2001 Honda Insight front view
The all-new Honda Insight gasoline-electric hybrid car combines a small 1.0 litre three cylinder engine, electric motor, and nickel-metal hydride battery pack to produce 73 horsepower and fuel consumption as low as 3.2 litres per 100 kilometres (88 mpg) on the highway. The aluminum-bodied, two-seater Insight is priced at $26,000.

New hybrid gets 3.2 litres of gas per 100 kilometres on the highway!

The Honda Insight is the first hybrid gasoline-electric car to be sold in Canada, and it will soon be followed by the Toyota Prius hybrid, and other hybrid vehicles from Ford, Chrysler, GM, and other automakers.

A common feature of these new hybrids is that they maximize fuel economy and minimize emissions by combining a small gasoline-fueled engine with a powerful battery and an electric motor. Electric power is used to supplement the engine’s power, allowing the use of a smaller and more fuel-efficient engine. As well, the gasoline engine and electric motor/generator can recharge the battery, unlike in an electric car where the battery has to be plugged in to an external power source.

The Insight’s tiny 1.0 litre 3 cylinder engine achieves gas mileage that could only be dreamed of a few years ago: 3.9 litres per 100 kilometres (72 mpg) in the city, and 3.2 litres per 100 kilometres (88 mpg) on the highway. The Insight is capable of travelling 1100 kilometres on a single tank of gas! And the Insight meets California’s strict ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) standards.

The amazing thing is that you can actually go down to your local Honda dealership and buy one of these things today for $26,000.

Insight is high-tech

It may be difficult to picture a small, two-seater economy car as a high-tech automobile, but the Insight is one of the most technically-advanced production vehicles in the world today. It features a lightweight aluminum body and reinforced frame, aluminum chassis components, and a simple but technically-advanced hybrid powertrain.

2001 Honda Insight engine
In front is an all-new 1.0 litre 12 valve SOHC three cylinder VTEC (variable valve timing) engine, a permanent magnet electric motor, and a five-speed manual transmission. Under the cargo floor is an advanced 144 volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack and power control unit.

Primary motive power for the Insight comes from the 1.0 litre three cylinder gasoline engine, but under certain conditions, such as accelerating from a stop, the permanent magnet motor mounted between the engine and transmission provides extra power. Without electric motor assist, the small engine develops 67 horsepower @ 5700 rpm and 66 ft-lb of torque at 4800 rpm, but with the assist, the horsepower increases to 73 @ 5700 rpm and torque increases substantially to 91 ft-lb. @ just 2000 rpm.

Unlike the new Toyota Prius, the Insight’s gas engine runs all the time. The Prius is capable of running on battery power alone, engine power alone, or both.

The Insight’s engine, by the way, is the smallest and lightest 1.0 litre three cylinder engine in the world, according to Honda. It weighs just 56 kg (124 lb.). Some of its advanced features include an integrated cylinder head and exhaust manifold, plastic intake manifold, magnesium oil pan, and a special catalytic converter that absorbs nitrogen oxide emissions.

As the Insight speeds up, the electric motor ceases to operate, and the gas engine takes over. When coasting and braking (in gear), the electric motor becomes a generator converting forward momentum into electrical energy and charging the nickel-metal hydride battery pack when necessary.

2001 Honda Insight battery
According to Honda, the battery is expected to last the “life of the car”, and has been tested in excess of 160,000 km without a significant loss of performance. The battery pack and electric motor are covered under the vehicles emissions warranty for 8 years/130,000 kilometres. The cost of a new battery pack was not revealed, but personally, I would want to know this before I bought one.

Under certain circumstances, the engine will shut off automatically to save fuel. If the Insight is stopped, the shift lever is in neutral and the driver removes his/her foot from the clutch pedal, the engine will automatically stop. Engaging the clutch pedal and putting the transmission into gear will automatically start the engine.

