Unless it’s a Porsche or McLaren hypercar, hybrids are boring appliances that suck all of the fun out of driving. At least, that’s what I thought.
Then I saw a post on Oppositelock about a modified 2001 Honda Insight for sale. Someone actually took the trouble to modify a first generation Insight. OK, I could see that. It does bear a far greater resemblance to the original CRX in its size, shape, and weight than the CR-Z. It was available with a manual transmission, which is always a plus for an enthusiast. It turns out this car is being sold by Justin Abide, owner of the Civic Wagon RT4WD that I reviewed. So I took the opportunity to learn more about this hybrid thing, and whether a hybrid costing four figures instead of six could possibly be any fun.
At first glance, the Insight is the second coming of the CRX. But the CRX addressed the needs of both enthusiasts and hypermilers. Enthusiasts got the CRX Si, which combined fun and practicality (for a two seater). The more economy minded drivers got the CRX HF, with a small engine, high gearing, and light weight that enabled it to get better gas mileage than most hybrids can manage today. Though a K20 powered Insight Si would’ve been awesome, the Insight is designed strictly for economy, like the CRX HF.
But this was no cheap economy car. Nor was it an electrified piece of junk like the JDM Electric Turd of Mighty Car Mods. The Insight was built in the same factory as the NSX and S2000, which shows how seriously Honda took the project. Despite the extra weight of the battery pack, electric motor, and all the systems necessary to use them, it still weighs in at a mere 1,878lbs – and that includes the optional air conditioning. Honda went to great lengths to reduce the Insight’s weight as much as possible. The entire body is aluminum, with plastic non-structural panels like a Saturn. The oil pan is even a magnesium alloy! The Insight is also much more rounded than the CRX for the sake of aerodynamics. The entire exterior is carefully sculpted, and it pays off with an impressive drag coefficient of just 0.25.
The Insight was the first car to use Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) technology. Unlike the Toyota Prius, Honda relies on a traditional configuration of the gas engine sending its power through either a manual transmission or a CVT (rare in a car at the time) to the wheels. The difference is the IMA motor/generator that is sandwiched between the engine and transmission. This adds another 13hp to the tiny gas motor. But more importantly, it adds the instant-on torque that only an electric motor can provide. This lets you remain in a higher gear and use more electricity instead of gas to get you up that hill. It acts and feels a bit like a small supercharger. But unlike a blower, it also doubles as a generator when you slow down, using regenerative braking to not only slow the car but to recharge the battery pack of 120 NiMH D-cells. The IMA unit’s third job is a starter for the gas motor. There is also a traditional starter motor in case the IMA fails, and you can drive the Insight on the gas motor alone. (Unlike a Prius, you can’t drive on the electric motor alone.) The Insight was also one of the first cars to use automatic start/stop technology to shut down the gas motor when you don’t need it.
The gas motor is a 995cc three cylinder motor. I’ve had motorcycles with bigger engines than this. It generates 60 of the Insight’s 73hp. But this isn’t just a CB1000 motor dropped into a car. This engine, unique to the Insight, is designed to be as lightweight, low friction, and efficient as possible. The cylinders are offset to one side of the crankshaft so the pistons push straight down during the ignition stroke rather than at an angle. It uses VTEC (yo), as well as lean burn technology to run as low as a 22:1 air/fuel ratio. Talk about a fuel sipper.
These are all technologies that are fairly common in the hybrids of today. But the Insight was introduced 16 years ago. It was extremely advanced for its time, and in many ways is still on the cutting edge today. It was an engineering exercise for Honda to see what it could do with a no-compromise hybrid, the lessons from which would be applied to future cars.
Is It Fun?
Fuel economy is all well and good, but though we can appreciate the technology that goes into it, you and I are generally far more interested in lap times and burning rubber – activities that are the precise opposite of what the Insight is all about. This was the question I wanted to answer by driving this car – can a hybrid be fun to drive?
Justin’s Insight is not entirely stock. He has replaced the seats and steering wheel with those from an S2000. This isn’t much of a stretch, believe it or not. They were built in the same factory, and are actually rather similar. In fact, the only difference between their steering wheels is that the S2000’s is wrapped in leather. They must have omitted this on the Insight because cow hide weighs too much. Justin also installed aftermarket heated seats, a nice bonus on a winter day.
As I made myself comfortable in the S2000 driver’s seat, the next thing I noticed was the gauge cluster. As Michael Knight said the first time he got into KITT, “It looks like Darth Vader’s bathroom.” The dashboard is entirely digital, because needles and dials probably weigh too much. The speedometer resembles those to come on future Hondas. There are two fuel gauges – a standard gas gauge, and a battery charge indicator. Justin had made sure we had a full battery before we went for a drive by using a Hybrid Automotive grid charger that carefully and precisely overcharges the battery pack to slightly more than its maximum rating. It’s kind of like how the Space Shuttle throttles up to 106%. He also upgraded the cooling fan to keep the batteries from overheating in his native Louisiana. Above the fuel gauges is a display that tells you how much you are charging the battery through regenerative braking, or how much battery assist you are currently using. The first generation Prius had a special lever to control regenerative braking separately from the standard brakes, but as with future hybrids the Insight handles this automatically.
