A lot can change in twenty years. The Honda Insight was the very first gas-electric hybrid vehicle offered for sale in North America in December of 1999, following its introduction in its home market of Japan the month before. When I had spotted this example in my neighborhood a few weeks ago, it had been so long since I had seen one of these that I had forgotten it had beaten the Toyota Prius to U.S. shores, by a full seven months. Over its first seven model years between 2000 and ’06, there would be only just over 17,000 sold globally, so there were never a whole lot of them around to begin with.
The Prius was actually the first mass-produced hybrid, with production starting in Japan in December of 1997. We simply didn’t get them in the U.S. until June of 2000. Only one month before that, I had just been hired as a permanent worker by my employer at the time, with my paychecks no longer to come from the temporary employment agency that had placed me there. So much seemed possible with that new job, which included great health benefits and a salary versus hourly wages.
Back then in my mid-20s, I didn’t know what it felt like to go for things I really wanted, and I was used to settling for so little relative to my own gifts and abilities. Working for a temp agency and honing my office skills had simply been a survival mechanism following my college graduation. I was decidedly done with college and furthering my education, but felt I needed to be doing more than mowing grass at a local golf course after earning my four-year degree. Permanent employment felt like a big step into legitimate adulthood. I’m still happily working in the same industry all these years later, which I offer as reinforcement of my belief that there are no mere coincidences in life.
The early Insights were not inexpensive cars, especially relative to their subcompact dimensions. For 2001, the base-sticker was $18,880 (about $29,100 in 2021), with the only option being automatic climate control system that added $1,200 ($1,850) to the tab. Including a $440 destination charge, if our featured car had the optional air conditioning, it would have cost $20,520 (over $31,600) when new. For comparison, the most expensive 2001 Civic, a EX sedan with the four-speed automatic, would have base-stickered at $17,710 ($27,300 / adjusted).
Its EPA fuel economy ratings of 61 city / 70 highway for 2001 were at least 60% better than those of the most efficient Civic, the HX coupe with the continually variable transmission (CVT), which had ratings of 36 / 44. The Insight did this with a combination of a 1.0L three-cylinder engine with 67 horsepower and an integrated electric motor (IMA) that put out 10kW. A optional CVT transmission was added mid-year as an alternative to the five-speed manual.
The aluminum-bodied Insight weighed just under 1,900 pounds, even with air conditioning. Its cargo volume of 16.3 cubic feet was better than the 12.9 cubic feet provided by the trunk of the Civic coupe. Overall passenger volume between these two models was vastly different, though, with only 47.4 cubic feet in the Insight versus 85.9 cubic feet in the Civic. The Insight’s configuration as a two-seat hatchback versus the Civic’s more traditional, four-passenger layout meant that the two cars probably weren’t cross-shopped that often at your local Honda dealer’s store. The Insight was for those who were determined, above all else, to leave a minimal carbon footprint on the world while using a vehicle.
The Insight has lived on, non-continuously, through the present day, over three distinct generations. While never approaching the popularity of Toyota’s various Prius models, I liked seeing this little Insight in my neighborhood enough to snap a few pictures of it while walking home from a local beach. It’s looking a little worn, with silver duct tape securing the passenger’s side rear fender skirt, but I still can’t help but feel the same kind of optimism while looking at it that seemed to permeate so many things in general around the time the calendar rolled over the “odometer” for the year 2000. The person I was back then could never have predicted what would eventually be possible in a twenty-plus year career in which I now hold a senior title. Never give up. There’s only so much insight into future possibilities that we can ever have at any given time.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Thursday, August 19, 2021.
My neighbor had one of these years ago, and ran it for well over 200,000 miles, with a new battery pack under warranty somewhere in there. I think he got rid of it when the second battery pack died. It was expensive relative to traditional Civics, as the poster noted, but tax incentives available back then decreased the purchase price differential, and he saved on fuel over the life of the car.
He had good things to say about the car, especially the fuel economy, with the only negative being interior capacity. He drove a lot for his job, and adopted a personal ethos of minimizing gasoline use, so it worked well for him as a commuter car. His family had more traditional cars for tasks that required more interior space.
These seemed to be good cars for the time. I wonder why they weren’t as successful for Honda as the Priuses were for Toyota.
I wonder why they weren’t as successful for Honda as the Priuses were for Toyota.
