2004 Honda Insight
Click image to enlarge

By Jil McIntosh

You don’t see many on the street, and they’re all but forgotten with the recent launch of Toyota’s updated Prius. But the Honda Insight, Canada’s first production gasoline-electric hybrid, is still alive and kicking.

It remains all but unchanged since its introduction in 2000, an aerodynamically-designed little moppet of a car that gradually grew on me over my week with it.

The first question everyone asks is, “Where do you plug it in?” The answer: you don’t. The Insight never runs on electricity alone. Its powerplant is a 1-litre, 3-cylinder engine that produces 67 horsepower and 66 lb-ft of torque on its own. Sandwiched between the engine and transmission is the IMA, or Integrated Motor Assist, a thin electric motor powered by a battery located behind the passenger compartment, and recharged by kinetic energy when braking. When the gas engine needs more power to accelerate, the IMA kicks in and they run together. It increases the car’s ability to 73 horsepower at 5,700 rpm, and 91 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 rpm.

It’s a seamless transition; if you weren’t watching the electronic dash, which indicates when the motor is assisting or charging, you wouldn’t know.

It’s nowhere near as powerful as most conventional cars – but then, if you could get something for nothing, SUVs would go from Toronto to Kingston on two litres of fuel while expelling pure oxygen out their tailpipes. And eating chocolate would make you lose weight.

What it does give you is impressive fuel mileage – an average 3.5 litres/100 km by the manufacturer’s estimates, although in real-world, cold-weather driving I averaged 4.5 litres. And all that technology retails for $26,000 – the cheapest (albeit the least powerful and smallest) hybrid available.

2004 Honda Insight

2004 Honda Insight

2004 Honda Insight

2004 Honda Insight
Click image to enlarge

Perhaps the coolest trick is its idle-stop feature. Come to a stop in the right conditions (automatic air conditioning off, braking under 30 km/hr, outside temperature over 5 degrees C) and the engine completely shuts off and uses no fuel. It will also turn off the blower motor, but the radio, lights and turn signals will continue to operate. Put it in first gear, and the IMA starts the car up again. (Unless its battery is too low, the IMA starts the car all the time; there’s a conventional starter and battery for backup if necessary.)

The hybrid driveline is also available in a $28,500 version of the 5-passenger Honda Civic, and while it gets poorer mileage than Insight, it may prove more practical for many buyers. Insight is strictly a two-seater, and two adults at that – because of its airbags, Honda doesn’t recommend carrying children in it. Insight comes exclusively with a 5-speed manual transmission; the constant-velocity automatic that’s standard on Civic (and optional on U.S. Insights) isn’t available. Its ground-hugging stance makes it tricky to enter and exit gracefully, and the ride is very harsh.

In its favour, the Insight offers tons of rear cargo space (everything behind the seats is flat, with a small hidden box), good visibility through its two rear windows, a well-designed instrument panel with no obstructions, and more leg- and shoulder-room than you’d expect from a car this small. I even love the controversial styling, which reminds me of the Citroen my brother used to own.

Pricing is all-inclusive; as to be expected on a low-production car, there isn’t a lot of room for customization – for example, it’s only available in silver, red or blue (what, a “green” car that doesn’t come in green?). But standard equipment includes ABS, lightweight alloy wheels, power mirrors, power locks with keyless entry, AM/FM/CD with four speakers, air and power windows. A few accessories are available, including a jaw-dropping $150.88 for two floor mats.

Warranty is always a major concern with innovative technology. Honda offers 3-year/60,000 km basic, with 5-year/100,000 km on the powertrain and 8-year/130,000 km on the motor assist components.

I got into the Insight as a skeptic; I got out of it as someone who would seriously consider it as a purchase. It’s not for everyone, but as it did me, its (ahem) electric personality just might win you over.

Technical Data:

Base price $26,000
Freight $1,010
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $27,110
Type 2-door compact coupe
Layout transverse front engine/IMA/front-wheel-drive
Engine 1.0 litre 3 cylinder, SOHC, 12 valves/integrated motor assist
Horsepower 67 @ 5700 rpm (73 @ 5700 rpm with motor assist)
Torque 66 @ 4800 rpm (91 @ 2000 rpm with motor assist)
Electric motor 10 kW @ 3000 rpm
Battery Nickel metal hydride
Output 144 volts
Transmission 5 speed manual
Tires P165/65R-14 all-season low rolling resistance
Wheelbase 2400 mm (94.5 in.)
Length 3938 mm (155.0 in.)
Width 1695 mm (66.7 in.)
Height 1355 mm (53.3 in.)
Fuel consumption City: 3.9 l/100 km (72 mpg)
  Hwy: 3.2 l/100 km (88 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 8 yrs/130,000 km

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