Insight: The Once and Future Mileage King
By JERRY GARRETT, August 27, 2006, New York Times
CAN an automobile be ahead of its time and yet be obsolete? As it heads into retirement, the Honda Insight certainly looks that way.
When it was introduced in 1999 as the first gasoline-electric hybrid sold in America in modern times, it was also the most fuel-efficient mass-produced car. Although production ended this summer, it remains the nation’s mileage champ after seven years.
Honda says the Insight will be replaced in two years with a more versatile, more advanced hybrid subcompact - though not necessarily one that’s more fuel efficient.
The still-futuristic-looking Insight, with its distinctive 67-horsepower 3-cylinder gasoline engine and 14-horsepower electric assist motor, was never redesigned or updated. A continuously variable transmission and an air-conditioner were made available in the second model year; neither was offered on the original 2000 model because Honda wanted to keep weight down and fuel economy at a maximum.
The strategy worked, as the Insight earned an E.P.A. mileage estimate of 70 miles a gallon in highway driving; its city rating was 61 m.p.g. With air-conditioning, the rating dropped to 66/60, and to 57/56 with the variable transmission and air-conditioning.
But as the old disclaimer says, "Your mileage may vary." Over the years, Insight aficionados entertained themselves by trying to outdo one another in using the least gas to cover the same ground.
The Insight was first shown in late 1999, when gasoline averaged $1.39 a gallon; Honda challenged several automotive magazines to a fuel economy contest on a 195-mile trip from Columbus, Ohio, to Detroit.
The staff of Car and Driver magazine rigged up a hulking Ford Excursion with essentially a large box behind it, in which the Insight could be driven in a nearly drag-free aerodynamic environment.
The magazine’s technical editor, the late Don Schroeder, drove the Insight safely within the confines of this box, just inches behind the Excursion’s rear bumper. The magazine won the contest, achieving 121.7 m.p.g. at an average speed of 58 m.p.h.
Two years later, the same magazine (with different editors) reported disappointing mileage over a long-term (40,000 mile) test of an Insight with air-conditioning. That Insight averaged 48 m.p.g., but the editors still praised the car for its "engineering brilliance" and stellar reliability.
A lively debate continues over the actual mileage that an Insight can attain in real-world driving. Most owners seem to get the advertised mileage, if not more, but a few complain that their fuel economy is disappointing.
The best generalization I can make is this: If you drive the car badly, you will get bad mileage. Jack-rabbit starts, choppy acceleration and over-revving the engine before shifting will result in poor economy - as low as 18 m.p.g., in my experience. But judicious use of throttle, brakes and transmission can yield impressively higher results.
In a test of the departing 2006 model, equipped with a continuously variable transmission - less fuel-efficient than the standard five-speed manual I drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on a summer’s day with temperatures topping 105 degrees. Traveling at speed on Interstate 15 and sections of historic Route 66, I experimented with different driving styles and with the air-conditioner on and off.
My route alternated between stretches at sea level and elevations around 4,000 feet. One problem was finding a free-flowing section of road, without constipated traffic, where I could cruise without interruption.
The duck-tailed Insight, which weighs a scant 1,850 pounds, seemed to float across the road like a hovercraft. Its suspension, tuned for minimum rolling resistance, followed every pavement imperfection. Its skinny, hard 14-inch tires - designed for low rolling resistance and high mileage - squirmed on grooved pavement. Road noise flooded the cabin.
But the Insight consumes less than a supermodel. In my best segment, running alone at about 55 m.p.h. into a strong headwind, I managed to achieve mileage of a little over 118 m.p.g. for 22 miles (according to the readout of its on-board computer, which seemed very accurate). But I had to abort my economy run when the traffic slowed.
The trick if there is one, is starting off conservatively and then maintaining a steady speed. Unlike the Toyota Prius, which can run on either the gas engine or electric motor, the Insight’s gas engine is always propelling the car, sometimes with an electric assist and sometimes without it. To get optimum mileage while cruising in a Prius, you need to coax it into electric-only mode by letting off slightly on the throttle; in the Insight, you accelerate as gently as possible and then carefully maintain a steady speed.
Driving partly in this manner, and partly more aggressively, I averaged nearly 70 m.p.h. on my Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas round trip - about 600 miles - on a single 10.6-gallon tank of regular unleaded. Many vehicles I’ve driven on this stretch over the years have been lucky to make it one way without refueling, even with tanks twice as large.
While the Insight was a mileage giant, it fell on its face in the marketplace. Instead of having to limit yearly sales to 6,500, as the company had originally planned, Honda has struggled some years to sell half that number. When the last few models remaining on dealer lots are gone, sometime this fall, Honda estimates that total global sales for the entire model run will probably amount to less than 18,000.
All right, it’s a tiny two-seater without a trunk, with sometimes curious handling and indifferent comfort. It requires more trade-offs than most Americans are willing to make. Its sticker prices of $19,330 to $21,530 are high for a subcompact. And larger, more versatile hybrid cars, like the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius, cost little more.
But if gasoline prices continue to balloon - perhaps by the time they hit $4 or $5 a gallon - it may dawn on more drivers in gas guzzlers that the Insight was ahead of its time.
By then, however, it will be gone.