A Little Insight In Our Lives
It's funny how sometimes something you don't care for at first just seems to grow on you with time.
My brand new, "pre-owned" Honda Insight gasoline-electric hybrid happens to be such a case-in-point. By conventional car design standards, it seems a bit of an odd duck at first glance with its rear fender well covers and chopped-off rear deck.
I have to admit that I wasn't all that taken with the vehicle's styling the first time I saw it, too, but you tend to keep these feelings to yourself when mixing with Honda executives. After all, like human beings, it’s not necessarily what's on the outside that counts, but what's on the inside.
In the case of the Honda Insight, what's inside is a super-efficient, three-cylinder, gasoline-electric hybrid motor that gives the car an EPA rated 61 mpg in town and 70 mpg on the highway. Having now driven mine for almost one month now I can attest to the veracity of these numbers. While I've yet to take the Insight on any long trips, around town this Fall, before it turned cold, I was consistently averaging 60.4 mpg on my 25 mile commute to and from the office.
History of My Honda
I came to own Honda Insight No. 984 by an odd twist of fate. I was showing a businessman from California around Omaha when we happened to pass a used car dealership. My guest spotted the Silver-colored Insight on the lot and asked me if that was an Insight, a fact I quickly confirmed. He suggested we turn around and go have a look at it. I was skeptical, after all what would a brand-new vehicle like the Insight be doing in a used car lot, I wondered out loud.
We made the U-turn and drove back to the dealership. While I looked over the Insight, my companion - who also happens to be a reader of EVWorld - went in to find out if the car was for sale. It turned out it was and according to the salesman, the owner was ready to sell. The taxes on the car were coming due and the owner didn’t want to compound an already touchy situation at home. It seems the owner had bought the car without consulting his wife, or so the salesman led us to believe. Since she had never learned to drive a car with a manual transmission, she was less than enthusiastic about his purchase.
We took the car out for a couple quick turns around the block noticing that the digital Miles Per Gallon readout indicated a relatively modest -- for the Insight -- 48.5 mpg and a total of only 1,345 miles on the odometer. This car was only just getting broken in. We thanked the dealer and said we’d think about it. On the drive home, my companion toyed with the idea of buying it and having me drive the car either to California or at least to Denver where he’d have a friend complete the trip for him. But I sensed that he wasn’t really very serious about making an offer.
I thought about the car for the next two days and talked to my wife about it. We have needed to replace her aging and rusted 1985 Dodge Lancer, but I had been hoping to hold off long enough so we could buy a Th!nk city when it came available. The Th!nk is also a two-passenger car, but is completely electric powered unlike the Insight which is gasoline powered with an electric assist. For my daily 12 mile commute to work, the all-electric Th!nk would be ideal. We’d have our late model Honda Accord for any long trips we needed to make.
However, Ford’s decision to initially offer the Th!nk city (available sometime in 2002 in the US) only through Ford dealerships which currently handle the Ford Ranger EV pickup, meant the car would not be available in Omaha. The nearest dealership would be Kansas City, over two hundred miles away. So, I asked my wife what she thought and to my surprise and delight, she gave her blessing.
I called the dealership the next morning and asked if the car were still available. It was. I told the salesman, I’d stop by after work and leave an offer and earnest deposit on the car. I planned to offer the current owner $19,0000 for the car. This was $500 more than the Honda dealer was willing to give him. Since Honda Insights typically sell new for their sticker price or higher, this would save me more than $1,450 if I ordered the car new. As things turned out I got an even better deal as I’ll explain shortly.
It took several days for the owner to make up his mind, but in the end, he didn’t want to face nearly $1,600 in taxes and title fees. Besides, the salesman said he made a pitch in my behalf, explaining that I published an Internet magazine about electric-drive vehicles and so the car couldn’t be going to a better "home."
That Saturday, my wife and I drove over to the dealer and took possession of the car. Coincidentally, Greg Hanssen was due to stop by our house on his EV Odyssey II. Only moments after we got back home, Greg called from his cell phone. He and his trusty Generation II EV1 were only a few blocks away. I told him to come on over; I had a big surprise waiting for him!
For the first time in Omaha’s recorded history, a GM EV1 and a Honda Insight gasoline-electric were parked in the same driveway! I think Greg was as excited as I was despite his general loathing of anything that is not totally electric-powered. We enjoyed swapping cars and taking some of the neighbors for rides. We even had a chance to show the car off to a local TV station that ran a short story on Greg’s EV Odyssey on the late night news.
Some Insight Into the Insight
So, now that I actually own the Insight, what do I think of it?
In a phrase, "I love it."
Of course, you’d sort of expect me to say that after plunking down $4000 and taking out a $15,000 car loan. Nearly anyone who buys a new car has to have a certain affection for it, be it its styling, power, versatility, comfort, prestige, "sex-appeal", what-have-you. But in the case of the Insight, it’s none of the usual reasons. Here is a car that might best be described as "Essentialist" in its interior appointments. It has electric windows and door locks, which have become fairly commonplace amenities in US cars now-of-days. And there’s an AM/FM/Cassette tape player - again fairly standard anymore.
Unfortunately, as with the Toyota Prius, there’s no armrest, a real shortcoming on long-legged trips. Also there’s no cruise control, again a big plus for the types of trips this car is capable of making. My Accord provides a nice little storage bin in the armrest for my cassette tapes. However, these are really only minor annoyances since the car will spend 90% of its life shuttling me back and forth to work, a trip that takes only about 15-20 minutes, hardly enough time for my arm to get tired or to listen to a cassette tape.