In a word, space. The original Insight was just too dang small to be used for transporting anything more than two people (or one person and a bag of groceries). The Prius, even the 1st gen car, was a small sedan, sort of like a hybrid Echo, that could carry four people and (some) luggage. It was much closer to a mainstream car. Then, of course, came the 2004 2G version which propelled the Prius into being a car which may well go down in auto history with other game-changing vehicles like the Model T and VW Beetle. The Insight, OTOH, was closer to being an enclosed motorcycle.
Then there was the issue of the Insight’s battery longevity. The Insight got stellar fuel mileage, still amoung the best for hybrids to this day, but it came at a cost. Unlike the Prius, which Toyota engineered to achieve lesser fuel mileage in exchange for longer battery life, the Insight delved much deeper into the battery’s reserve, shortening life considerably. To this day, there’s something of a cottage industry supplying refurbished Insight batteries.
The interesting thing about the Insight is that fuel mileage reportedly isn’t all that much less with a dead or dying battery.
My lasting memory of a brief test drive in one of these was its HORRIDLY uncomfortable seat! I very rapidly lost interest in what the lil 2 seater could do because of the seat.
Now my Civics…..different story, and still passed plenty of gas stations! 🙂 DFO
Honda’s extreme weight-saving measures must have included decontenting / de-padding the seats! LOL
I have a 2019 Honda Insight which replaced a long line of Honda Accords. Size wise its slotted between the Civic and Accord so its a bit larger than the first two generations of the Insight. Its also only offered as a four door saloon. I have not had any issues with space.
Gas mileage has been great. I’ve been getting 50-60 mpg consistently. The hybrid system employed by this generation is great because the engine acts as a generator for the electric motor most of the time, the engine is not connected to the drive wheels in most of my driving. Essentially I have an electric car that is recharged by a gas generator. Also, it does not have a regular transmission but a direct drive system.
It’s come a long way from the Insight featured in this article.
For $6995 I got a car that comfortably sat four, weighed 1800 pounds, got 48 MPG and I traded it in after reaching 245,000 miles over 12 years – then watched it tool around town another decade. Admire the Insight all you wish, and it is quite admirable, but it couldn’t do what other cars did as well, and in many cases – better.
The Insight was small, and vastly overpriced.
Are you speaking of your 1988 Kia-built Ford Festiva (13 years older) or is there a car in 2001, the year of the featured car, that fulfilled the specs you speak of? If in fact the 1988 that you traded in apparently 2000, what replaced it? The Festiva is for sure an interesting car but surely of a different mission than the Insight was.
I replaced the Festiva with a 4-cyl, manual Ranger. It was a flawless vehicle that I had to sell by 2005 in order to accommodate all my kids being born.
There can defiantly be a write-up about the pick up trucks we had to get rid of because we had too many kids to keep them. It was hard to give up a beloved truck because of fatherhood, but I know more than a few guys that had to do that, myself included.
Pardon for not clarifying the dates involved in my Festiva reminiscences.
I always found these fascinating, mainly for the odd-for-the-era fender skirts and the general rarity. As noted above, it would be really interesting to see how things would have played out had Honda built this as 1) a sedan with 2) more normal styling.
As also noted, Honda has never done as well with Hybrids because it spent many years being the Not-Toyota in how it designed them. Like the Accord Hybrid of the mid 2000s that matched the Hybrid battery pack with the dual exhaust V6 that gave serious scoot and great mileage for a V6. It was an interesting idea, but just not what the bulk of hybrid buyers wanted.
Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) was quite a bit more sophisticated than Honda’s hybrid system in that it was much more integral to the way the drivetrain functioned. In effect, Toyota’s system was constantly evaluating the requirements of the driver and adjusted accordingly. Honda’s EV system operated much more like an add-on ‘helper’ to the ICE.
To that end, the Prius achieved its best mileage numbers in lower-speed, urban driving, while the Insight’s mpg numbers were greater on the highway.
The fender skirts were my least favorite design element on these. Same as with the GM EV-1 electric car.
I have two of these now, with both nearing 300,000 miles. One has the K24 engine from the Acura TSX, and with the weight of the battery and electric motor removed, it scoots. Both are dead reliable, and it’s nice to have a vehicle I can drive through winter salt and slush without worry.
The first generation Insight was something of a continuation of the CRX FX (and the 1984 CRX 1300 before that), but not the other, more fun-to-drive CRXs. It wasn’t that big of a market. I have heard that there are quite a few of these first generation Insights that have their hybrid power plants removed and replaced with conventional Honda 4-cylinder engines and that, given their small size and light weight, they’re quite fast. It sounds fairly complicated, though. Much more involved than dropping the engine from an Acura Integra into a CRX.
