Palisades, New York - Twelve months after it landed on our doorstep, we have a confession to make. The Honda Insight is not the perfect car for all of the people all of the time. It's not the optimal answer for all seasons and all reasons. In the final analysis, it is not even remotely close to being that elusive automotive ideal, the perfect all-rounder.
Maybe none of this qualifies as news-flash material. We are talking, after all, about a two-seat, hatchbacked, gasoline-electric hybrid that depends for most of its punch on a three-cylinder gasoline engine of truly micro--which is to say, positively un-American--dimension. As you know, one-liter three-pots are about as popular around these fifty states of ours as warm slivovitz on the Fourth of July. But you'll have to forgive us. Because here's our confession: We're more than a little smitten anyway.
In fact, we liked the Insight so much at first that if you'd have asked us the summer before last, we might have found ourselves blushing and saying we loved it unconditionally. That is, the New York- based editorial staff (which would be me) loved it. And I still do. Honda's pint-sized pugilist motored straight into my personal hall of fame after quickly distinguishing itself during three months of stop-and-go hustling through the greater New York metropolitan area, a key trial in Automobile Magazine's rigorous Four Seasons test. But, as it turned out, that was not all of the story.
I wasn't expecting much. But the Insight surprised. Nimble and fun to drive around town, thanks to its slick-shifting five-speed, compact dimensions, and minimalist curb weight of 1887 pounds, it is that rarest bird, a fuel-sipper with (kind of) sporty car essence. Low weight makes it easier to build cars that go, steer, and stop well, even when all she wrote on the subject of going turns out to be 73 horsepower (67 without the electric motor's assist). While it is shy on ponies, the Insight's brushless DC electric motor contributes an important 25 pound-feet of torque toward the modest overall total of 91 pound-feet. So it steps off smartly enough, in my view, although former motor gopher Reilly Brennan wrote later in the logbook, "David E. Davis, Jr., says that I'm complaining about a car that isn't supposed to be quick. I don't care--this thing is too slow!" No one would dispute that it handles nicely, with hyperalert steering. It also rides and brakes well, with a feel so natural that hybrid novices can just get in and drive.
In almost every noticeable way, the Insight was just another perfect Honda. Nothing broke or fell off in twelve months, with scheduled maintenance appointments at 7500 and 15,000 miles setting us back a modest $401.01. Well, it was an almost-perfect Honda. A check-engine light came on rather too often after we'd passed 10,000 miles. Two unscheduled trips to D&C Honda of Tenafly, New Jersey (and another to Howard Cooper Import Center in Ann Arbor), confirmed, at no charge, that the light came on when a faulty computer code reported a nonexistent engine-temperature problem. Some-day a corrected code will be rewritten by some Honda code writer somewhere. Until then, don't forget to forget to check the engine.
How best to explain the charm of the Insight? Midnight. Big traffic jam. It takes you an hour and a half to get home instead of twenty-five minutes. But you look down at the whizzing economy meters in the digital instrument panel and realize that you've maintained no less than a 67-mpg average on this 47-mile round trip to New York City. Cost? Less than a gallon of gas.
No tonic makes driving in heavy traffic any more palatable. The formula: un-precedented economy, allied to the feel-good knowledge that you are emitting a fraction of the pollutants that you'd be spewing in any ordinary car (98 percent less hydrocarbons and 26 percent less greenhouse gases overall, according to Honda).
The Insight may not be real powerful, but it has power enough to restore the spring to our step and put the joyous spirit of inquiry back in our driving shoe. How low can I go is what I want to know. Consumption-wise.
Lifting off, coasting, short-shifting, and feathering the throttle--these are but a few of the techniques the Insight driver develops; it's a full-time festival of economy. For good, clean, on-road entertainment in the fundamentally low-speed environments, urban and suburban, where most of us live, we find that a single-minded drive for economy can sometimes be more fun than honking a BMW M-car that can't find its way out of second gear without inviting the full wrath of the law.
Heightening the appeal is Honda's exceptional build quality. At 239 miles, copy editor Matt Phenix noted this particular Insight character, unique among economy demons. This "isn't just another tuna-can fuel miser. It feels too precious for that."
"What he said," copy chief Wendy Keebler agreed.
And they're both right. Assembled alongside the handbuilt Honda S2000s and Acura NSXs, the littlest Honda has a feeling of bespoke materials and engineering precision that not only impresses but also helps explain why Honda loses thousands on every Insight it builds. Expensive aluminum, a large part of that cost, pervades the Insight's structure, but even the instrument-panel plastics, the door trim, and the seating fabric look and feel a cut above. And a year into its stay with us, the interior of the Insight still looks special.
The honeymoon couldn't last, of course. Inevitably, there were road trips, to Vermont, Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cape Cod, followed by a journey all the way cross-country. When the Insight went to Michigan in late October for a winter sojourn, its popularity temporarily evaporated. While noting the pleasingly high economy, many complained of feeling dwarfed on the highway by trucks and SUVs. The noise factor was noted, as well as the Honda's profound susceptibility to crosswinds. Some drivers reported being buffeted by Mother Nature and other fellow road users like an old soda can. When snow fell, the staff's low regard for the Insight fell--along with its grip on the tarmac--several more notches, as did the Insight's mileage. When the car started collecting snow in its rear wheel arches, its wind-cheating rear fender skirts threatened to pop off, so we removed them for the season. But even after a set of four Bridgestone Blizzak MZ-02s was fitted to answer traction concerns--which the new tires ably did, at some penalty in fuel economy--the thundering sound of faint praise could be heard all the way back in New York.
Following our cross-country jaunt, which completed the Insight's 20,979 miles with us, even a true believer had to admit that there might be penalties to be paid for lightness. Perhaps Honda was being chintzy with the sound insulation, and perhaps some of the blame lies with the Insight's specially designed Bridge-stone Potenza RE92 tires, sized P165/ 65SR-14. Created with nothing but economy in mind, they're out to minimize rolling resistance and get inflated with gusto (38 psi front/35 psi rear), roadholding be damned.
Others in the home office complained of the Insight's dearth of performance. And we couldn't blame them. It had taken us months to fathom fully the peculiarly spaced cogs of its manual box, with a first as tall as Everest and the remaining gears stacked higher still, each one oddly close to the ratio preceding it. Down-shifting for power often required dropping down a counterintuitive two or three gears, rather than the one you'd try with any ordinary pipsqueak engine, which felt strange.
The Insight fought its last fight in our care blowing west out of Detroit, hooking up with Interstate 80, headed, at breakneck speed, for San Francisco. The littlest Honda, which had positively excelled in the role of urban runabout, was once again being pressed into service as a long-distance tourer. The result was a deeper understanding of the inherent limitations of one-liter cars.
Light weight still seems like the way forward to me, but not everyone agrees. Funny thing is, once upon a time, a lot of small cars weighed in around the Insight's vicinity--say, 2000 pounds and under. But not anymore. With even its own Civic drawing perilously close to the one-and-a-half-ton mark, it was high time for a true lightweight to be built at Honda, and the Insight is that car.
Many passersby asked us if the Insight was the new CRX, the lamented Civic-based midget coupe (last built in 1991) whose taut lines the Insight's styling recalls. The CRX is a car much missed by a dedicated fraternity. Yet, at $20,577, as tested, with air conditioning, the Insight is not a CRX replacement, being slower, weirder, and relatively more expensive. It's not for everybody. But then, what is?