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.