2003 Honda Insight Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
This is the most fuel-efficient car in America.
Honda's Insight is recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency as the world's most efficient gasoline-powered automobile. It earned an average fuel economy rating of 64 miles per gallon, according to the EPA, 16 mpg better than the next most efficient vehicle.
Frugal, yet sporty at the same time, there's nothing else on the road quite like the Honda Insight. It looks slippery and futuristic. And it is. According to Honda, it is the most aerodynamic production car on the road. And it was the first gasoline-electric hybrid car sold in the U.S.
Honda Insight offers the environmental benefits of an electric car without the hassles. It drives like a normal small car, yet it is one of the most fuel-efficient and cleanest gasoline-powered cars in the world. Its tail-pipe emissions are bettered only by a zero-emissions pure electric car. It's just the sort of car environmentalists should love.
Yet, unlike the totally practical Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight somehow manages to be sporty. It only seats two people, and it's fun to drive, handling well on winding roads and cruising easily at high speeds on the highway.
Hybrid gas-electric cars are currently the best, most practical answer to the question of how to conserve fuel. With the Insight, Honda has designed a great hybrid. Adjusting to it is easy. Drivers who can live with its limited cargo capacity should find the Insight to be an enjoyable long-term companion.
Just one model of the Insight is available, which retails for $18,880. Adding the factory-installed automatic climate control system (with air conditioning) brings the price to $20,080.
Honda is adding a model with a continuously variable automatic transmission, or CVT, beginning mid-year.
This car attracts attention everywhere it goes. Parked outside a world-famous restoration shop in White Post, Virginia, it attracted more attention than a colleague's beautifully maintained LaSalle. Drive one of these to a crowded parking lot and you'll need to be prepared to answer questions.
The Insight is about 9 inches shorter than the Honda Civic hatchback. It looks like a Civic in front, and it offers similar performance to the fuel-sipping Civic HX, but that's where the similarities end.
This car is a technological tour de force in many ways. Its body structure is made out of aluminum, instead of steel, with some plastic body panels.
A small 1-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine primarily powers it with an ultra-thin electric motor integrated into the transmission housing to boost performance when needed. Honda calls this system an Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) and it is the heart of the car. The electricity for the electric motor comes from a relatively small battery pack, which is kept continuously charged by the gasoline engine. The car is totally self-contained, so there is no need to charge the battery with an external cable. The driving range is only limited by the 10.6-gallon fuel tank, which does not need filling up very often.
Simply put, the battery supplies juice when the electric motor is being used. Whenever the gasoline engine's power is not required to move the car, it acts like a generator and recharges the battery. To maximize fuel economy, the engine stops running when the car stops at traffic lights and the gearshift is put in neutral. The engine then magically comes back to life when the gearshift is engaged.
The Insight is a small two-seater that has a reasonable amount of storage space behind the seats. It is a commuter car and should not be compared to a two-seat sports car. The unusual shape of the car is the result of wind tunnel testing to make it as slippery as possible for maximum fuel economy.
If the exterior looks strange wait until you get inside. The instrument panel displays numerous digital readouts to indicate what's going on. On the left there is an analog tachometer. Most of the time it seems to be running at about 2000 rpm, a comfortable engine speed for cruising. When the car is stationary, a green light indicates that the engine is in idle-stop mode. In the center there is a large digital speedometer with a readout below showing the fuel consumption and the distance on the trip odometer. A button can be pushed to give average fuel consumption for a short segment, as well as for the whole trip. What's more, when toggled to the overall distance traveled by the car it indicates the fuel consumption since the car first went into service.
To the right of the instrument panel are three displays. One is a regular fuel gauge, and then there is battery charge gauge, which shows how much the battery is charged. Above these two fuel gauges is a bar that shows whether the batteries are being charged or whether they are being used to run the electric motor (IMA).
Honda describes these displays as being like a video game. It's certainly true that there is a direct incentive to see if one can better one's fuel consumption from one trip to another by checking the fuel economy readouts. Computer geeks and gamers will enjoy all the readouts.