In addition to an aluminum body, the Insight has aluminum front suspension components. The independent MacPherson strut front suspension uses aluminum suspension arms and knuckles. For bending strength, the rear twist-beam suspension is made of steel and includes gas pressurized rear shock absorbers. The Insight’s 40 litre gas tank is made of plastic. The front brake calipers and rear brake drums are also made of aluminum.

Driving Impressions

While the Insight has only 73 horsepower, it weighs only 852 kilograms (1878 lb.), so its power to weight ratio is quite good. From a standing start, the Insight will hit 100 km/h in about 11 seconds – not as quick as a Honda Civic, but not a slug either.

When starting off, the engine needs to be revved up to about 2000 rpm so that its sensitive clutch will engage smoothly. The 5-speed manual transmission is a lovely transmission, with relatively short, easy throws. Electric variable-assist power steering requires little steering effort yet is reasonably quick and precise – this system is similar, but more compact than the one used on the Acura NSX and Honda S2000. The Insight is a very maneouverable car, due in part to its small size, tight turning circle (9.6 m/31.4 ft.) and light curb weight.

Under acceleration, the Insight’s 1.0 litre engine growls slightly, almost like a small diesel engine. But at cruising speeds, engine noise is minimal, and wind noise is minimal due to the Insight’s highly aerodynamic shape – it’s coefficient of drag is only 0.25, about 20% less than a typical economy car. There is some tire noise and noise from other vehicles probably due to a lack of sound insulation. My guess is that Honda engineers kept the Insight lightweight by not adding too much insulation. Even so, the Insight is reasonably quiet for an economy car.

When accelerating, a green ‘Assist’ gauge on the dash lights up to show you that the battery is providing supplementary power to the gas engine. When decelerating or braking, an orange ‘Charge’ gauge lights up to show that the battery is being charged.

At 100 km/h on the highway, the small engine revs at a busy 3300 rpm, yet it doesn’t sound busy, and it’s not really noisy.

I measured my fuel consumption in the city and on the highway with the instant fuel economy readout and with the average fuel consumption readout. On the highway, I achieved very close to the Transport Canada figure of 3.2 l/100 km. But in the city I couldn’t get better than 5.0 l/100 km on average, worse than the 3.9 l/100 km average claimed by Transport Canada. Still, 5.0 l/100 km is very thrifty.

Visibility to the front and sides is very good, but there is a small blind spot to the right-rear because of the thick rear pillar. Rear visibility is quite good – an additional vertical rear window, like the old CRX had, is just below the hatchback window making it easier to see the car behind you when backing into parking spaces.

I found the Insight’s handling to be fairly balanced for a front-wheel-drive car. This may be due to the fact that the engine is very lightweight and there is a 20 kg (44 lb.) battery pack just behind the passengers – this would improve the front to rear weight distribution. But while the suspension (independent front suspension and semi-independent twist beam rear) is up to the task of nimble, stable handling, the Insight’s narrow, low rolling resistance tires (P165/65R-14) and narrow rear track limit its cornering ability somewhat. The rear track is 110 mm narrower than the front track to accommodate the aerodynamic body.

Still, I found the Insight to be fun to drive around town – the experience was hindered more by a lack of power than by handling limitations.

By the way, the Insight’s low-rolling resistance tires (which are mud and snow rated) account for a reduction of as much as 40% in rolling resistance.

The Insight’s braking distances were short, largely a function of the Insight’s very light curb weight – the Insight has front disc/rear drum brakes with ABS.

Interior futuristic

2001 Honda Insight guages
The Insight’s two-passenger interior has, appropriately, a futuristic look – and offers such unexpected luxuries as automatic climate control and power windows. Directly ahead of the driver is a large, digital speedometer readout, and to the left of it is a round digital tachometer. There’s also an instant fuel consumption gauge which demonstrates real-time fuel consumption in either mpg or litres per 100 km.

Its one-piece bucket seats have large side bolsters and thigh support cushions, and are finished in a two-tone silver/grey fabric material, as are the door inserts. Along with its futuristic digital instrument readout, the Insight has a small, three-spoked steering wheel (borrowed from the S2000 sports car), and a centre dash panel finished in polished aluminum-look material.

