This is also conveniently part of my Looking Back series.
We can begin by looking at this little film by Doug de Muro. I have to say I like the chap’s presentation mode. It is very cheerful in a way the Americans do very well. It avoids Hammond’s cheeky chappy style and Clarkson’s tucked in chin. The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius both went on sale in 2000, showcasing the idea that you could mix an electric and petrol system to give the best of both worlds.
Funnily, neither car looked as outlandishly technicalesque as the 2000 GM Precept. The Insight wore its advanced technology more clearly than Toyota’s car. For this reason and perhaps because Toyota made their car a 4-seater, the Insight always lagged in the sales department in comparison.
Honda’s Insight is perhaps the emotional choice for those interested in focused engineering. The exterior styling recalled for aerodynamic reasons, shapes from Citroen’s glory days: the covered rear wheel arches and tear-drop plan shape. The front wheel arches may have inspired Bristol’s equally aerodynamic 2004 Fighter (at the rear). Today the only dated thing about the car is its modernity and attention to engineering requirements over mere styling. And yet that gives the form an extra savour as you know it’s all there for a good reason.
The Insight, like other hybrids, is an interim workaround to the problem of batteries’ shorter range compared to petrol power. Around 2000 the GM EV-1 was getting about 120 miles out of its power pack. While that is enough to get people to work and back, it was not enough to drive from New York to Washington DC to see granny. Range anxiety.
The petrol reserve means that the hybrid can revert to quickly-refillable power on longer trips. In essence, it’s a compromise formed from over-engineering though perhaps petrol engine cars are even more thoroughly over engineered given that most of the time they go short distances with only a single person on board.
Hybrids get quite close the goals of EVs in that a lot of the time there are no tail-pipe emissions (this hybrid had a few). They also don’t need to be plugged in. Regenerative braking turns wasted motive force into electricity by means of generators on the wheel axles.
The Insight scored over pure-battery cars by being cheaper. Most of the technology was conventional and the weight-saving design reduced material costs. To look at inside, the Insight is pure Honda only even more Spartan. The seats were thin and covered in what resembled big nylon socks. The interior trim was thinner than standard. It weighed about 900 kg thanks to magnesium in the suspension, a plastic oil pan and an aluminium space frame.
Inside, the Insight came with an AM-FM/stereo cassette player, air conditioning, power windows and mirrors and electric door locks with keyless entry. The dashboard is one of the many design strong points: a neat horizontal panel right where the driver needs to see it and a minimal central console; digital instruments served up some high-tech feeling and if you felt like monitoring MPG instead of the road ahead you could stare at the stats as you drove slowly across the nation.
In the engine bay there was a 1.0 litre, three cylinder power plant, claimed to be the world’s lightest. The target fuel efficiency was 70 mpg which is not shy of GM’s concept car of the same year which aimed at 80. In some ways, the more you compare GM’s concept car with the vehicles actually on sale, the more absurd the Precept is. It was like showing an electric typewriter at home computing exhibition.
Interestingly, the electric motors didn’t drive the car directly. They served to help the gasoline engine, boosting the output to the equivalent of a 1.5 petrol. Toyota’s Prius on the other hand did have direct electric power on demand.
So, there. That small final detail does make one wonder how much less efficient the Insight would have been if it had had a 1.0 two cylinder engine only and none of the ancillary technology need to run the electric elements of the system.
In Britain an Insight cost £17,000, the same as an Accord and three grand more than the top Civic. A 15 year-old example with more than 200,000 km still costs a fair amount: €3850, to be precise.