Let's review some facts:
It is the year 2009, and the planet is in a general state of higgledy-piggledy. The global economy is in the toilet, the polar ice caps are melting, and most car manufacturers are running scared.
Sound depressing? Look on the bright side: Gasoline is no longer five dollars a gallon, which is good, because almost everyone is newly broke. People are driving less, which means that there's less traffic, at least in theory. And if you like the idea of using as little fuel as possible while you drive around spending money you don't have, there are now more hybrid vehicles on the market than ever before.
Good students that we are, that last fact gave us pause. Something doesn't add up: many of those hybrids are big, heavy machines, their glorious technological accomplishments muted by high curb weights and dowdy chassis behavior. If less is more in our brave new world, then where are all the light, affordable, entertaining hybrid cars? Is there no room for fun in the fuel miser?
Twenty-four years ago, Honda reached out to mileage enthusiasts with the Civic CRX HF - for high fuel efficiency - which earned EPA ratings of 49/54 mpg (40/48 mpg adjusted to today's procedures). A tiny engine, 1713-pound curb weight, and petite size were the HF's key attributes. The 2010 Honda Insight, the HF's closest descendant, gets a back seat, a hybrid powertrain, and extensive safety and emissions upgrades, all of which pile on half a ton more weight. Mileage-wise, the Insight can't beat the HF, but it still achieves 40/43 mpg.
The world has traditionally turned to Japan in search of fuel efficiency, and with all due respect to Toyota and its Prius, Honda has usually been the one to answer the call. From the first S500 roadster to the current Fit hatchback, Honda's cars have typically placed a premium on keeping fuel bills in value-menu territory.
The House That Soichiro Built began poking around the dirty world of fuel usage as early as 1965, the year it established a ten-man investigative task force dubbed the Air Pollution Research Group. Boring name, yes; boring results, no. The group's research into lean-burn combustion techniques directly led to the 1975 Civic/CVCC, a 53-hp, 40-plus-mpg wonder that knocked Detroit on its ear and passed EPA emissions standards without a catalytic converter. It garnered the EPA's highest fuel-economy rating for four years straight, and although it was little more than a standard Civic with a special engine, it proved that fuel economy need not have drawbacks and that the government's seemingly outlandish mandates were attainable.