On Wheels, by Warren Brown: At Last, a More Affordable Way to Go Green

2010 Honda Insight
2010 Honda Insight (Photo courtesy of Honda)
By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009

The environmental route has been a road most often taken by the rich because only the rich could afford to go that way -- until now.

Welcome the 2010 Honda Insight gas-electric hybrid sedan/hatchback. It is to hybrid automotive technology what populism is to politics -- designed and marketed for the masses.

Offered at several thousand dollars less than the similarly sculpted Toyota Prius, another gas-electric with an arrow-like body designed to reduce wind resistance, the new Insight is bound to win buyers largely at Toyota's expense.

Function will play as big a role as pricing in that conquest.

Part of the Prius sedan's snob appeal is its complexity. It is a parallel-series, or "full" hybrid that Toyota calls "synergy drive." Electric-motor and gasoline-engine propulsion systems, guided by computers, constantly interact in the Prius yielding a combined city/highway mileage of nearly 50 miles per gallon.

The Insight -- initially produced from 1999 to 2006 as a two-seat, three-door hatchback -- was a "mild hybrid" relying on Honda's "integrated motor assist" (IMA) system. With IMA, the electric motor assisted the gasoline engine in start-from-stop sequences and battery recharging.

The Insight was the first gas-electric car sold in the United States. But its exterior styling resembled something from a Star Trek studio. That body design, combined with the car's two-seat interior, rendered it a niche vehicle.

The reborn Insight relies on a substantially improved IMA system that uses a lighter, but more powerful nickel-metal hydride battery pack, a more compact electric motor, and an updated version of Honda's 1.3-liter, inline four-cylinder engine.

Compared with Toyota's "synergy drive," the system used in the Insight is less fancy. It has an air of simplicity that counters the seemingly self-conscious complexity and attendant "this-is-a-real-hybrid" snobbery of the Prius.

The new Insight gets 40 miles per gallon in the city and 43 miles per gallon on the highway for a combined city/highway mileage of 41.5 miles per gallon. Those numbers give the Prius nearly nine miles per gallon more in combined city/highway mileage rankings. But, considering its pricing and overall quality and performance, I happily would choose the new Insight over the Prius.

My road-test crew -- my wife, Mary Anne, and Washington Post associate for vehicle evaluations Ria Manglapus -- join me in that assessment.

The three of us deemed the Insight spirited and comfortable enough to take on long trips, which we did on drives between Northern Virginia and New York. We loved the automobile's fit and finish -- excellent overall craftsmanship employing high-quality cabin materials and featuring an ergonomically smart interior that's easily among best in class.

But mostly, we were impressed by the Insight's simplicity, including the function of the big green "econ" button located on the lower left side of the instrument panel.

Pushing that button automatically reduces the energy needs of various vehicle functions, such as engine speed and power transmission to the front drive wheels, and vehicle heating and cooling.

Practically, that means acceleration decreases in "econ" mode, but is easily recoverable the old-fashioned way through sustained pressure on the gas pedal. In the summer, "econ" driving means running with less air conditioning. In the winter, it means running with less heat.

Still, we'll take that form of technological democracy. We like having the ability to choose, especially in a car that respects our pocketbooks and recognizes our desire to have fun behind the wheel while saving gas.

The new Insight, in all of those considerations, is a winner.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company