For the most part, we think of hybrid vehicles as being a relatively new thing. But in reality, they date back to the very beginnings of automotive history. From Lohner-Porsche’s second vehicle in 1898 through the ‘tinkerers’ of the 1970s who took Briggs and Stratton engines from lawnmowers to charge batteries in their home-build gas-electric Opel GTs, pairing up a gasoline engine with an electric motor isn’t all that new. But to achieve mass market appeal vehicle, the hybrid had to wait for batteries to drop in price, electronics to improve, and motors to develop sufficient power in a small enough package that people would consider hybrids as a replacement for the well understood conventional engine.
By the early 1990s the technology was there, and the U.S. government formed a partnership with the American automotive industry (the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, or PNGV), with the hopes of driving development of alternative fuelled vehicles. Ironically, whilst PNGV produced 3 hybrid vehicles, little for the mass market came directly from its efforts.
What did happen was that it upset manufacturers who weren’t involved, namely Japanese automakers Toyota and Honda who, worried that they might miss out on a brand-new market, decided to bring their own hybrid cars to market.
The result? The first-generation Honda Insight Hybrid and first-generation Toyota Prius Sedan.
Despite its faltering first steps, the Toyota Prius, as we all know, went on to enjoy considerable success. The Honda Insight however, despite being a technical tour de force in terms of overall efficiency, didn’t manage the same superstar status.
While Toyota focused on producing a hybrid family sedan with seating for five and a series-parallel hybrid drivetrain that was capable of producing some impressive overall fuel economies, Honda instead developed its Integrated Motor Assist series hybrid system — and matched it with a super-futuristic 2-up coupe made of aluminum.
Compared to the reasonably family-friendly Prius, the diminutive yet frugal Insight was a harder card to sell to the masses. As introduced it stuck closely to the the design of the Honda VV Insight concept car the automaker debuted in 1999: an all Aluminium / Magnesium, 3 cylinder engined, hybrid.
It was sleek and to some sexy. But it was also a vehicle that was expensive to build and difficult to sell. A problem exacerbated in the US because, at least in initial form it came with a manual (stick shift) transmission. In an era where automatic transmission had become the defacto long ago, this fact already put the Insight at a disadvantage to the Prius (although CVT transmission followed in 2001 to help fix that particular problem).
Yet despite its lack of mass-market appeal and sales of only 17,020 units across its 7 year lifespan, in one area it reigned supreme: fuel economy. Even well beyond the end of production it led the leaderboard in hybrid gas mileage, holding onto the hybrid mileage crown until only recently when the fourth-generation 2016 Toyota Prius Eco launched.
With nearly 39,000 miles under its belt, our recently-acquired Transport Evolved 2006 Honda Insight is a mere babe in terms of mileage. In fact, it seems to drive more or less like a new car, despite nearly 10 years on the road. Granted, our 2006 model is one of the final year’s production, although the differences between years are pretty minimal and the later 2006 cars are almost identical to the earliest 2000 model-year cars.
But how does this early hybrid fare in the modern world. Sat next to the modern Toyota Prius, does it wear its age well?
The cabin does feel like a dream of 90’s futurism. The LED illuminated dash is replete with chunky numbers, and a mixture of black and grey-silver plastics. Despite that, the interior does seem remarkably solid, but it does all belie the car’s age. And whilst equipped with a remote fob, the Honda Insight requires an actual, physical, metal key inserted into a column switch to start, quite different to the modern keyless ignition systems most hybrid and electric car owners are used to.
It’s a weirdly nostalgic experience, at least for those of us who learned to drive when putting an ignition key into a barrel was that first experience of driving.
And whilst it may have felt futuristic to step into, there are very few toys in there. The dash is clear and simple. A bi-directional gauge lets you know if the car is giving you electric motor assist, or using the motor to charge the battery. Matching battery-state of charge and fuel gauges are paired below. A rev counter sits on the opposite side, and in the middle is the all important efficiency panel, giving fuel instantaneous and average fuel economy.
But that’s your lot. Higher end models came with a 6-disk CD changer. Lesser models came with a single disk CD player or a radio-cassette. No DAB or XM satellite radio. No playing MP3s or listening to music from across the globe over 3G. Nor will you be bluetooth pairing anything to this car.
Three cylinders, rather than four, throw off a different rhythm than anyone used to the 4-pot Toyota hybrids would expect. Added to which, most modern hybrids aren’t that keen for you to hear the engine at all. But the IMA system can’t pull the car around by itself: it’s an adjunct to the petrol engine, not ever a replacement, so that eager 3-pot burble is something you had better like. Especially since, to save weight, the Insight has fairly minimal soundproofing.
Despite all that, the harshness of the engine, and the basic interior feel, it’s actually very nicely put together. There have been much more modern vehicles that felt much worse.
Slipping the car into D and pulling away, all that effort to save weight comes into its own. Despite the mere 67hp available from the engine (with an extra 13hp from the 10kW motor), it feels surprisingly sporty. At least some of this is down to the position. The Ford Capri was renown for being impossible to drive sensibly — you just had to boy- (or girl-)racer it. Slung low down, the Capri’s seats make you feel like you’re ready to race. Similarly, the insight cries out for you to have fun. Close to the road in seats that hug you into place — you’re torn between keeping that MPG gauge in the politely sipping fine-wine region, and the desire to put pedal to the metal and take that sporty handling round corners double-quick. The MPG equivalent of downing a yard of ale. It can be a decidedly entertaining car.
But how does it actually compare to more modern brethren?
The Prius fulfills an entirely different need – a sensible family car. Ironically, that is a characteristic that Toyota are starting to need to throw off, as they endeavour to pull that hybrid drivetrain into other markets. In comparison, the Insight is neither. It’s definitely way more fun than the Prius, and, indeed, less thirsty. Both of which are definite plus points. But it’s not necessarily the most practical of beasts. And not having an electric-only mode? That’s something to really miss. The silence of the EV is one of the most enjoyable things, and its something that the Insight can’t deliver. Despite that, a band of dedicated followers are keen to keep the Insight on the road, so perhaps the future is bright for these quirky cars. Whatever happens, we’ll let you know how we get on with this new addition to the Transport Evolved family.
Did you have an original Honda Insight when it was new? Did it lead you to the path of an all-electric car or did it disappoint? Let us know in the comments below.
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