Storage space is limited. There are a few cubbyholes and two cupholders. A flat area behind the rear seats provides room for luggage and there is a hidden compartment under the floor that works well for keeping grocery bags from flailing about. Access to the rear through the large glass hatch is good. The floor of this storage area is high as it covers the battery pack and electronic control unit underneath.
Despite being so miserly on fuel the Insight offers creature comforts such as climate control (optional), power windows and a remote key fob. The radio sounds tinny. And the rear-view mirror could be taller to better use the split rear window.
Overall, the Insight is comfy and cozy. The bucket seats are quite comfortable, although a large person might find them a bit small as they hug one's body quite nicely. All but the tallest people will find plenty of room in the cockpit.
This is a momentum car. Much of the joy of driving it comes from driving in an efficient manner, using some of the same techniques a professional driver uses to maintain momentum in an 18-wheeler or in a showroom stock race car: Brake only as much as necessary, carry momentum through corners and over hills. Use the brakes, gas and steering wheel in a smooth, fluid fashion.
In fact, driving the Insight is not much different from driving any other compact. If you drive it normally it is a relatively spirited small two-seater coupe. It is not a sports car, but it is perfectly capable of keeping up with and passing traffic. (We found it could cruise comfortably at 80 mph, where it feels quite stable.) The big difference is that you end up getting between 50 and 60 miles per gallon without trying to drive in an economical fashion.
On the other hand, if you start to learn new habits and follow the small arrow on the dash that tells you when to upshift or downshift you'll end up getting 70 or more miles per gallon. At first, driving the car in the most economical mode is disconcerting. The engine stops running when ever you come to a stop, as long as you put the gearshift into neutral and don't leave it in gear with the clutch in. As soon as you select a gear the engine restarts instantly and the car moves off again.
On the highway one has to get used to the perception that the engine is lugging. It seems as if it needs to be downshifted into a lower gear most of the time. In fact it can be left in the higher gear as suggested by the upshift light without any problems as the electric motor adds torque as needed.
The car handles quite nicely with a good ride for a small car. It has really skinny low-rolling resistance tires that make it look under-tired. Narrow tires don't offer the grip of wider tires, but we had no problems in the lightweight Insight. You do feel and hear all the bumps on rough roads. The steering feels solid with some road feel and is not over assisted. The manual gearshift is smooth.
A new continuously variable transmission allows for an infinite number of 'gear' ratios to optimize engine performance and efficiency. With the CVT, the Insight is expected to have the highest mileage rating of any car equipped with an automatic transmission. Honda predicts an Insight CVT can achieve 50 mpg in combined city and highway driving with a driving range of more than 500 miles.
The Insight earned Sierra Club's first-ever award for Excellence in Environmental Engineering and Automobile Magazine's 1999 Technology of the Year award.
At a price below $20,000, the Insight costs about $3,000 to $4,000 more than a regular Civic with similar specs. In return, however, the Insight delivers a unique high-tech experience. It also delivers fuel economy that leads to some decent monetary savings over time. Also for those who hate going to the gas station this means quite a lot as it will get up to 700 miles between fill-ups when equipped with the manual transmission. Over one year (12,000 miles) the average person will only use 200 gallons of fuel or about $300 worth. A large SUV getting 12 mpg will go through 1,000 gallons in that amount of time and the owner will spend $1500 on fuel.
Bottom line: the Insight is a great car for anyone who cares about the environment. Although it costs a few thousand dollars more to buy than a regular car of this size, it is actually a bargain. Honda may be losing money on each Insight sold considering the cost of the high-tech parts and the all-aluminum body structure, let alone the research and development for such a low-volume car.
Honda's Insight is much more practical than an electric car as the driving range is unlimited. Performance and ride are more than adequate for around town and occasional long trips. Because of this, it makes an ideal commuter car, a great runabout as a second car, and a good car for someone on a budget. It's just the ticket for early adopters of leading-edge technology.
Options As Tested
automatic air conditioning ($1200).
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