Strongly in this Insight’s favor is its 5-speed manual transmission. Modern hybrids think they’re smarter than we are. When it comes to maximizing fuel economy, they probably are. Automatic transmissions are now surpassing manuals in fuel economy tests thanks to having more gears and intelligent programming. But enthusiasts generally prefer to pick their own gears, and the Insight lets you do that. Obviously this car is no monster off the line, but it’s not bad. Even with two people in the car the puny 1 liter motor had no trouble getting us up to speed eventually and keeping up with highway traffic. Much of that was thanks to the electric motor’s help. I could feel its torque kicking in without even seeing the dashboard light up the “ASST” indicator. Lights telling me when to upshift and downshift helped me drive the car as it was designed to be driven. I’m surprised there isn’t an idiot light – literally, a warning light that says IDIOT – that turns on when the car thinks I’m driving like one. If there was, it would probably be on most of the time.
Most of us are familiar with Colin Chapman’s philosophy of “Simplify and add lightness.” The Insight is anything but simple, but it is definitely light, and whether in a Lotus 7 or this egg shaped hybrid the effect is the same – great handling. Justin has improved this car’s handling by adding a pair of Gaz adjustable shocks sourced from the UK. The stock shocks are a bit soft, and he assured me that with two of us in the car we would have bottomed out. He also added spacers to the rear wheels. The rear track is more than 4 inches narrower than the front thanks to the Insight’s teardrop design, which causes the rear to skip side to side between the ruts in the road left by normal width cars and especially trucks. This is no longer a problem thanks to the spacers, and the rear wheels still fit behind their aerodynamic skirts.
Although I’ve raced early Miatas, the phrase “momentum car” has never applied more than it does with the Insight. It’s not that it’s unable to accelerate or maintain speed up hills, but the trick is to do so as efficiently as possible without depleting the battery. Thanks to the displays on the dashboard, I found myself playing a game to keep the battery as charged as possible, which, in turn, led me to drive more efficiently so I wouldn’t need it. I’m not a particularly efficient driver, and I can’t say that I’ve applied any lessons to how I drive my BRZ. Though to my credit, Justin tells me that I still managed to maintain more than 60mpg during my somewhat spirited test drive. Actually, forget that – credit goes to the car maintaining this mileage despite my lead foot. Still, that’s more that twice the mileage I get from my BRZ, which currently reads 26.7mpg.
“Spirited” in an Insight takes on a different meaning than it would in a Mustang GT. Rather than mashing the gas and laying rubber, it’s all about carrying speed through the corners – and, surprisingly, you can. I know from being a passenger in an Insight during an autocross run that carrying too much speed into a corner results in massive understeer. I didn’t push hard enough to experience that here, but I found myself enjoying flinging the Insight from apex to apex on some twisty back roads. I left it in much higher gears than I would have in my ex’s CRX Si, but the Insight’s electric torque would pull me out of the curves and up the next hill better than running her D16A6 to redline. As Justin says, “The acceleration may not impress you but it will surprise you.”
Has this car changed my opinion of hybrids? No, not really. I still think that hybrids are boring appliances that suck all of the fun out of driving, unless it’s a Porsche or McLaren hypercar – or a first generation Honda Insight. Don’t get me wrong – the Insight is no hypercar. But its light weight, good handling, and manual transmission manage to keep the fun in the driving experience. I wouldn’t take it to the track, but I could enjoy it as a daily driver, as well as the savings at the gas pump. There’s also a different kind of fun available in trying to keep the battery as charged as possible for those times when you want its maximum boost.
This is the point Honda completely missed in the CR-Z, which was supposed to have been the successor to the CRX. Instead the CR-Z is a two seat hybrid that can’t decide whether it wants to conserve gas or perform, and as a result it’s pretty lousy at both. I’d consider the CR-Z more of a nostalgia car, like the VW Beetle or Mini Cooper – an attempt to recapture the style of the original, but doing so in a thoroughly modern way that has little more to do with it than a passing physical resemblance.
But we won’t see another car like the original Insight again. The cost of materials has increased significantly. Modern lithium batteries could increase range and performance, but they’re more expensive, too. The safety requirements of modern cars will prevent any new car from weighing under a ton. Mazda, like Honda when they designed the first Insight, was cutting a gram here and a gram there to make the ND Miata as light as possible, and even they could only manage 2,332lbs without the extra weight of a hybrid drivetrain. People berate the CR-Z for being 25 years newer than a CRX yet having the same performance numbers. Imagine if the CR-Z had the Insight’s 73hp motor, and it cost twice as much. Honda would be lucky to sell 300 a year, never mind 3,073 as they did in the US last year.
I think it’s fitting that the original Insight was built in the same factory as the NSX. Both cars were the result of what happened when Honda told its engineers to go to town and innovate like crazy. The Insight certainly isn’t as fun to drive as the NSX, but it’s far more fun to drive than any other hybrid costing less than $100,000. This one is for sale for $6,000. If I had a need for a fuel sipping commuter car, I might just buy it myself.