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MotorWeek tests the Honda Insight

MotorWeek lead story shown 6/18/00 on WGTE, PBS station in Toledo, Ohio

Your host for MotorWeek: John Davis.

Well hello! Welcome again to MotorWeek. We’re glad to have you with us.

For years, we’ve been hearing about alternative fuel technology and the role it will play in the automotive future. The skeptics have dismissed the talk as nothing more than automakers trying to massage their guilty conscious and appease the tree-hugger crowd. Also, isn’t the technology far too expensive to practical?

Well, the future is here and the skeptics are wrong, at least on one count. The Honda Insight hybrid is available right now and at a very affordable price. But can it satisfy the needs of the environmentally extreme—and the rest of us?

Well the answer to that question can be both yes and no. Because while the 2000 Insight is an unqualified success when it comes to delivering hybrid power technology at a practical price, its 2-person capacity does rather limit its all-around usefulness to families.

But when it comes to the task of transporting you around town to and from work in a highly fuel-efficient manner—and that is its primary function—the sporty looking Insight is eminently practical. And the heart of that practicality can be found under the hood in the form of a gasoline-electric drive system Honda calls Integrated Motor Assist. And although it makes use of numerous advanced technologies, the operating principles of IMA are really quite simple.

The IMA’s primary motivation comes from this 1-liter, single overhead cam, 12-valve VTEC-E three-cylinder gasoline engine that weighs just 124 pounds. On its own, this little ULEV power plant produces 67 horsepower and 66 pound-feet of torque.

If that doesn’t seem like enough oomph to move you around town, don’t dispair, this mini-motivator comes with a friend. It’s a 10-kilowatt permanent-magnet electric motor that, at just 2-1/2 inches wide, mounts neatly between the engine and transmission. Operating in parallel with the gasoline engine and powered by rear-mounted compact nickel-hydride battery pack, it is always ready with an additional boost of 25 pound-feet of torque.

As a whole, IMA operates like this. From start-up to shut down, primary power comes from the gasoline engine. When moderate to heavy acceleration is called for, the electric motor automatically kicks in, providing the extra punch. When working together, total output of both gas and electric motors reaches 73 horsepower and 91 pound-feet of torque.

Unlike Toyota’s Prius hybrid, in the Insight at no time are you running completely on electric power. But both take advantage of regenerative braking to recharge the batteries, eliminating the need to find a place to plug in.

Also unlike the auto-equipped Prius, the Insight only comes with a rather clunky and tall-geared five-speed manual transmission.

The EPA estimates rate the Insight’s fuel economy at 61 city and 70 highway. With only a few days for testing, we recorded 47.8 miles per gallon in 300 miles of heavy-footed, mostly city driving, and that’s still very impressive.

To further improve it’s stingy fuel economy, the Insight also has an idle stop mode that shuts the engine off at standstill while the trans is in neutral and the clutch disengaged. To resume power, simply engage the clutch and select first gear and the car automatically restarts.

Once up and running we ran the Insight to 60 in 11.2 seconds with the quarter passing in 18.1 seconds at 75 miles per hour.

Initial power-on take-off is good. In fact it’s easy to induce wheel-spin and the Insight pulls strongly all the way to its 6,000 rpm redline. But power drops considerably when shifting to second and momentum is gained more slowly.

To shut down that momentum, the Insight offers excellent braking with a 4-wheel ABS disk/drum system that’s standard on the car. It stops from 60 in an average of 120 feet. Our drivers praised the Insight’s stability, pedal-feel, and consistency during numerous runs on an 85 degree day.

Despite looking like a sporty coupe, however, Insight handling is more econobox. The majority of the negative complaints were aimed at the 14-inch alloy-mounted low rolling resistance tires. The car itself feels balanced and stable and is equipped with a competent McPherson strut front/twist-beam rear suspension. But the tires provide very little grip and it’s easy to induce oversteer. There’s also not much in the way of feel from the electric variable-assist rack-and-pinion steering.

But out in normal traffic, the Insight has no problem holding it’s own. Power is plentiful for urban assaults and out on the interstate the Insight easily maintains 70 miles per hour. Although at those speeds, it does tend to wander a bit and is a little touchy when confronted with crosswinds. Honda recommends 65 as an ideal cruising speed.

If the heart of the Insight is in its power train, then its soul can be found in its slippery styling and lightweight structure. And like the heart, it, too, is dedicated to squeezing long distances from a gallon of gas.

Insight’s aerodynamic design begins with a low rounded nose stretched over a 56.5-inch wide track—a look that is distinctly Honda. The bulbous headlamps are smoothly integrated into the rounded front fenders, which join the sharply raked windshield in flowing to the rear over a 94.5-inch wheelbase like a teardrop.

Full advantage is taken of the teardrop shape by narrowing the rear track 4.3 inches to 52.2 and covering the rear wheels with funky looking, drag-reducing fender skirts. This aluminum body is wrapped around a cutting-edge high-strength aluminum chassis and framework that surrounds a somewhat Spartan, yet comfortable interior.

Occupants sit in a pair of firm and thin manually operated bucket seats with the driver facing a sporty looking S2000-type steering wheel and a comprehensive and fun cluster of digital gauges that indicate everything from speed and fuel economy, gas and battery levels, to when the electric motor is kicking in and when the batteries are recharging.

Our tester came with the optional air-conditioning with automatic climate control. It works well without robbing the car’s power and is a must-have in our book. The AM-FM cassette stereo below is just basic stuff but it does great traffic reports.

Storage throughout the cabin is adequate and there’s 5 cubic feet under the rear hatch behind the seats and another 1-1/2 in the storage compartment hidden in the rear floor. And just so you know the Insight is not a bare-bones stripper, power windows, door locks, and mirrors are standard. And so is the stripped-down base price of just $19,295. Our tester with the optional A/C is still only $20,577.

Who said hybrid technology isn’t affordable? Plus, Honda has already pledged to put the Insight’s power train into a larger, higher-volume Civic soon. The 2000 Honda Insight clearly shows what can be accomplished when hybrid technology is approached with a mainstream result in mind. And with plenty of competition on the horizon, Honda’s not the only one thinking that way.

If Honda’s Insight, Toyota’s Prius and the other hybrids on the way are successful, they will also provide plenty of motivation for the fuel-conscious fellowship to accelerate their pursuit for greener highways.

As for the rest of us, well you’ve got to admit this funky little Insight might not look so bad sitting in our garage—right next to the diesel Excursion.