Johnster, you’d be surprised. The wiring in the car is almost identical to the Acura RSX from the same years. I’d say it’s very little more complex.
I remember seeing spy photos of these Insights before they came out, reading accompanying hopeful buzz about how Honda was about to bring back a new-generation CRX. I could see these being the spiritual successor to the CRX HF.
Could this be the last car with fender skirts?
Bring ’em back!
I own a 2017 Mitsubishi Mirage with a 5 speed. I bought it new for $12,000. People told me that depreciation would be steep. I only have $12,000 invested. That’s all that I can lose. This time of year it gets well over 50 mpg, sometimes over 55. In the dead of winter (in Maine) in a snow storm the worst it ever gets is in the high 30’s. It seats four with room for groceries or a suitcase and a small carry bag. It is not luxurious but it gets the job done very economically. After four years of ownership I’m into it so far for $3,000 per year—— for a brand new car. This is why this Insight doesn’t make sense on paper. It costs too much for transporting only two people and returning mpg numbers that are achievable by conventional gas powered vehicles. I applaud the effort, but it just isn’t worth it.
Australia has always suffered from a lack of the environmental Insight. (If you saw our environmental policies on global warming, you’d know how grim this joke is).
I always liked the style of these, from afar. They’d have a made a cracking later CRX indeed. It was good enough for the Germans to copy in the $150K, 240mpg XL-1 15 years later!
I didn’t know the Volkswagen 1-litre even existed until I read this!
Nice piece Joe. I think you’ve done a great job capturing the spirit of the times in which the Insight was sold. It may be that optimism that has kept Honda selling these things years and years after it seems like they should have given up. I still see the older ones around every now and then, as well as newer models. I think that says less for how many might still exist than it does that they’re just so unusual and eye-catching when they do show up. The fact that I notice them has little to do with how common they are (and likely vice a versa). And I do feel that they are some of the most butt-ugly (in that it’s the butt that’s the most “striking” aspect of the design to me) cars I’ve ever seen. Once again, that adds to the my noticing them.
What I always have found odd is that these predated the Civic Hybrids by only a few years. In fact, I know folks who had a Civic Hybrid around 2004 or so and it served them well and it looked no different from any other Civic. Once I realized that Honda could – and did – make a “regular car” hybrid, that only confirmed my belief that the Insight was purposefully designed to look as weird and (IMO) unattractive as possible in an effort to capture a particular segment of the market that eschewed traditional car styling for something that could clearly proclaim difference. In short, I think that the original Insight was a car intended to dramatically demonstrate that its drivers were the kind of people who marched to a different – better? – drummer and needed others to know it quite clearly.
The futuristic, early-adopter look of EVs seems to have run its course. A case in point is the Prius. When the second generation ‘pod’ arrived in 2004, it was a distinctive, but still practical design. I remember reviews stating that even if that Prius wasn’t a hybrid, it would still be a good car. I wish Toyota had left it alone with only VW Beetle-type, incremental changes.
Because the latest Prius is bizarre, in a late-fifties, bad science fiction B-movie way. I don’t have access to the data, but I’d be willing to guess that in today’s market, there are plenty of hybrid buyers who are just fine with a traditional vehicle where the only indication it’s been electrified is a small ‘Hybrid’ emblem on the trunklid (and maybe on the front fenders). In fact, it was about the time Toyota began the Prius’ foray into the strange that hybrid sedan sales were overtaken by the Ford Fusion Hybrid, which was identical in appearance to the non-hybrid version.
Thank you, Jeff. I like and agree with your theory that the first Insight’s gotta-be-different looks were meant to provide a visual statement for its owners, to some extent.
And Rudiger, to your point, the current Prius styling is definitely extreme. When you mentioned “’50s Sci-Fi”, it fits. I don’t think they’re ugly, per se, but I think the more conservative styling of previous models appealed to more buyers. I understand automakers are trying to create strong brand identity across their lines of vehicles, but some of the recent trends make me wish they would simply get back to making vehicles *attractive*.
I disagree. The first Insight’s appearance is obviously intended to maximise aerodynamic efficiency to the extent that’s practicable in a production car. It’s appearance put people off rather than attracted them to it. Hence the 2nd generation had a much more normal look – except to the extent it copied the then-current Prius hoping, I would guess, to emulate its commercial success.
To the extent that cars like the Insight might be intended to have their distinct appearance be a statement by their owners, it would be much less so than (for example) leather-covered seats are intended to denote a prestige vehicle even though they are mostly just a pita.