Theme: Hybrids – 2000 Honda Insight

This is also conveniently part of my Looking Back series.

Nice colour: Honda Insight

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.

Compare the rear wheel arch of this 2007 Bristol Fighter with the front of the Honda Insight.
Compare the rear wheel arch of this 2007 Bristol Fighter with the front of the Honda Insight.

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.

2000 Honda Insight:
2000 Honda Insight: The radio placement is a bit of an afterthought. Why not put it in between the seats? In many other ways this is the sort of thing Citroen would do if they did not have Peugeot´s boot on their throat.

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.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

13 thoughts on “Theme: Hybrids – 2000 Honda Insight”

  1. Easily my favourite petrol/ electric hybrid – thanks for featuring it. Great style and engineering (the latter a result of the former?!) and a magnificent shade of green!

  2. Jonny Smith, of 5th Gear & sundry other shows about machines that appear on the likes of Discovery Channel, has one of these. He bought his at 295000 miles and as of the March 2015 issue of Practical Classics was at 308,000 and running trouble free.

  3. If anyone knows otherwise, please disabuse me, but I assume that with a parallel hybrid, when the battery pack goes in time, you can just go on driving on the petrol engine. Consumption goes to pieces, the environment suffers but you don’t have to fork out for a replacement. If so, does an MOT emissions test check that an elderly hybrid gets anywhere near the figures that still qualify it for various discounts?

    The Insight was attractive, but had the image of being a rolling laboratory. It suggested that the world of good fuel consumption from hybrid technology would involve a lot of compromises and that a more everyday solution was some time away. Unfortunately for Honda, the ungainly Prius 1 was a far more practical alternative that suggested that a hybrid future without compromises had, more or less, arrived – I doubt may minicab companies bought Insights.

    I like your comment about the modernity being the thing that dates the Honda, Richard.

  4. At this point it is de rigueur amongst the motoring press to ascribe the Insight’s lack of success to being “ahead of its time”, but in this case I feel it to be (mostly) true. At some point in the not terribly distant future, dwindling oil resources will force car manufacturers to adopt exactly the sort of solutions the Insight already encapsulates: smallness, lightness, low rolling resistance, aerodynamics.

    As for the longevity of the Insight, apparently Honda utilised only the best of the best for the engineering package. The engine boasts low friction internals and is by all accounts immaculately balanced; the battery pack can be cheaply replaced (well, £900 ain’t bad); the aluminium body does not rust. Every manufacturer has to draw a line between longevity and cost, but the Insight illustrates that with most cars, even those from supposedly “quality” marques, that line is skewed towards planned obsolescence.

    That Honda managed to push the Insight out of the door for less than £20k over a decade and a half ago, when VW’s thematically similar XL1 cost £100k in 2013, is a testament to Honda’s engineering prowess and buccaneering ethos. In this regard, as in many others, the Insight is a miracle.

  5. Is it really a miracle? It rather smells like cross-subsidisation.
    Whatever it is, though, I really liked the Insight when it came out. Partly because it reminded me of the old days when Citroën made modern cars. I’ll have that green one, please! I’ve only ever seen that car in red which I don’t like, especially when it has faded 15 years later.

  6. A lunchtime search on both Autotrader and Pistonheads has yielded precisely no Insight. Well, mark 1s anyway. The world is awash with people trying to get rid of their mark 2s, it would seem.

    1. Incidentally, the guy who is selling the Insight has written a really nice spiel. Honest and conversational. Last time I tried selling my Audi I tried the same and got no takers – I hope he does better.

  7. I had never heard of the GM Precept, so thanks for bringing that to my attention. Doesn’t it miraculously look like the five-years-later Citroen C6?

    1. Well, there are certainly similarities, and one might argue that it looks more like how the C6 should have looked (I guess it’s the “spats” that provoke that thought). The C6 was actually designed at the end of the 90’s, but development and then productionisation was held a number of years whilst higher priority models were developed. This might explain why the C6 did not get, for example, the fixed-hub steering wheel that the C4 and C5 had, even thought those cars were released either side of it.

  8. The Precept is a very interesting car: GM used so much intelligence to demonstrate how unfeasible hybrids are. You can imagine how distasteful Olds-driving US lawmakers would find the Precept tech overkill. I think it was styled to look shocking too.

  9. The content of the article is lacking, “most of the technology conventional” the author has not performed his homework, the Insight contained many advanced non-conventional features, the Insight is a showcase of Honda R&D thinking of the period, it was never intended to be a commercial venture and was produced in limited numbers on the Honda NSX production line by specialists. Honda filed several hundred patents on the Insight. The engine has been measured at 26:1 stoichiometric lean fuel burn, at 60 mph, the car is consuming fuel at 125 mpg, an incredible achievement, the spark plugs are indexed for the postion of the side electrode to the combustion chamber, such techniques are unknown in cars for the public. The 3-cylinder engine has an intelligent anti-vibration system, where the hybrid traction motor switches between flywheel mode and traction mode in phase with the power strokes to give vibration free drive, the car reaches 70 mph in second gear and exceeds 110 mph, experienced Insight drivers can exceed 110 mpg if roads are free flowing of traffic. The car engine bristles with technology few manufacturers have ever dared to implement. I have owned one for 20 years, try finding an Insight S/H , owners just will not part with them!

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