2000 Honda Insight

George Saitas

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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