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.
2000 Honda Insight
2000 bonneville engine
The Integrated Motor Assist system adds only 8 more horsepower, but a 50-percent boost in torque means a lot more off-the-line acceleration.
The electric motor gets its power from a 144-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack that is located beneath the rear hatch of the Insight. You can watch the technology interplay on the instrument panel displays. If the engine speed is fairly high, the electric motor doesn't contribute. But let the engine speed drop, or accelerate hard from a stop, and the IMA jumps in, and you can see the battery assisting the engine. Brake, and you can see the batteries being recharged, turning the electric motor into a generator. And you can see just how good the fuel economy has been.
Honda says the Insight will accelerate from 0-to-60 mph in about 12 seconds, which is leisurely. But it is enough to keep up with traffic — if you pay some attention to momentum. In fifth gear, if the Insight slows too much on a hill, even with the boost from the electric motor, it can take awhile for that little 1.0-liter engine to get going again.
With an overall length of 155.1 inches and a 94.5-inch wheelbase, the Insight is about 9 inches shorter than a 2000 Civic hatchback. But the Insight's curb weight is only 1887 pounds, compared to 2359 pounds for the hatchback. Much of that savings results from the Insight's aluminum body. It has a torsional rigidity 38 percent better than the Civic hatchback, and a bending resistance that is 13 percent better, Honda engineers say.
2000 Honda Insight
Reducing the weight is important not only for fuel economy, but to get the best acceleration from the tiny engine. That's why the Insight is extremely aerodynamic in shape, which explains the covers over the rear wheels.
When it comes to cargo, the Insight has a slightly impractical 5 cubic feet of storage space, according to Honda's calculations. There is another 1.5 cubic feet in a hidden compartment beneath the floor. This is slightly more than one-third the size of the trunk of a 2000 Ford Taurus. Nevertheless, there is enough room for a few soft-sided suitcases or a load of groceries.
On the road
The ride comfort was good on the relatively smooth streets in Washington and suburban Maryland, where Honda selected the drive route. When we encountered rough railroad tracks, however, the Insight's body felt strong. The steering response is sharp, with the Insight turning in far more quickly than one might anticipate from a 60/40 weight distribution.
Even at highway speeds there is an almost complete absence of wind noise due to its extremely aerodynamic shape. The wind noise is replaced by a distant drumming of tire noise on some surfaces, but the Insight never becomes noisy. Under hard acceleration, when the electric motor is helping, there is also a slight and unobtrusive electric whine.
Even if the Insight is more of a success when it comes to public relations instead of sales, it is significant because it provides the first look at what could be a series of larger and more practical vehicles that get remarkably better fuel economy, say Honda engineers. And what could be wrong with a minivan that gets 60 miles per gallon?