air bags. Driver's seat needs height adjuster. Lacks little amenities like lighted visor vanity mirrors.

Type: Front/rear-engine, front-wheel drive,two-passenger hybrid gas/electric car

Price: Base, $20,080; as tested, $20,577 (inc. $415 destination charge)

Engine: 1.0-liter I-3; 73-hp; 66 lb-ft torque; plus electric motor

EPA fuel economy: 61 mpg city/70 mpg highway

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,145 (*Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Tochigi, Japan