With the recent turmoil in the world's oil markets, and consequent rising gasoline prices, gasoline-electric hybrids are more popular than ever. They've gone from being the province of techie early-adopters to become trendy statements by people who could afford a more expensive and/or thirstier vehicle. At the same time, they are becoming more mainstream than ever, with hybrid mid-size sedans and SUVs now available. Some industry pundits claim that within a few years we'll all be driving hybrids, although this view is perhaps a bit extreme.
Honda was the first to market with its Insight, released as a model year 2000 car in late 1999. It was later joined by a hybrid Civic sedan, and, more recently, a hybrid version of the Accord sedan. The Civic and Accord, being larger, are more practical than the tiny, two-seat Insight, but the Insight is still the American-market mileage champ, rated by the EPA at 60 mpg city and 66 highway for the manual-transmission version and 57/56 for the automatic.
That automatic is one of the very few functional changes to the Insight since its introduction, and is the most significant. In keeping with the Insight's high-tech and ultra-efficient nature, it's not a conventional torque-converter automatic, but a continuously-variable transmission (CVT). Smaller, lighter, and more efficient than a torque-converter transmission, a CVT uses variable-ratio pulleys and computer control for a wide range of gear ratios. As the pulley sizes change, the gear ratios change, smoothly, without discrete steps as in a conventional transmission, and the engine can be kept in its most efficient and powerful operating range.
I've been interested in in driving a CVT-equipped Insight since it was introduced back in 2002, but have not had the opportunity until now. The CVT fits very well into the Insight's high-tech, low-mass character, adding less than a hundred pounds. Both the car's 1.0-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine and Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) motor-generator have been modified, and the CVT model's final drive ratio is considerably lower, at 5.69:1 compared to 3.21 for the manual, to take advantage of the CVT's wider-spread ``gear'' ratios.
Any performance loss from the extra weight and slight decrease in engine horsepower is minimal. And the CVT makes the Insight easier to drive in heavy traffic and on the highway, as the manual Insight requires plenty of shifting. Since it never shifts, in the conventional sense, the CVT drivetrain feels like it's electric, not internal combustion, although the Insight and other IMA Hondas never operate as purely electric vehicles.
The Insight was developed as a high-mileage commuter car, and gains efficiency not only by its drivetrain but by light weight and clean aerodynamics. Even with the CVT and air conditioning (standard on the CVT model, optional with the standard transmission) curb weight is under 2,000 lbs, very light for a modern car with full creature comforts and safety equipment, thanks to an aluminum unibody structure and body panels. Like other hybrids, the Insight's engine stops when the car is stopped at a light or in traffic, contributing greatly to fuel economy. Hey, at zero mph with the engine running, you're getting zero mpg. It starts right up when you take your foot off the brake, or put the manual-transmission car in gear.
I had ample opportunity during my week with the Insight CVT to experience the engine-stop feature, and also high-speed highway travel. It had no problem keeping up with traffic in any situation, and returned overall mileage over 50 mpg. If that's not quite to EPA theoretical test-cycle specs, the EPA highway test is at somewhat less than the 70-plus mph that is the standard highway speed where I live. 50 mpg is not exactly poor mileage.
An Insight is a large car only by the standards of European or Japanese micro-cars. Its teardrop two-door hatchback shape looks aerodynamic. It is, with a coefficient of drag of 0.25, achieved by attention to details like spats over the rear wheels and a relatively smooth underbody. The front grille and headlight treatment are undeniably Honda.
There is room for two inside of the Insight, with space for luggage on the shelf behind the seats and in a picnic cooler-sized covered compartment underneath the rear part of that shelf. Interior styling is contemporary sports Honda, upscale from a Civic and very similar to that of the S2000 roadster. It's roomier than an S2000, but not by much. Six-footers will fit. Travel light - the Insight was conceived as a commute and short-distance vehicle, not a take-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink family vacation wagon. It has plenty of space for its intended use, and if you are used to airline carry-on regulations, a weekend for two people will present no problems. The air conditioning works very well, especially with a minimal volume to fill, with no discernible effect on performance. Soundproofing adds weight, so it's kept to a minimum. The road noise is at a higher level than in most other upscale small cars, but engine and wind noise levels are very low.