To the left of the steering wheel on the dashboard are buttons for the power windows – an unusual place to put them, but one which seemed intuitively comfortable because it was so visible. The driver’s window features a one-touch down power operation. Just below that is a covered storage bin with a flip-down cover that can be used for coins. Power door lock buttons are on the doors.

In the centre of the dash is an automatic climate control system – a feature I wasn’t expecting in a gas-electric hybrid. The driver just sets the temperature and the system takes care of the rest. Appropriately, the climate control system also has an ‘Economy’ mode.

Just below that are large, round buttons for front defogger, rear defroster, air recirculation, climate control Off, and climate control Auto – all easy to see.

2001 Honda Insight dash view
Below that, but still comparatively high in the dash, is a standard AM/FM/cassette stereo. The radio is close to the driver’s right hand, particularly the all-important ‘Seek’ and ‘Volume’ knobs, however the volume control is partly obscured by the steering wheel. Other noteworthy interior features include a 12 volt power point in the lower dash, and two cupholders just ahead of the gearshift lever. There is no centre armrest with storage bin, however.

A unique feature of the Insight are unusually wide footwells that provide plenty of room for large legs or big feet. I found the Insight to be very comfortable, and could happily drive across the country in it. Of course, it only has two seats, so it’s not a family car.

Behind the seats is a flat, carpeted cargo floor that’s accessible from the front seats or by lifting up the rear hatch door. There is a surprising amount of cargo room (5.0 cu. ft.), but there is no privacy cover to keep the contents of the cargo area hidden. However, underneath the rear cargo floor is large, covered storage bin (1.5 cu. ft.) which is handy for keeping things secure and out of sight.

The cargo floor has a lip at the front to prevent objects from sliding forwards and hitting the front seats, but this won’t prevent packages from flying forwards in a panic braking situation or a crash. A net or steel wire partition would be advisable.

The rear hatch has a standard electric defroster and rear wiper, and locks when the other doors are locked with the remote keyfob.

Though it’s a small car, the Insight was designed with safety in mind. The passenger compartment is surrounded by reinforced aluminum frame members to help absorb impact energy. Dual airbags and three-point seatbelts with pretensioners and load limiters are standard, and the interior is designed to meet 2003 side impact and head injury standards.

MSRP of $26,000

2001 Honda Insight rear view
Insight’s are priced at $26,000, and that includes everything I’ve mentioned up to now. There are no options, except paint colours which include Citrus Yellow, Formula Red, and Silverstone Metallic (my favourite).

As a commuter car, the Insight is a perfect choice – you’ll save a lot of money on fuel over the years and maybe even feel good about not polluting the air as much.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Insight is a major leap forward in powertrain technology and vehicle design – I really liked the car. But I wonder how many Canadians will actually buy it. I remember driving another fuel-efficient Honda in 1992, the Honda Civic VX with its lean-burn VTEC engine. It was discontinued due to poor sales.

Technical Data:

2001 Honda Insight
Base price $26,000
Type 2-door, 2-passenger hatchback
Layout transverse front engine/rear electric motor/front-wheel-drive
Engine 995 cc in-line 3 cylinder, SOHC, 12 valves
Horsepower 67 @ 5700 rpm (73 @ 5700 with electric motor)
Torque 66 ft-lb. @ 4800 rpm (91 @ 2000 with electric motor)
Electric motor Permanent magnet
Power output 10 kw @ 3000 rpm
Battery Nickel metal-hydride
Output 144 volts
Transmission 5 speed manual
Tires P165/65R-14 low-rolling resistance
Curb weight 852 kg (1878 lb.)
Wheelbase 2400 mm (94.5 in.)
Length 3940 mm (155.1 in.)
Width 1695 mm (66.7 in.)
Height 1355 mm (53.3 in.)
Cargo capacity 185 litres (6.5 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 3.9 l/100 km (72 mpg)
  Hwy: Hwy: 3.2 l/100 km (88 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain 5 yrs/100,000 km

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