2000 Honda Insight
2000 Honda Insight. Click image to enlarge

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Honda Canada

Article and photo by Bill Vance

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2006 Honda Insight

Gasoline/electric hybrid cars are currently the most conspicuous evidence of “going green,” with the Toyota Prius as the poster child for the genre. Other manufacturers are joining the trend, and either have hybrids on sale or soon will have. Modern technology gives them good performance and reliability with fuel economy superior to a regular gasoline-engined vehicle.

Hybrids differ from regular vehicles by having two distinct power sources: an internal combustion engine and an electric motor and battery pack. The electric motor assists the gasoline engine, and in some cases can use pure electric mode to propel the car on its own, albeit usually short distances and low speeds.

Hybrids are not new. As far back as 1902, a young Austrian engineer named Ferdinand Porsche, known as the father of the Volkswagen Beetle, designed an award winning car with an electric motor in each front-wheel hub. The batteries were charged by a gasoline engine.

2006 Honda Insight
2006 Honda Insight; photo by Peter Bleakney. Click image to enlarge

Canada had its own early hybrid too. In 1914, the Galt Motor Co. of Galt, Ontario (now part of Cambridge), introduced the Galt “storage-gas-electric” car, propelled by a Westinghouse electric motor. The batteries were charged by a generator driven by a small two-stroke gasoline engine running at a constant 800 rpm. Although an ingenious idea, it didn’t catch on and only two were built.

In more modern times, diesel-electric locomotives with a form of hybrid drive replaced steam engines with great success as railroad traction engines.

While the Prius, which Toyota introduced in Japan in 1997, is the best known gasoline/electric hybrid, Honda was the first to sell one in North America. The Honda Insight hybrid arrived in 1999 as a 2000 model – a few months before the Prius.

The Insight was well received by the media, winning both the 2000 International Car of the Year award and being named by the North American press as their Car of the Year.

The Insight was a small two passenger coupe with a 67-horsepower 995-cc, inline three-cylinder, single overhead camshaft gasoline engine with aluminum block and head. It had four valves per cylinder and was transversely mounted. Power went to the front wheels initially through a regular five-speed manual transmission, although a continuously variable transmission became optional.

Engine assistance came from a ring-shaped, 13-horsepower electric motor just over 63 mm (2.5 in.) thick and attached to the crankshaft where the flywheel would normally be.

2006 Honda Insight
2006 Honda Insight; photo by Peter Bleakney. Click image to enlarge

Unlike the Prius, the Insight’s electric motor was permanently connected to the driveline. Also unlike the Prius which can travel on battery power alone, the Insight’s electric motor did not propel the car by itself; its role was to assist the engine, in other words, to act like an “electric supercharger.” That’s why Honda calls the system “Integrated Motor Assist.” It also converted itself into a starter as required.

The Insight’s batteries were recharged either by the engine, or by the motor, which transformed into a generator and used braking energy for recharging.

The Insight’s technology was housed in a small (3,937 mm; 155 in. long), sleek two-passenger, all-aluminum unit-construction coupe with a rear track 109 mm (4.3 in.) narrower than the front. This allowed the shape to taper to the rear for lower drag, further enhanced by fully skirted rear wheels. The coefficient of aerodynamic drag was only 0.25 while most modern cars were over 0.30 (the Prius’s is 0.29). Luggage access was through the hatchback and the battery was located under the trunk floor.

Although the Insight’s first priority was fuel economy, its performance was respectable. Car and Driver magazine (1/00) reported that, with a full battery charge, the 948 kg (2,090 lb) coupe accelerated from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 10.6 seconds and reached a top speed of 172 km/h (107 mph).

But fuel economy was where the Insight shone. Natural Resources Canada’s fuel consumption rating was 3.9 L/100 km (72 mpg) city and 3.2 (88) highway. Even though it’s a rare motorist who achieves these figures, they indicate that real world economy would still be outstanding. This also resulted in extremely low exhaust emissions.

2006 Honda Insight
2006 Honda Insight; photo by Peter Bleakney. Click image to enlarge

A significant contributor to a hybrid’s good city economy is a “stop-start” feature that shuts the engine off when the car is stationary. Depress the clutch or press the accelerator and the engine restarts. Because the Insight’s generator/starter was so powerful, starting was almost instant.

Insight production began in 1999 and ended in May 2006, with a total of approximately 13,000 produced. Honda Canada reports that 396 were sold in Canada. It is almost certain that the Insight’s selling price which started at $23,000 and rose to $26,000 didn’t make any money for Honda.

But profit was not the aim of the Insight. Honda’s goal was to demonstrate and prove its hybrid technology to the public. In that, it was successful, and many of the lessons learned with Integrated Motor Assist were useful when the technology was transferred to the later Civic hybrid and the now discontinued Accord hybrid.

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