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Car reviews - Honda - Insight - 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Aerodynamics, fuel efficiency, low emissions
Room for improvement
Lack of equipment, below-average road manners

19 Jun 2001

WE could jeer at its exorbitant price. Laugh out loud at the radical appearance. Or throw scorn on its mediocre road manners.

But let's not miss the point about the Honda Insight, the first petrol-electric hybrid production car on Australian roads and a revelation in terms of low fuel consumption.

While the Insight owner is unlikely to recoup the recommended retail price with savings in fuel - even with today's prices - he or she will nonetheless RIP as a willing participant in the quest to end our reliance on the wasteful internal combustion engine.

It comes as little surprise that the first commercially available petrol-electric car to reach our shores has limitations. The Insight offers only two seats, has negligible luggage space and a shortage of standard equipment for the price being asked. And that's before you turn the key.

Yet the wider picture reveals greener pastures in the form of engine emissions 90 per cent below Australian requirements, and average fuel economy to the tune of three litres per 100km travelled.

Though as simple to drive as a Civic, the engineering creativity and attention to detail that's gone into the Insight is compelling.

There is good reason for such a radical, retro shape. The rounded nose, steeply raked windscreen, rear fender skirts over dinner-plate wheels and flat underbody help achieve one of the lowest drag coefficients (0.25Cd) on a production vehicle.

Indeed, the pursuit of ultra-low consumption is evident everywhere. Unrelenting weight-loss measures have produced a kerb weight of just 827kg. Narrow, low rolling resistance tyres are used.

And there is, of course, a slim (60mm) electric motor tucked between the petrol engine and transmission that draws current from a nickel metal hydride battery pack and provides the petrol engine with additional power when required.

The petrol part of the equation is a 1.0-litre 12-valve three-cylinder engine featuring Honda's excellent VTEC variable valve timing system and achieving ultra-low emissions vehicle (ULEV) status.

The engine produces 56kW at 5700rpm and 113Nm at 1500rpm and, as a team with the electric motor, provides enough acceleration to keep up with other traffic.

Doing so will only be achieved with a level head. Forces - none more persuasive than the upshift and downshift arrows in the instrument panel - are at work to ensure the driver rows quickly through the widely spaced manual gears to reach the fuel-saving fifth ratio.

This is where the electric motor earns its keep. You can feel it generating more pulling power than the 995cc suggest, particularly at low revs, and accepting the premature shifts to a higher gear.

But apart from those darn fine fuel figures, there is little satisfaction to be gained from drumming the fingers over the steering wheel while the Insight potters up an incline in a high gear.

It feels a bit naughty to push the smooth, quiet engine too far beyond 3000rpm - redline arrives at 6000 - unless a quick overtaking move presents itself. But common sense, both within the Insight's city limits and beyond, must prevail.

Across 700km of urban, open and alpine roads, we found a car that always impressed with its frugal fuel consumption - the final result was 4.5L/100km - and which disappointed in its driving dynamics.

There are a couple of aspects to savour. Be prepared to exploit the engine and the featherweight car feels nimble and agile. Coast toward a traffic light, slip the car into neutral and the engine, if the air-conditioning is in economy mode or off, will shut down to save on fuel and emissions slot the gearstick into first and the engine automatically restarts. Every time.

But any performance car pretensions prompted by the appearance end at the bottom of the first interesting road. Grip from the 14-inch wheels is ordinary, feedback from the electrically powered steering is lacking, and the generally unsettling ride is harsh over rough surfaces.

Moreover, crosswinds can provoke some unsettling deviations from the intended path and the brakes have insufficient resistance to fade - though perhaps one benefit is that the electric motor acts as a generator under braking you might be left without brakes but you'll have a full bank of batteries.

The interior is up to Honda's usual quality and its design accompanies the outer skin. However, no soft plastics are used across the dash, and safety and convenience items such as a driver's footrest and adjustment for seat height, seatbelt height and steering wheel are not included.

Large glass areas, including a plate in the tailgate, don't necessarily ensure good visibility, and the battery pack takes up most available room behind the cockpit.

Pleasing aspects include excellent seat support, an "S2000" steering wheel and a simple, effective air-conditioning system (though afflicted with a single-direction fan speed).

The instrument display is dominated by a digital speedo and contains a bewitching array of hybrid gauges such as a charge/assist indicator and a fuel-focussed trip computer that allows the driver to view such details as current and lifetime fuel economy in litres per 100km.

Such are the pleasures and preoccupations of the Insight. Not a realistic purchase for most, but a welcome, significant sight on the landscape.

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