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Honda Insight

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Honda Insight ES
5/10

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Road Test

Honda Insight ES

Driven January 2009

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We'll come to the fuel economy. First, how is the Honda Insight as an actual car? After all, Honda's plan is for it to bring hybrid drive to a far wider audience. It's cheaper than any hybrid before, and less offputting too. Honda could have eked a little extra distance out of every gallon, but that would have meant a more complex powertrain (expensive), and extreme aero design (cramped, ugly), and ultra-low-resistance narrow tyres (the dynamics of a badly set trifle). No, this is a hybrid for the rest of us.

People won't baulk at the looks. The nose is chiselled, stubby and well detailed. The flanks have a nice hint of shoulder. Out back, you get that nice CRX twin-glass look, and spangly LED lights. Honda people get riled if anyone says it has the silhouette of a Prius. The first hybrid to have this fastback profile was the Mk1 Insight: the contemporary Mk1 Prius was a drab three-box affair.

Inside, the materials are modern and, in the Japanese way, beautifully assembled. Also in the Japanese way, they lack German tactile qualities. But the design compensates - it's fresh and well-thought-out.

The instrument pack utterly dominates. That's because the way you drive is responsible for a large portion of the real - as opposed to Euro-cycle -  economy, and you need information to do it right.

The magic eye is the speedo itself, a digital readout that looms out of the the binnacle. Drive economically and its background glows green, but with your increasing profligacy it goes through shades of turquoise to deep blue.

Thing is, the colour doesn't just reflect simply instantaneous mpg or throttle position. It feeds off myriad parameters to make sure you're actually getting the best economy for the conditions. It also goes blue when you brake hard, because if you're braking it means you used too much fuel in the previous straight - you could have lifted off sooner and coasted down, you waster.

A heap more qualitative data is available, including an assist/regen dial and a detailed trip computer. On top of all this, you gradually build up a ‘tree rating' which shows at the end of every journey, then builds towards a lifetime score shown by a complex hierarchy of leaves on graphical trees. Flowers appear if you go up a level, and plants wither if you fail to live up to your past prowess.

OK it all sounds cheesily cute, but it does work. You're constantly reminded that you can be usefully economical without holding up the traffic. This way, you slip along in peace and quiet. The ride is firm, but doesn't crash, and there's barely a peep out of the engine. You think it's slow, but then you find you've got to 45mph without really noticing.

And unlike a Prius, the Insight has another side. If you feel like having a laugh, you can. The steering is direct and accurate, the cornering agile, and the driving position sporty. The transmission, a CVT, is calibrated to avoid too much rubber-band effect, but on the ES version you get paddles to put it into a set of fixed virtual ratios, providing a sense of tight connection from your toe to the road. With a combined petrol/electric power under 100bhp, there isn't a whole lot of performance, but it's fun. You just have to ignore the balefully blue speedo.

Honda has been selling hybrids since 1999 and so we're looking at a system that reflects that expertise in endless subtle tweaks. But it's simple to grasp the principle. A 1.3-litre four-cylinder mates end-on to a flywheel-shaped electric motor. After that comes a CVT, and a robotised clutch. So the engine, motor and transmission all turn together.

But when engine power isn't needed the VTEC cuts the valve stroke down so hardly any air is admitted. That way the engine turns without any pumping losses. The 100V electric motor boosts the engine's output at times when the engine isn't efficient, and switches to regeneration mode on the over-run. It also starts the engine instantaneously, which makes for unobtrusive getaways after the idle-stop has been activated when the car's standing still.

The internal resistance of the battery cells is lowered compared with the Civic Hybrid's. This means it can use higher currents, allowing it to be made smaller. Hence lighter and cheaper. Same goes for the now-shrunken main electric motor.

The Insight uses mostly Jazz chassis parts, but is more low-slung to cut drag - and give it an identity that'll get Honda noticed as a hybrid player like the Prius did for Toyota.

But hmmmm. Time for the economy. I couldn't beat 44mpg on sweeping roads and 42 in town. Driving this carefully, I could beat that in a Mini Cooper D. But that's apples versus oranges: the Insight is vastly roomier than the Mini, and it's also an automatic.

We don't know the Insight's price yet because the Yen is fluctuating unhelpfully, but more realistic Insight rivals are mid-size diesels like the Econetic Focus. The Insight is about that size, though its tapered roof limits rear headroom. And hybrids are exempt from the London Congestion Charge robbery, saving big money if you drive there.

But the fuel saving isn't huge, unless you drive in a fastidious style. In that sense the Insight is more a state of mind than it is a car. Ah well, viewed simply as a car, it's quite a nice one.

And let's extrapolate to the 2010 CRZ hybrid, which'll have the same chassis and electric bits, but a 1.8 engine and a manual box in lighter, slinky two-seat bodywork. I'm licking my lips now.

Paul Horrell

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