I hadn’t really thought about how scarce these gen1 Honda Insights are getting until I saw this on the road today, coming back from Portland. I’m pretty sure there’s one or two around town, or there used to be. But I figured I’d peel off a quick shot, just in case. And it’s a car we’ve never really covered here. The Insight was a very uncompromising mileage master, and until 2016, it still held the record for the highest EPA mileage numbers (49/61/53, city/highway/combined) for a gasoline fueled car.
Although the Toyota Prius (gen1 CC here) was the first modern hybrid car, appearing in Japan in 1997, it did not arrive in the US until 2001. The Insight was new in 1999, and was first sold here as a MY 2000, as the first available hybrid. Honda approached the brief to make a high efficiency hybrid in quite a different way than Toyota. The Prius was a full five seater, and had a more ambitious “full” hybrid system, that allowed some operation in pure electric mode, as well as a greater degree of electric assist and regeneration. Fuel mileage was not as high (42/41/41), but it was an uncompromised passenger sedan, in terms of its size and capabilities.
The two-passenger Insight’s IMA system had a lower level of hybridization and smaller batteries, which were basically commercial-grade NiMh D cells in a pack delivering 144 volts to the 10 kW brushless motor attached to the rear of the engine. In 2000, only a five-speed manual transmission was available; starting in 2001, a CVT was optional.
The Insight’s high efficiency is more the result of its ultralight construction and very low aerodynamic drag than its modest electirc assist. Built largely out of aluminum, weight is as little as 1,847 lbs (838 kg). Its coefficient of drag of 0.25 may not sound that impressive, but it’s superb given its short length. And total aerodynamic drag is extremely low due to its very small frontal area. The Insight has not likely been improved upon in terms of its total aerodynamic drag, for a production car.
The Insight’s battery pack has not turned out to be as long-lived as the Prius’, and replacement is almost inevitable. New packs are available for about $2000. Some owners have disabled its hybrid system, and a few have even swapped in larger Honda fours to turn it into an ultra-light pocket rocket.
Total global sales during its six-year run amounted to 17,020 units; much less than Honda had projected. The Prius was a more practical solution, and has sold well over a million times.
Honda came back in 2011 with its second shot at a two-seat hybrid, the CR-Z, but it’s been barely more successful. It’s currently in its last year of production, so if you’re wanting one, better hurry. Or not.