Insight for the Myopic

July 10, 2009
Ashly Knapp & Jean Swenson

Financially speaking, Honda's new Insight is a success and breakthrough. Now, you can buy an import automakers’ hybrid for below $20,000.

Financially speaking, Honda's new Insight is a success and breakthrough. Now, you can buy an import automakers’ hybrid for below $20,000. Breakthrough pricing combined with an average of over 40 miles per gallon puts this family car within the reach of millions. Honda’s completely redesigned 2010 Insight has just gone on sale in North America.

First sold in Asia, the new Insight became the number one selling car in Japan last month. In 1999, the original gasoline-electric Insight was the first modern hybrid to go on sale. With the overall cost of operation dropping to historical lows, you'll be able to invest your money elsewhere for better return. So, liquidate the Land Bruiser and junk the Jeep in a timely fashion to minimize your carbon footprint and income evaporation.

Downsize Up

The Insight is loaded with luxuries and conveniences that make going up-market by downsizing a lot more enjoyable. The new Insight is 172.3 inches long and 66.7 inches wide—that's about 5 inches shorter and 2 inches narrower than the Honda Civic. The new Insight at 2,727 lbs is a four-door hatchback with fold down rear seats. Size and body style make this a better city car than the Civic.

More so than usual, the function of this car has dictated its design. The nose and windshield are steeply raked, making the whole style clean to the wind. As you might imagine, Honda has done a great deal to manage the airflow underneath the car, which is really turbulent as well as around the mirrors and wheels. Noise is kept to a minimum with the windswept styling. The aerodynamics have a meaningful payoff above 30 miles an hour.

Purposeful Efficiency

Honda has succeeded in developing a distinct hybrid style that looks like and fits in well with the whole Honda family of cars. All lighting has to be super efficient, particularly all high-powered exterior illumination. Some of the reflecting surfaces in the long curved headlight are tinted blue for style, with extensive use of LEDs. For price and energy considerations, fog lights are not available from the factory.

The four doors are large, making ingress and egress easier, aided by the tall 56.2-inch roof. The fifth door is massive and well counter weighted. Bicycles and the like are easy to load using the fold down rear seats.

Honda’s Unique Engine

Honda's hybrid is quite unique with the only electric motor/generator placed inside of the engine. The axle of the electric motor/generator is the engine’s crankshaft. This puzzle is difficult to imagine, yet is brilliantly executed. Honda is the only automaker that has two power plants built within one casing. Most bus, truck, and auto builders put their electric drive motors in the transmission housing.

Traditionally, automakers have had a very tough time engaging and disengaging the separate hybrid drive system built into transmissions. We drove Toyota’s Camry and Prius hybrids back-to-back against Honda's Insight. In Toyota’s hybrids, you could feel all sorts of engagement and disengagement of the engine, electric drive, and transmission attempting to play a smooth symphony. Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) is what Honda calls their dual power plant; its start and idle is so smooth, it's reminiscent of Jaguar’s V12 engine.

This substantially aluminum alloy four-cylinder, in-line engine is only 1339 cc in volume and puts out 98 hp at 5800 rpm to the front wheels. Oddly, peak torque of 123 lb-ft is reached before 1700 rpm, a unique benefit of IMA and great for city driving. This small, four-cylinder engine only has a single overhead camshaft with two valves per cylinder. At high RPM’s when all the power is needed, Honda’s i-VTEC opens the engine valves more for horsepower, quickly. We would like to see direct injection and variable valve timing on a smaller engine putting out the same power. The electric motor creates about 13 hp.

No Gears CVT

The constantly variable transmission has become the darling of the hybrid automakers. There are no gears, just one hell of a strong belt attached to two pulleys that change ratios as power is required. CVT's have quietly been in America for over a decade, and decades before in Asia and Europe. The whole driveline is impressive, solid-feeling, nimble, and the most predictable. We were disappointed to find that the driveline, although responsive, was not quick.

Over the next few years, all the highest mileage hybrids will have the engine completely separate from the drive wheels. The engines will only turn generators, which in turn power the electric drive motors, just like a World War II diesel/electric submarine or all the diesel/ electric train engines that run all over North America that have replaced steam for decades. Few of us remember when dirty coal powered the transportation of North America. Interestingly, Rudolf diesel experimented with burning finely powdered coal in the combustion chamber of his experimental engines.

Stretching Miles

The big disadvantage of Hondas driveline is that most of the time, the engine has to run when the car is moving, thus you can only stretch a gallon of gasoline so far, with the electric motor having to drag around all the engine parts. Conversely, serious “hypermilers” are getting 10 to 30 more miles per gallon than the 40 city/43 highway the EPA reports.

On the inside, the driver is complemented by the gauge array. The beautiful blue backlit gauges are designed to entertain you, while encouraging you to pull the best fuel economy out of the driveline. In the center of the information panel is tachometer, and in the center of the tachometer is a digital screen that you can control. This little information screen can be set with features that encourage you to be lighter on the accelerator pedal and even better on the brake pedal, to encourage the ultimate in regenerative braking. This is more than a simple trip computer. To the right is a gasoline gauge that seems to go down ever so slowly. To the right is your other fuel gauge that shows when you're pumping energy into your drive batteries and when you're pulling energy out.

A special green Econ button when pushed changes the programming of the driveline for even better fuel economy.

Insight vs. Prius

In the Honda style, all interior controls worked well, responded, and felt symmetrical. All plastic and upholstery fit tightly and was sewn well. There was not a loose thread on this whole car. When the new Prius from Toyota comes out soon, drive them back-to-back. Yes, the Toyota gets better fuel economy, but it costs thousands more to buy. After you drive, decide which car has a better driveline and is more enjoyable all around.

The steel unit body Honda Insight has independent suspension, and sadly only offers stability control in the more expensive EX model.

Buyer’s Market

Because gasoline is plentiful right now and the price is relatively low and stable, hybrid cars can be had for a bargain. That’s including the new Insight. A bargain means that you might pay for a car what the dealer paid for the car. Plus, check for rebates of up to $1,000. A negotiator can buy a Prius below dealer’s invoice price, and while you're at it, tell them you're not paying that exorbitant dealer prep charge either. Note, a $150 prep is too much.

For the latest dealer cost pricing, look at www.theautochannel.com and cross check a different source at www.KBB.com. To check and see if you’re vehicle is on the list for a tax benefit, go to www.fueleconomy.gov, where you’ll find links to the current and changing IRS rebates on hybrids along with ones you may have missed in the past.

After you examine dealer cost pricing, compare the cost of operation for Honda's new Insight, estimated at a little over $400 per month over 5 years, according to www.intellichoice.com. Juxtaposition the popular SUV’S BMW X5 or the Mercedes ML350 at over $1,000 per month in ownership costs. Not only are you contributing to a greener world, you’ll have more green in your pocket.

Gasoline-electric hybrids will continue to increase in popularity over the next few years. They'll be popular longer than the eight-track tape, but probably not as long as the cassette tape. Soon, we’ll see diesel-electric hybrids, then probably natural gas-electric hybrids, followed by hydrogen-electric hybrids. For the best value, keep your new Insight for at least a decade.