The Honda Insight has safety-cage construction with front and rear crumple zones, side-impact protection, dual air bags, and antilock brakes.
RIDE AND HANDLING:
If the Insight looks sporty because of its sleek, aerodynamic styling, it really isn't any more of a sports car than a regular model Civic. Which means that it's nimble and maneuverable, thanks to light weight and a well-tuned suspension. But, since the tires were chosen for low rolling resistance and consequently improved mileage, not traction, an Insight will not have the cornering ability of a Civic LX, let alone an Si. For the normal, everyday use for which it was designed it's fine, and among the better small cars for ride comfort. Suspension compliance is very good, and, within its limits, the Insight is fun to drive.
The CVT Insight shares its 995cc three-cylinder gasoline engine with the regular five-speed manual model, but a lower compression ratio (from 10.8:1 to 10.3:1) and other modifications drop its power output a touch from 67 to 65 horsepower at 5700 rpm, with torque down to 65 lb-ft from 66, at 4800 rpm. However, a slightly different IMA electric motor-generator, while apparently less powerful with 13 hp at 2000 rpm versus the manual's 14 at 3000, produces more torque when combined with the engine. So maximum combined horsepower is the same, 73 at 5700 rpm, and the CVT's combined torque is higher, with 89 lb-ft at 2000 rpm instead of 79 at 1500. This, and the CVT drivetrain's lower final drive ratio and wider gear ratio spread, give it a good punch when maximum throttle is applied. The CVT adds smoothness to the driveline, removes the need for shifting, and does an exemplary job of keeping the small engine working at its best. A steep but fast highway hill near my house that has left some older hybrids feeling rather weak and unhappy posed no problem for the CVT Insight. Electric turbo, anyone? Like a turbocharger, the IMA motor-generator is called to action when extra power is needed for acceleration and hill-climbing, and feels like a low-pressure turbo. Unlike at turbo, the motor becomes a generator when braking or coasting, which recharges the nickel metal-hydride battery pack. Magnetic and mechanical drag from operation as a generator also helps slow the car, aiding the Insight's already very good antilock disc/drum brake system. With the CVT powertrain, the Insight's emissions status is changed from ``merely'' ULEV to SULEV-2. My mileage, at 51 mpg overall, was less than the EPA rating, but included plenty of 70 mph-plus highway miles. And the car was not even broken in, with just over 300 miles on the odometer when it was delivered. Fifty-plus mpg in the real world is not bad at all.
The Honda Insight is still the fuel economy king, and a CVT adds convenience and refinement with a minimal penalty at the pump.
2005 Honda Insight CVT
Base Price $ 21,530
Price As Tested $ 22,045
Engine Type dual overhead cam, aluminum alloy,
12-valve, single overhead cam inline
3-cylinder with VTEC-E variable valve
timing and lift and Integrated Motor
Engine Size 1.0 liters / 61 cu. in.
Horsepower 65 @ 5700 rpm, 73 with IMA
Torque (lb-ft) 65 @ 4800 rpm, 89 with IMA
Electric Motor 13 hp @ 2000 rpm permanent magnet DC
Battery Pack 144 volt (120 cells x 1.2v) Ni-MH
Wheelbase / Length 94.5 in. / 155.1 in.
Curb Weight 1975 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 30 / 27 with IMA
Fuel Capacity 10.6 gal.
Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires P165/65 SR14 Bridgestone Potenza RE92
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum,
antilock and regenerative braking
Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut /
semi-independent torsion-beam axle
Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
city / highway / observed 57 / 56 / 51
0 to 60 mph 11 sec
OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Destination charge $ 515