Curbside Classic: 2002 Honda Insight (ZE1) – Slippery When Dry

Early hybrids are a strange world. The 1st generation Prius (1997-2003) was the trailblazer, but it looked unremarkable. Its blobby and uninspiring 4-door body seemed designed to hide its innovative drivetrain. Honda’s approach with their 1999-2006 Insight two-seater coupé, on the other hand, was far more creative. They still stand out of a crowd today.

Of course, by virtue of being a two-seater, the ZE1 Insight was never going to be a top seller. But you have to admire Honda’s commitment to the bit: full aluminium body and monocoque structure, aluminium wheels, suspension components and brakes, tapered rear end, skirted rear wheels… This all leads to a drag coefficient of 0.25, a total weight of 830-890kg (depending on the transmission) and the best fuel economy numbers ever seen (70mpg, or 3.4 litres/100km) on a production car. Light, slippery and sober – a thoroughly modern combination.

It’s almost impossible to create anything completely ex nihilo. That’s not to take any merit away from Honda, it’s just a reality of human activities in general and automotive design in particular. So when seeing an early Insight, which is not something very common nowadays, I’m guessing many of you will have flashbacks of the famous 1996-99 General Motors EV1. How could you not? Two seats, skirted rear end, super slippery body (Cd of 0.19!), and all that just a couple of years prior to the Insight’s launch.

I will see your EV1 and raise you the 1962-64 Panhard CD. Did the folks at Honda (or GM, come to that) know about this ancient oddity? I have no idea. Nobody ever accused the CD to be a handsome car, but it was very light and aerodynamic: the little 50hp flat-twin that drove its front wheels could make it reach over 100mph. Perhaps it’s a case of analogous constraints leading to similar solutions.

Of course, the Honda Insight, the GM EV1 and the Panhard CD had many commonalities, but very different engines. The EV1 was 100% electric, the Panhard 100% internal combustion and the Honda split the difference by being a hybrid – or, in Honda-speak, Integrated Motor Assist (IMA).

The IC side of the Honda IMA concept was a 995cc 12-valve OHC 3-cyl. providing 67hp, operating the front wheels via a 5-speed manual. On the electric side, a DC brushless motor is directly connected to the IC engine’s driveshaft and provides an extra 13hp during acceleration. The electric motor also acts as the IC engine’s starter and alternator, though in this early incarnation, the IMA could not run on EV power alone (though it can run on the IC engine on its own, as that retains a backup starter). The batteries, located behind the seats, are nickel-metal hydride – perhaps not pioneering technology, but reassuringly safe.

After having sneak-previewed the IMA drivetrain at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show in the J-VX show car, Honda pressed on with the Insight, which finally hit the Japanese market in late 1999. Moving quickly, Honda aced out Toyota to become the first hybrid launched on the US market, bringing their brand new coupé across the Pacific in December 1999 – half a year before the Prius took the same route.

Obviously, as a two-seater, the Insight’s appeal would be extremely limited. That was part of Honda’s plan. The car was a proof of concept more than anything else. Theirs was a long game, and the little aerodynamic two-door was rather complex and expensive to manufacture in any case. From 2001, Honda introduced an optional CVT for the Insight, which our feature car has. This did adversely affect the model’s stellar fuel economy numbers a bit, but both the JDM and North America were almost universally allergic to clutch pedals by this point.

Still, the Insight was a tough sell. Honda were allegedly aiming for 6500 units per year in global sales, but never got anywhere close. Total production only reached a hair over 17,000 from late 1999 to mid-2006, of which 90% migrated Stateside. JDM sales were particularly feeble with only about 1600 units, in spite of the car’s incredible lack of appetite (normally quite a selling point in Japan).

Why did the first Insight fare so poorly in its home market? Was it the close to ¥3m price tag? The peculiar looks? The fear of the unknown that was the IMA? Who knows. As far as Honda were concerned, that was a moot point anyway: they re-launched the Insight as a saloon in 2008 and never really looked back. Which, given that two-piece back window, is exactly what was called for.


Related posts:

Curbside Classic: 2001 Honda Insight – Another Insightful Piece, by Joseph Dennis

CC Capsule Monday Morning Rarities – 2000 Honda Insight, Pioneer Or Science Experiment?, by JohnH875

In Motion Outtake: 2000 Honda Insight – The First Hybrid Is Getting Scarce, by PN

Driveway Outtake: Two Red Hybrids, by PN

Curbside Outtakes: Honda CRX, Insight and CR-Z – Honda’s Small, Low Two-Seaters All Found Within Two Blocks, by PN