It’s been almost ten years since Honda introduced the American public to a new idea in driving, with a gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle called the Insight. The small, two-seat car with a teardrop shape was a model of efficiency and foretold an interesting trend in automobiles. (Arriving in December 1999, it beat the first Toyota Prius to our roads by a few months.)
Fuel economy was amazing, as the purposeful car wore EPA estimates that haven’t been matched to this day. Many owners were able to coax as much as 80 miles or more out of each gallon under ideal driving conditions, and still do to this day. Although discontinued in 2005, thousands of Insights continue to travel the roads in search of optimum gas mileage.
But the car had downsides which limited its appeal. First and foremost was its lack of a back seat and much cargo space, so it wasn’t ideal for much driving beyond commuting duty. It also didn’t offer a lot of comfort or luxury, especially considering its rather steep sticker price of nearly $20,000. A buyer’s money was going toward technology, not frills.
Arriving in showrooms soon will be a 2010 Honda Insight, the name being assigned to a completely new hybrid car. This one’s a 4-door, with a full back seat and a large cargo area beneath a hatch that swings open wide. And yes, it does vaguely resemble the popular Toyota Prius. But Honda is quick to point out that they didn’t copy Toyota’s design at all.
First off, the basic shape of the Prius, the Insight or any other car that’s aimed at maximum economy is the shape of aerodynamic efficiency. Wind tunnel research has shown that a gently sloping roofline, ending in an abrupt vertical tail, slips through the air better than any other form that can also hold passengers in comfort.
Secondly, the rear section of the 2010 Insight, when viewed from the side, almost perfectly mirrors the original 2000 Insight’s tapered tail. And Honda even asks us to look back further, to the compact CRX of the 1980s. That sporty economy car also wore a similar tail design.
So Honda didn’t really copy Toyota; it copied itself. They also didn’t copy Toyota’s hybrid power train, instead furthering their own Integrated Motor Assist system. The big difference is that the Insight (as well as the Civic Hybrid) won’t travel on electric power alone. The Prius and many other models of hybrid vehicles can move along with the engine shut-off at low speeds.
The Insight’s battery-powered motor is there to help the gasoline engine move the car when additional acceleration is needed. This allows for a smaller gasoline engine, which saves fuel overall. Honda’s IMA system does mimic other hybrids at other times, such as when stopped at a traffic light. The gas engine quietly stops, then instantly comes back to life as soon as the accelerator is pressed.
This pays off handsomely in fuel economy ratings, which are 40 mpg in the city and 43 on the highway. But a careful driver can easily beat those numbers, says Honda, by wisely using the Eco Assist to maximize efficiency even further. That system includes an “eco” switch on the dash which changes the mapping of the car’s computer to help you drive smoother and more economically.
The other place Honda is trying to save buyers’ money is with the purchase price, which starts at $19,800 for the Insight LX. If you’ve shopped for hybrid vehicles lately, that’s a bargain. Even the more upscale EX grade is only $21,300, and that model is pretty much fully loaded. The only other option is a navigation system for the EX, which raises the sticker price to $23,100.
The Insight should sell very well, even in a year in which auto sales will continue to sag. Although gasoline is priced low right now, most people realize that prices won’t stay that way for long. The environmental factor will also be appealing to many, especially given the new Honda’s relative affordability.
It’s also a very easy car to live with. Plenty of comfort, especially in the EX model I tested. The rear seats fold down, providing a huge cargo area for things like bicycles or the weekly specials from the home improvement store. Having the hatchback design is a good idea, as it helps wean people away from the convenience of the SUVs they once swore they needed.
This is going to be a big year for introductions of new hybrid models, including an update of the first one that married luxury, utility and hybrid power. We’re also going to see an all-new Toyota Prius, and a hybrid sedan that could really help one of the ailing Detroit automakers. I’m planning reviews of all of these for upcoming columns.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net