Our 1st Gen Honda insight made it up, and back down, the mountain

Staff Car Report: Despite Advancing Years, Our 2006 Honda Insight Hybrid Is Racking Up Miles — With Very Few Issues

Back in February, following our own relocation to the Pacific Northwest, the Walton-Elliott portion of the Transport Evolved staff car fleet was a little lacking on cars. So, as regular readers may remember, we sought to fix that problem. Having sold our UK 2005 Toyota Prius and 2010 Mitsubishi i-Miev before we left England (and packing our 1969 Morris Minor on the ship with the rest of our stuff) we settled on buying a classic two-seat Honda Insight hybrid as one of our daily drivers.

As one of the highest-mileage internal combustion engined cars on the road today — only surpassed by the new 2016 Toyota Prius hybrid in terms of miles per gallon — these iconic cars are quickly becoming collectors’ items. But with some careful looking, we were able to find one that, thanks to a small accident at some point in its life, was being offered for sale with only 36,000 miles on the clock at a price point we could afford.

Our  classic Insight is proving faithful day after day.

Our classic Insight is proving faithful day after day.

Since then, we’ve been putting the Insight through its paces on a daily basis and now, with about 5,000 miles on the clock since purchase, we’re very much at home in this cleverly-engineered two-seater. But how reliable is our 10-year old car proving on a day to day basis?

Well, while the second service went by with the cheerful whistle of money leaving our bank account, there’s not a lot to note. Indeed, of note is perhaps just how reliable our Insight is proving on a daily basis.

That said, there is a growing list of to-do jobs. One of the alloy wheels, presumably on the car when it had the shunt that meant we could pick up a decade old car with only 36,000 miles on its battery, has a nasty ding in it. We’d like to replace it with one which doesn’t have a ding in it, not just for aesthetic purposes, but also because there’s a subtle hint of unbalancedness at 70 mph. But we so rarely hit 70 that it’s sitting ‘on the list’.

At the other end of the job list? A packet of “local tortilla chips” leaked oil over the liner in the trunk. As an issue that’s very minor —  but it’s also very irritating as the interior was pretty mint when we got it.

The insight's rear end is pretty distinctive

The insight’s rear end is pretty distinctive

And, marginally more pressingly, the underbody panel at the front is missing. We had a nice chat with the local Honda dealership at service time to check whether anything else was missing on the car. Given our car’s history of being slightly bent there was the ever present possibility that not only were the panels missing, but also supports too. Mercifully,  according to the local dealer at least, everything is where it should be — except that panel.

That’s very good news, because for the past few weeks we’ve had an all-aluminum replacement underbody panel lurking in the garage. Allegedly these improve airflow and give minor gains in fuel economy over the stock ones – and might give us a fair improvement, at least on freeways and highways, over the car in its current sans-panel state.

As will the other thing on the list: tires. We are cheap enough that we’re waiting for the ones on the car to wear out before we go sprinting in the direction of new ones, but when they do we’ll hopefully be getting some of the OEM (original equipment manufacture)  tires – and that should yield a few more miles per gallon on the FCD display that lives in front of the driver at all times.

And then there’s the leak. It turns out that Honda, in its hurry to get the insight out the door, allegedly failed to fully seal some of the seams on some of the Insights that left the factory. And at ten years old, some of the seam sealant has just failed.

The TE staff insight demonstrates this in what Insight experts call the “water leak not wet seat belt” leak. See, the seam above the door – that leaks. If it leaks at the front you end up with wet, smelly seatbelts. If it leaks at the back you end up with a small trickle of water creeping out from under the rear window. Our insight produces a gentle trickle of water from under the rear winter. As summer approaches, it’ll be ordering time for those parts and some fun with sealant.

High up in the mountains I spent an inordinate amount of time pouring in oil

High up in the mountains I spent an inordinate amount of time pouring in oil

Other than that, the things that are most interesting are, perhaps, comparisons to our previous hybrid. The decade old, second generation, high milage Toyota Prius. With over 150,000 miles on the clock, it’s perhaps unfair to compare the two in terms of handling (the insight is better, but stiffer), or oil consumption (which was a little on the prodigious side for the Prius). But we did subject both of them to mountain climbing. Granted, Mount Constitution is only a 2,398 feet climb, which perhaps pales in comparison to the treks up various passes that we subjected the Prius to in Norway. But it did give us a little insight into, well, the insight.

Unlike Toyota who crafted a complex battery management system for the Prius, the Honda Insight (first generation) opts for something rather more simplistic. It only uses a small region of charge in the middle of the pack’s abilities. So rather than discharge down to 10% or charge up to 100% and carefully manage each cell, it instead uses only a small proportion of the available energy and kind-of hopes that everything will balance out nicely in the end. This means that it only, really, has around 4kWh available to help push the car along.

It also means that it’s very resistant to letting the battery run low. So as we made our way up the mountain, initially the electric assist kicked in, but after that had run out there was only a brief period when the tiny 1 litre, 3-cylinder engine was pulling us up the mountain using all of its effort. Fairly quickly it decided that it needed to also charge the battery as well, sucking some of the small amount of power available. In comparison, the Prius was much more willing to sit with the pack fairly low until an opportunity arose to charge it.

The First Generation insight lacks a comprehensive battery management system

The First Generation insight lacks a comprehensive battery management system

Perhaps the most frustrating element of watching the car charge the pack was on the final stretch up to the parking lot, knowing that in a few hours we’d turn round and descend that self-same hill, and since the engine would be cold by that point, it’d want to warm it up…Indeed, it was only about half-way down that the engine seemingly switched off and allowed us to coast down the hill, by which time the battery was fully charged.

The insight’s lacklustre battery management has led to a number of aftermarket solutions giving greater control to the driver. These manual IMA systems can also boost fuel economy, but at the moment other than the underbody panels, everything else is pretty stock. That sort of thing might be a future adventure.

One aspect of ownership of the first generation insight that has proven pleasing is the remarkable level of camaraderie around these quirky little survivors. Although they are not enormously common, whenever we’ve run into another owner it’s been accompanied at the very least by a wave, and on the ferry to Orcas Island we met a charming gent who’d driven from somewhere ridiculous in one go (I think Southern California). His pride at their 2001 – owned since new – insight was only equaled on the return journey when we met his wife, who also expressed much delight in their silver manual transmission vehicle.

It’s like owning a classic with much less of the hassle.

And it turns out the noise from the car was probably mostly the cruddy oil (and initially lack of oil) in the transmission. I’d had the transmission oil topped up within 10 miles of buying the car (since it was very, very low), but changing it at the last service has left us with that uneven chatter only on a cold start, then the cheery whine of the electric assist (which does sound awesome) when warm. The transmission noise seems to have been banished, and whilst it can’t really compare to a modern hybrid (or EV), for a decade old car, it’s decently quiet.

The insight's looks futuristic, even if it's not an EV

The insight’s looks futuristic, even if it’s not an EV

Those few sins, though, are all overlooked though, because it’s an entertaining drive. The only thing we wish? That it was fully electric.


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