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Honda goes back to the future

Blending old and new: The Insight is clothed in a somewhat off-beat body that harks back to the original Honda CRX.

Honda's Insight provides a glimpse of what is in store for motorists

6 Mar 2001

IF you see a funny-looking car cruising the streets with the sort of styling that was considered avant-garde during the aerodynamically conscious days of the 1980s, don't point and laugh.

The person driving the car could be guaranteeing your future - or that of your children at least.

The car is Honda's new Insight - a multi-million dollar investment in cleaner, greener automobiles that is available right now, today, at your local Honda dealer. But you'll need to be prepared to pay for it.

At $48,900 this must be the most expensive 1.0-litre, two-seat car in the world, although it's certainly not the most powerful two-seater, with just 56kW generated by one of its motors.

One of its motors? Well, the new Honda is not a normal car. The Insight is the first of a new generation of hybrid vehicles to arrive in this country, which means many of the normal rules need to be thrown out.

It uses a combination of a conventional reciprocating petrol engine and a battery-driven electric engine to squeeze the absolute maximum out of a litre of petrol.

Petrol-electric hybrid vehicles are far from new, but this is the first one to hit the streets here and it takes a slightly different view of how such a system should work than, say, Toyota's upcoming Prius.

Basically, the Insight uses electrical energy to supplement the highly economical petrol engine.

It cuts in to assist the three-cylinder Honda VTEC powerplant only when it's needed, such as when it's accelerating, or climbing a hill. In coast mode, all the work is done by the conventional engine.

The advantage here is that accelerating the Insight under less than full throttle is not necessarily a fuel-guzzling business. The extra boost from the electric motor takes some of the load of the petrol engine.

Under full-bore acceleration, both petrol and electric motors work at full capacity. Then, when the car is being slowed down, the kinetic energy produced is used to recharge the batteries.

The systems used to extract the absolute most out of the car are basically familiar technology to those who have been working on alternative systems over the last 20 years or so.

They include regenerative braking - charging the battery during deceleration - and an idle-stop function where the engine cuts out while sitting stationary in traffic.

The 10kW electric motor is powered by a battery pack containing 120 D-size nickel-metal hydride cells in the rear of the vehicle. The motor doubles as a generator and as a starter, resulting in a lack of the familiar whirr when the key is turned.

Because the electric motor is an assistance device only, the weight penalty of the battery pack is minimised.

But Honda also designed the Insight with a low overall weight in mind, using aluminium as the base construction material to arrive at an all-up figure of just 827kg.

Aerodynamics were also a big focus with the car. Although it looks like a very old Honda CRX with an aero kit, the Insight is really a unique item with its tapered tail and narrow rear track, as well as some careful shaping around the front wheel arches to minimise airflow.

The filled rear wheel arches are a pure aero touch, adding to the super low-drag figure of just 0.25 - better than anything else on the Australian market at present.

The outcome is a set of fuel consumption figures Honda is very happy to boast about.

The Insight's official consumption for the highway cycle is a mere 2.8 litres per 100km, with an equally amazing city cycle figure of 3.6 litres/100km.

Rightly, Honda claims that is about half the consumption of a regular small car.

This economy of operation brings about something of a paradox. Usually small, economical cars belong at the bottom of the market where running costs are paramount.

Yet here we have the most economical car on the market, by a country mile, with a price tag that places it right up in the prestige class where the buyer has a tempting array of alternatives.

The people who will buy Insights, according the Honda sales and marketing man Tony Devers, will fall basically into one of three categories: The "early adopters" who are attracted by, and can afford, the technology multi-car families with a need for an efficient commuter and a young, single, urban group with above average income and a desire to be seen in something distinctive and cutting-edge. Honda expects there will only be about 60 of these people a year.

Like the Honda NSX, the Insight is not a commercial proposition in the real sense - it's understood the company will not be making money on Insight sales - but a showcase of its commitment to using advanced technology as a means of addressing growing concerns for the health of our planet.

Drive impressions: HONDA points out that the Insight is rather special as a new-technology car in that it requires nothing special in terms of driving techniques, or even regular maintenance.

Certainly the little two-seater comes to life quietly and without fuss - in fact with less fuss than a conventional vehicle because there is no starter motor as such. Just turn the key, with the clutch depressed, and the little three-cylinder motor is under way.

The engine is so smooth and quiet it never reveals its small capacity, or its three-cylinder configuration in any of the normal ways. No, it doesn't sound or feel anything like a Daewoo Matiz or a Daihatsu Sirion.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to come to terms with is the super wide-ratio five-speed manual gearbox (no auto with the Insight).

At first the tall gearing suggests the little petrol engine may have some trouble getting under way, then you notice this subtle torque boost from the electric motor - something like what you get from a turbo except the extra punch is right there from idle.

A small green arrow advises of the correct up change point for maximum economy, sometimes surprising in its enthusiasm to shift to a higher gear. Equally surprising is that, with the electric boost, the engine is mostly capable of handling it.

Only when decent acceleration is required - when overtaking for example - does the driver need to think of piling on engine rpm.

Cruising in the Insight is a quiet experience, with little wind noise and nothing intrusive from the engine either.

The engine is so quiet that it can barely be heard cutting out when the car is brought to a stop and shifted out of gear. The only audible cue is that the automatic air-conditioning - when in economy mode - also switches off (in normal mode, the air-conditioning is kept active by the engine, which cuts in to keep the compressor running).

The instrument panel confronts the driver with a few new challenges: There's a bar-graph voltmeter telling the state of charge of the battery pack, another bar graph telling whether or not the electric motor is being brought into play, and another advising whether energy is being fed back into the batteries during deceleration.

Also dominant is a constant readout advising of fuel consumption, encouraging the driver to keep the numbers as impressive as possible.

Otherwise the controls are pretty normal, with a conventional starter/ignition switch, five-seed manual transmission and two bucket seats. Behind these is a vast open area, accessible through the hatchback, for storage. In a general sense, the Insight is as easy to live with as a regular car.

However the aerodynamic, low-friction nature of the Honda does bring some negatives. One is the ride quality, quite choppy and uncomfortable on Australian roads and largely due to the special low-friction tyres, which seem compromised by relatively short suspension travel.

The other is the steering, which, while sharp and responsive enough, feels more than a little nervous on lumpy, cambered back roads. The Insight tends to move around of its own accord when all the driver is trying to do is maintain a straight line.

These characteristics are explained away by Honda as a side effect of the drive to extract maximum economy but do raise the question of how much would be lost by simply giving the Insight similar dynamics to a normal small car.

But the Insight can't really be judged on the normal criteria that applies to buying a new car. This is not a commercial proposition, either for Honda or for the buyer rather it places Honda in the position to say it was the first company to introduce a truly environmentally-sound motorcar in Australia.

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