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.