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Review: Honda Insight

Hybrids need to get more affordable if enough people are going to drive them. Honda’s Insight is leading the charge. Steve Walker reports.

It’s an interesting idea that a large part of the problem of harmful vehicle emissions could be solved not by incredible new propulsion technologies but by adjusting the attitudes of us, their drivers.

Instead of getting in and launching ourselves from point A to point B in the shortest time possible, what if we could install efficiency as our number one priority on a car journey? Honda’s Insight is a car that tries to encourage just such a paradigm shift. Yes it’s a high-tech hybrid but the way it employs its technology also gives pause for thought.

This isn’t the first Insight Honda has sold in the UK. There’s a very good chance that you’ll have no recollection whatsoever of the original 1999 Insight which introduced hybrid engine technology to the UK market. It was a quirky economy coupe with back wheels half hidden beneath its bodywork and a claimed 83mpg combined fuel economy. It looked as you’d imagine a car of the future might – weird. Nobody bought it.

Despite the lack of commercial success, Honda had set the hybrid ball rolling and its follow up, the 2003 Civic IMA saloon, was more palatable for the public. Not as palatable as the Toyota Prius, however, the car which stole Honda’s thunder with its star-studded celebrity endorsements and got people talking about hybrid cars. With the latest Civic IMA continuing to battle it out with the latest Prius, Honda is positioning the Insight as the affordable hybrid. It’s a move which could easily find favour amongst the large numbers of people who are more interested in saving money than the planet but would be delighted if they can do both.

"Honda’s aim of producing a more affordable and accessible hybrid car is a laudable one"

So can the Insight change the way we drive and if so, how’s it going to do it? The obvious answer is that with just 87bhp, a CVT automatic gearbox and a leisurely 0-60mph sprint of 12.5s, owners can attempt to drive as fast as they like but their efforts are likely to be thwarted. Eventually, drivers should get the aggression out of their systems and settle into the Insight’s way of doing things. The central instrument read out is the key to all this. Drive in a relaxed manner, tickling the throttle underfoot like it were a giant over-ripe strawberry, and the dash glows in a calming green light. Get a bit over enthusiastic and the green hue fades, eventually turning blue if you’re really getting carried away. At this point you can picture the family of polar bears falling through the hole you’ve just made in the ice cap. Maintain a green approach and a little plant symbol illuminates on the Insight’s display as a reward, it’s possible to get up to five of these sprouts lit but you might need to fit a sail to achieve this. At the end of your journey the car will give you an average rating to show how eco-friendly you’ve been on your journey.

The car doesn’t rely completely on sedating its drivers into an on-going battle of environmental one-upmanship against themselves. It also has Honda’s clever IMA petrol/electric drivetrain to fall back on. The engine is a 1.3-litre unit based on the one in the Civic Hybrid and featuring a series of neat innovations. During deceleration, the cylinders are closed off by the VCM (Variable Cylinder Management) system to boost efficiency and numerous modifications have been made to reduce friction inside the engine. The petrol unit might only have 87bhp but it is assisted by a 14bhp electric motor driven by power from a bank of nickel hydride batteries under the boot floor. These are recharged by energy reclaimed from the wheels when braking or coasting.

This Insight is a massively less challenging vehicle to look at than the original oddball coupe but Toyota might be less enamoured with the shape than the rest of us because of the resemblance it bears to the Prius. Honda stuck with a hatchback design to ensure the car’s compatibility with European tastes and despite being a little hefty around the hindquarters, it’s a sleek and mildly futuristic shape. The dash has the chunky buttons and slightly cluttered feel of the Civic and the Accord but like in these cars, initial concern that you’ll need a few hours with the owner’s manual before you can change the radio station should quickly subside as the controls prove intuitive to use.

The five-door body style of the Insight opens up the possibility of using it as family transport. Head room in the back seats is restricted by that aerodynamic roof line but otherwise space is plentiful. Despite the presence of the batteries, the boot is a generous 408 litres and the rear seats can fold to increase that capacity. Compared to conventional family hatchback models, the car can hold its own.

The trim levels take on a familiar Honda structure with SE, ES and ES-T models on offer. All have the five-door bodystyle and a CVT gearbox with seven artificially constructed ratios. Equipment includes climate control air-conditioning, a CD stereo, electric mirrors, electric windows and VSA stability control. Buyers will need to upgrade to the ES in order to get 16" alloy wheels, cruise control, wheel-mounted paddle shifters for the gearbox and other extras. The ES-T adds satellite navigation and a hands free phone kit.

It’s all very well plumbing advanced hybrid power trains into high end cars which sell to a small number of wealthy customers but to have a significant impact on the problem of global vehicle emissions, clean vehicles are going to have to become much more commonplace. That means becoming more affordable and that is Honda’s thinking with the Insight. Designed to slot in to the market beneath the Civic IMA and its Toyota Prius rival, the Insight is priced at equivalent levels to conventional family hatchbacks.

So what’s the environmental upshot of all the Insight’s technology and environmental prompting? The car returns 64.2mpg on the combined cycle with emissions of 101g/km. That’s impressive and before you point out that you can get better from a diesel city car, remember that diesel engines open a whole further can of worms with their high emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. Reducing these might not save you money in Europe but in America and Japan they are far more stringently taxed. Over here, you’ll have to make do with the knowledge that you’re helping those polar bears.

To come close to replicating the Insight’s official economy figures, you’ll need to drive it in Eco Assist mode. This reduces the throttle response to smooth out the engine’s work load and cuts back on the efforts of the climate control system. It’s engaged by pressing a big green button on the dash and if you’re going to buy an Insight, you may as well keep it pressed most of the time.

Honda’s Insight is a car that not only aims to cut its emissions through advanced technological solutions, it also seeks to modify the behaviour of its drivers – turning them into an army of chilled out eco-warriors in the process. By presenting a whole range of information about how efficiently you’re driving, it’s a car with real potential to alter the way we think about getting from A to B.

Honda’s aim of producing a more affordable and accessible hybrid car is a laudable one but by bringing the technology to the masses the brand is also hoping to turn a tidy profit. There’s nothing wrong with that. If the problem of vehicle emissions is to be successfully combated, there must be incentives for manufacturers and consumers to take the plunge. If the prospect of the Insight’s moderate thirst and tiny tax burden don’t do the trick in the showroom, customers could well be persuaded by the opportunity the car presents for them to do their bit.

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