2003 Honda Insight
2003 Honda Insight. Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

Has it really been three model years since Honda introduced its Insight gasoline/electric hybrid car? The one that can travel as far as 31 kilometres or more than 19 miles on a single litre of gasoline..

That’s right. I said litre of gasoline, not gallon.

Three years is more than enough time to get a good feeling about the quality and durability of this complex and novel effort. Well, in that time there has been just one recall, one having to do with the air bag module on the passenger side. In terms of more mundane service issues, some Insights have suffered a problem with their power windows, and a few others have experienced an issue with the Integrated Motor Assist system in very cold weather conditions.

So here we have a little two-door city runabout, one loaded with some very fancy technology that allows it to use just $480 worth of gas a year (on average) and not much has gone wrong.

Wow! That’s something. No wonder Honda has covered the Insight under the same new-car warranty as all the other Honda models sold in Canada.

Maybe there’s some real promise in this “green” automotive technology. Honda and Toyota (with the Prius) were first out of the gate with real hybrids buyers could buy. But in the next few years more manufacturers will begin selling hybrids – General Motors and Ford among them.

So we need to get used to this term hybrid. For the Insight and other hybrids, the term refers to a car driven by a combination of gasoline and electric power. The idea has been to create vehicles with much better fuel efficiency by blending the two different power sources.

In the Insight, a small and very lightweight (852 kg or 1,878 lbs.) two-seater, we have astonishing fuel efficiency and ultra-low emissions with reasonably pleasant driving manners. The Transport Canada numbers are impressive: 3.9 litres/100 km in the city and 3.2 l/100 km on the highway.

And to get that kind of fuel frugality, you and your passenger won’t suffer. There’s enough room for a pair of big adults – more than you get in a typical sports car, in fact. Acceleration is brisk from a red light (0-100 km/h in about 10.5 seconds) and at highway speeds the Insight doesn’t seem to be straining at all.

It’s also very quiet, thanks in part to a sleek, aerodynamic design that slices through the air with an amazing drag coefficient of 0.15. To put that in some perspective, racy sports cars of today generally come with a drag coefficient of 0.29 – a very good number.

Moreover, from day one Honda has sold all its Insights with air conditioning, cruise control, power windows/door locks/side mirrors, and an adequate sound system. Regular comforts, in other words.

The technology that makes the Insight work is the Integrated Motor Assembly (IMA) that we first saw in concept form back at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show. IMA allows for a powertrain that combines electric power with a conventional gasoline internal combustion engine.

In the Insight, the primary power source is an extremely efficient 67-horsepower, 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine made of lightweight aluminum, magnesium and various plastics. Total weight: 56 kg or 124 pounds.

The other piece of the IMA equation is a slim electric motor sandwiched between the engine and the five-speed manual transmission. The motor runs on a nickel metal hydride battery pack stowed at the back of the car. (There’s also a conventional 12-volt lead-acid battery under the hood for starting up the engine, but it doesn’t have a role in direct propulsion.)

The two power sources work together when you’re on the road, with the gas engine as the primary power and the electric motor there to kick in for additional oomph when needed. To improve energy efficiency, the electric motor acts as a generator when the Insight in coasting or braking. Stop in any gear but first and the gas engine shuts off. Put it into first, and the engine starts up again.

You, the driver, can monitor all the high-tech action by watching a digital monitor on the instrument panel. You can see real time readouts for fuel consumption, what’s going on with the battery pack and whether the electric motor is in power boost or recharge mode. It all looks a bit like a video game – except there’s nothing virtual about this package. It’s all very real.

If that sounds complex, it is. But so far, after several years on the road, it seems to be working well. Impressive.

Still, the Insight only seats two, there’s limited storage room and the low-rolling-resistance tires make for a fairly harsh ride.

But there’s no denying Honda its due. This thing really seems to work.

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