If Honda had benefited from greater insight into this whole save-the-planet thing in the late 1990s, it would undoubtedly have created a vehicle more like the new 2010 Insight hatchback instead of the Jetsons-style two-seater that pioneered the company's efforts in the hybrid segment.
But the original Insight of 1999 did provide a starting point and proved the value of the company's parallel hybrid approach versus the more complex combined hybrid technology Toyota developed for its admittedly very popular Prius.
My sense is that Honda isn't convinced hybrids are the main way we'll motor into a greener future. But, as it has to be in the game for marketing and image reasons, it is making the most of it by offering fuel economy benefits without adding undue cost and complexity.
Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system incorporates an electric motor/generator and a battery to augment the power of a smaller-than-normal gasoline engine and deliver acceptable performance. It also allows the gasoline motor to automatically switch off when the vehicle stops to reduce idling fuel usage.
And the motor, which also acts as the starter, performs a fourth trick, turning itself into a generator when you lift off the gas to recharge the battery. The term for this, "regenerative braking," is actually a bit misleading as it has nothing to do with the use of the car's service brakes. It just means the vehicle's momentum is being used to turn the generator.
As the starter/generator and the battery pack aren't being asked to provide propulsion for the entire vehicle (as with the Prius, which can travel on battery power alone), they don't add much to the Insight's overall weight (50 kg lighter than a Civic Hybrid), which, along with its slippery aerodynamics, also helps fuel economy.
In addition there's a sort of interactive electronic fuel booster, the Eco Assist system that manages throttle, idle-shutoff time, the transmission, air conditioning and cruise control to provide even better economy. And a display in the speedometer that provides visual feedback about your driving style. You can earn up to five little green plant leaf displays by driving conservatively.
What all this adds up to are rather amazing fuel economy ratings of 4.8 L/100 km city and 4.5 highway. The test car's readout was showing an average of 5.2 L/100 km after my time with it. But surprisingly a Civic Hybrid is rated at an even-better 4.7 city/4.3 highway. The 2010 Prius is rated at a remarkable 3.7 city/4.0 highway.
The original Insight didn't make any sense in practical terms, other than putting up great fuel economy numbers, of course. Then the Accord Hybrid basically explored the idea of adding an electric motor performance boost to the output of the V-6, while delivering decent economy. It was a concept not many buyers bought into, resulting in the model being available for only a couple of years.
Creating a Civic Hybrid was a more sensible approach. It offers compact car capabilities with enhanced economy and without too much of a performance penalty - the Hybrid generating 110 hp, compared with 140 hp with the normal Civic.
The Civic Hybrid's main drawback is that it's not available in hatchback form. Another drawback is that those who want to go green, want to be seen to be doing so and - aside from a couple of badges - the Hybrid Civic doesn't look much different from the regular model.
The new Insight, on the other hand, makes a strong green visual statement with its distinctive four-door hatchback bodywork, which can seat five, although you wouldn't want to be the one in the middle of the rear seat.
It can also fit in 450 litres of cargo with the rear 60/40-split seatback up and 981 litres with it folded. Don't plan on bulky items, though, as the rear hatch (split by an annoying horizontal brace with glass above and below) slopes dramatically. A Civic Hybrid sedan offers only 298 litres of trunk space.
The dash is interesting, a two-level design with digital speedometer up top and analogue gauges in the main display below, climate controls in a panel adjacent to your right hand and the audio controls beside it.
Our blue on the outside Insight was done in dark over light grey inside with cloth upholstery on seats that provide adequate support.
Standard equipment includes automatic climate control with air conditioning, front and front/side airbags, vanity mirrors, cup holders, power windows and locks and remote entry.
It's not fancy, but it doesn't look cheap and it's functional, with reasonable headroom and also quiet enough at speed. Quite livable, in other words, so you don't have to suffer particularly while saving the planet.
The Insight's gasoline engine is a rev-y 1.3-litre, four-cylinder, twin-cam with variable valve control and cylinder deactivation that's combined with an electric motor producing 13 hp, for a total of 98 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque.
This drives the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. Performance is lively enough and drivability fine, although the motor restart should be smoother - it kind of chugs back into life.
Handling is fine, in fact fairly sporty feeling with nicely weighted and direct steering. Ride is on the hard side, though. Over all, driving the Insight on a day-to-day basis wouldn't be a bad thing.
And one final comparison, price. Honda's Insight wins in terms of the amount of "green" you have to hand over, priced at $23,900 for an LX and $27,500 for the EX. A Civic Hybrid lists at $26,350 and Toyota's Prius at $27,400.
2010 Honda Insight
Type: Compact hybrid hatchback
Engine: 1.3-litre, DOHC, inline-four gas engine, with electric motor
Horsepower/torque: 98 hp/ 123 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 4.8 city/4.5 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Civic Hybrid, Toyota Prius
- Exterior styling is attractive and makes a green statement
- Interior is pleasant if plain
- Performance is adequate and fuel economy terrific
- Automatic engine restart is far from seamless
- Horizontally split rear hatch glass
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