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Whizzing along the Washington, D.C., Beltway in our ultra-aerodynamic 2000 Honda Insight two-seater, we are surrounded by sport-utilities that guzzle fuel in 15-miles-per-gallon gulps.
Meanwhile, we are smug in the knowledge that our Insight is easily covering almost 60 miles for each gallon of 87-octane fuel that it sips.
The Insight is the first gasoline-electric car sold in America, and — because it uses a gasoline engine and electric batteries — it is called a hybrid.
It is also a vastly more practical approach to transportation than pure electric vehicles that use batteries alone which must be recharged by plugging in to a special charging source.
The Insight is plug-free. The reason is that its electric batteries are not the sole source of power. Instead, the batteries provide an accelerative boost to the tiny engine and are automatically recharged during normal driving. That means while pure electric vehicles might go only 80 miles before requiring a charge, the Insight should be able to cover more than 600 miles before its 10.6-gallon tank must be refilled.
It goes on sale in December at a price that Honda executives say will be below $20,000. Honda expects to sell about 4,000 Insights during the first year.
The Honda Insight's aluminum engine is a specially designed 1.0-liter three-cylinder that uses Honda's variable-valve technology or VTEC. The only transmission is a five-speed manual.
Honda engineers say the idea is to provide the power of a normal 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with superior fuel economy and greatly reduced emissions. Honda claims the Insight gets 61 miles per gallon city and 70 mpg highway (using Environmental Protection Agency calculations). The Insight's engine is rated by the federal government as an Ultra-Low Emissions (ULEV) engine.
It is rated at 67 horsepower at 5,700 revolutions per minute (rpm) and 66 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm.
But between the engine and transmission is what Honda calls its Integrated Motor Assist, or IMA, which is used to supplement the power of the gas engine. When this electric motor is giving its all, the total output is 73 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 91 pound-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm.