2006 Honda Insight
2006 Honda Insight. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Peter Bleakney

Step right up, concerned citizens of planet Earth. Time is running out on your chance to own a piece of automotive history that unabashedly declares your greeness. The Honda Insight has now ceased production, and there are only a few left to be sold in Canada (none in the GTA).

Introduced in 2000, the Insight was North America’s first gas/electric hybrid and continues as the most fuel-efficient car on the market. The unique little two-seat coupe is rated at 3.9 L/100 km in the city, and 3.3 L/100 km on the highway. At $26,000, it is nearly the cheapest hybrid (the Honda Civic Hybrid undercuts it by $200), and is the only manual transmission hybrid extant.

And as a bonus, it looks like it just drove off the set of Blade Runner.

Despite the Insight’s credentials, these 853-kg fuel sippers are pretty thin on the ground. Rare as chicken lips, actually. The year 2000 was the best for the Insight, with 155 sold in Canada. Numbers have dropped dramatically, seeing only five takers in 2005.

So why aren’t the eco-weenies biting? The answer can probably be found right across the show-room floor, where the Honda Civic Hybrid offers a much more practical hybrid experience for similar money.

2006 Honda Insight
2006 Honda Insight. Click image to enlarge

But if you’re looking for a hard-core, techno-laden, purpose built gas-miser, the Insight is still king. Sure, the driving experience has its quirks, but it’s pretty normal when compared to the almost-as-frugal Smart Fortwo, a runaway success in Canada.

Both cars have three-cylinder engines. The Insight, unlike the 800 cc diesel-powered Smart, has something that resembles actual acceleration, and the five-speed manual gearbox is a pleasure to use, not like the annoyingly jerky sequential six-speed in the Smart. Additionally, the Insight has considerably more storage space. Okay, so the Smart starts at almost 10 grand cheaper and it’s just so cute you want to hug it.

Honda premiered its IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) system on the Insight, and here it incorporates a small 10 kw electric motor sandwiched between the gasoline engine and transmission, a 20-kg battery pack under the hatch floor, and a nifty little high-powered starter.

2006 Honda Insight
2006 Honda Insight. Click image to enlarge

IMA is sometimes referred to as a “mild hybrid” powertrain because, unlike the “full hybrid” systems of Ford and Toyota, the Hondas won’t run on electrical power only. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of gee-whiz technology in the Insight, built exclusively at Honda’s Sayama plant in Japan.

The SOHC 1.0-litre 12-valve three-cylinder engine weighs in at a paltry 124 lbs. It features VTEC-E valve timing, an aluminum block, what Honda calls the first one-piece head and exhaust manifold, and low-friction lightweight internals. It runs on an incredibly lean fuel to air mixture, which is great for economy but no so good for NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions. Honda had to develop an advanced catalytic converter system to deal with this.

The gas engine makes 67 horsepower and 66 lb-ft of torque. When combined with the 13 horsepower and 36 lb-ft torque electric motor, the featherweight Insight can more than hold its own in traffic. Since the two motors have different power peaks, Honda rates the Insight at 73 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 91 lb-ft of torque at 2000 rpm.

2006 Honda Insight
2006 Honda Insight
2006 Honda Insight. Click image to enlarge

Like the Honda S2000, the driving position in the Insight is sports car-low and near perfect. It’s Spartan in there, but every control is well placed and the lightweight fabric seats are spot on for comfort and support.

The five-speed shifter, which works with satisfying precision, is attached to a transmission with very tall gearing. How tall? Second gear is good for 110 km/h, and third gear equals sixth gear in the S2000 (3600 rpm at 110 km/h). Needless to say, in top gear the little three cylinder is barely turning over, but watching the FCD (fuel consumption display) on the digital dash can warm the cockles of your heart.

When called upon, the electric motor kicks in to assist in acceleration and then acts as a generator while coasting and under braking, capturing energy and sending it to the nickel-metal hydride batteries. The whole system works almost seamlessly – your biggest clue to the inner workings of IMA is a visual display on the dash that tells when the electric motor is helping with forward progress and when it is charging the battery pack.

2006 Honda Insight
2006 Honda Insight. Click image to enlarge

Another strategy in fuel conservation is the auto stop feature, which has you sitting in eerie silence at stoplights while the rest of the world buzzes all around. Not quite so simple as it sounds though, as the car must be in neutral or any gear other than first for the gas engine to shut down. I soon got into the habit of putting the car in neutral when coming to a stop. Tapping on the throttle and/or slipping it in gear instantly fires up the engine and you’re on your way.

The Insight was available with a CVT (continuously variable transmission) in the US, but not here.

The sleek hybrid cheats the wind with a very low 0.25 coefficient of drag. The mostly aluminum car (the front fenders are plastic) has a flat undertray and requires 30% less fuel than an average economy car to push it through the air at highway speeds. The covered rear wheels, tapered back end and narrower rear track bring to mind another landmark vehicle – the 1955-1975 Citroen DS.

Dynamically, this front-drive hybrid is surprisingly fun to drive. The car has a nice balanced attitude through the turns and steering is quick and accurate. It is ultimately hobbled by the narrow and hard Bridgestone Potenza RE92 165/65-14 tires whose primary function is to eke out an extra few meters per litre. Roadholding and highway stability suffer.

2006 Honda Insight
2006 Honda Insight. Click image to enlarge

I’d love to see a tuner get a hold of one of these, slap on some decent wheels and tires, tune the suspension, add a culvert exhaust can� oh, never mind.

Okay. The part you’ve all been waiting for. After covering 900 km of mixed driving, my wind cheating eco-mobile turned in a painless 3.8 L/100. That’s better than the other fuel-economy champions I’ve driven which include the Smart Fortwo, Toyota Prius and VW Jetta TDI.

Strangely, the Insight went largely unnoticed during my week of buzzing around the GTA. A younger and hipper musician friend of mine may have hit it dead on when he said, “It’s not futuristic enough to be cool. It just looks lame.”

The Insight’s time has come. It has served well as the pioneering platform for Honda’s IMA hybrid system, and has bravely blazed the trail for hybrid vehicles in North America. If the rumours are correct that Honda loses a bundle on every one of these low-volume, aluminum techo-wonders sold, the automaker is probably just as happy to see it go.

Sayonara Insight. It’s been a slice.



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