No, the true beauty of this car -- in my eyes - is its ability to get me from the proverbial point A to point B with a minimum of energy consumed and emissions generated.
Driving to work one morning recently, I calculated that for the amount of fuel it takes to drive your typical Sport ‘Ute from my home to my workplace and back in a day, I can drive the same distance on the same amount of fuel for the entire week! I arrive just a comfortably, just as quickly, just as safely - perhaps more so given recent industry revelations - than my SUV-driving neighbor does. The only advantage he or she might have is in snowy road conditions and certainly off road. But such inclement weather is a transient phenomenon that is usually dealt with in a day’s time by sunshine and the highway department. And few SUV owners I know of would ever dream of taking their $40,000 vehicles off the main highway, despite what all those TV commercials would have us believe.
Another way of looking at it is the amount of CO2 the typical SUV generates compared to my thrifty little Insight. A sport utility vehicle and similar light-duty trucks generate some 1.4 pounds of CO2 by mile traveled. That means, on a 25-mile round trip journey to and from work, it will create 35 pounds of CO2, considered the leading greenhouse gas. By contrast, assuming that the Insight creates only 0.32 pounds per mile driven (a 24 mpg standard sedan creates 0.8 pounds of CO2/mile), I am creating only 8 pounds of carbon dioxide in my daily commute as opposed to the 35 spewed out by the SUV.
But beyond its environmental benefits, the car is a joy to drive. I’ve only owned one other sports car in my life - an old MG Midget - and this car is every bit as much fun to drive as that car ever was. I even get the occasionally admiring glance from the ladies.
In spite of its diminutive 3-cylinder engine, the car is fairly peppy. I recently out accelerated a Jeep Cherokee at a stoplight. The Cherokee driver was going to have to merge into my lane after the traffic light due to road construction. He looked down on my funny little car with obvious disdain, assuming, I am sure, that he could take me with ease. Surprisingly, when the light changed, I squealed the tires and was away from the light in a shot, leaving the Cherokee several car lengths behind me. Of course, the Insight is no match for a big bore sports car or even an aggressive six-banger, but it’ll keep up when it has to.
Aggressive driving, however, is not what this car is about. It’s really about playing the "MPG" game and seeing how many miles you can wring out of a gallon of gasoline (petrol). The Insight’s all-digital instrument panel makes it easy to play this game. It constantly provides feedback on your average fuel economy every two minutes. A bar chart also shows it on a moment-by-moment basis. Usually, it’ll show you doing between 50 and 75 mpg, occasionally shooting to 150 mpg as you coast downhill.
To date, the best in-town mileage I’ve achieved is over 62 mpg. Recently, after the weather turned cold the mileage as "sagged" to between 57.4 and 58 mpg. I think this is related more to the fact that I am running the heating system that does not allow the "auto-stop" feature to function when you stop at a light. In warmer weather, the engine will automatically turn off when you put the car in neutral at a traffic light or bank drive-through. This, of course, saves gasoline and boosts your mileage.
I discovered shortly after buying the car that it came equipped with the optional automatic climate control system which is, I believe, a $1,500 option, making my deal even a better one. However, one of the drawbacks of the climate control system is it offers you so many additional options for controlling the comfort level in the car. It’s sort of like one of those complex TV remote controls that’s got more buttons and gadgets than the average person will ever use. I am still trying to figure it all out. Thankfully, all I really have to do is push the "Auto" button and set the temperature control knob to the desired temperature and the car does the rest.
The seats in the Insight are some of the most comfortable I’ve sat in. They firmly support my lower back and getting into and out of the car isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be at my age. All of the controls are within easy reach and the instrument panel acceptably readable through the steering wheel. Here is one area, however, I’d like to see Honda emulate the Prius. I really liked having the readout just under the windshield.
Perhaps the most noticeable design shortcoming is the rear and side visibility in the car. Having driven an Accord for the last five years with its excellent all-around visibility, the Insight takes a little getting used to. The rear-view mirror only offers a modest view of what’s behind you with the view split between the upper and lower sections of the rear hatch. The right side pillar post significantly blocks view of traffic to your right rear. I learned very early to rely on my outside rear mirrors and to exercise great caution anytime I want to change lanes. More than once, I was surprised to find another vehicle in my blind spot. Lots of cars have similar design shortcomings, so this isn’t a problem exclusive to the Insight. Just a word to the wise, check twice before changing lanes.
Once nice feature, however about the Insight’s rear hatch window is that for the first time, I can now see what’s behind me when I back down my driveway, something I’ve never enjoyed in any car I’ve owned. Of course, once you put a couple of small suitcases or grocery bags back there, you also lose half of your view to the rear. That’s why, if you have to buy a few groceries on your way home, put them in the Insight’s convenient little storage bin which is located at the back of the hatch decking. This will keep your oranges, apples and cartons of milk from sliding around.
One quick word about the Insight’s turning radius. This car can turn inside a dime. It’s almost like driving a tracked vehicle the way it pivots.
I should also clear up one area of continual confusion for people who are new to the concept of a hybrid-electric vehicle. Yes, the car has batteries: 144 volts-worth of them. No, you don’t have to plug the car in to recharge it. The car recharges its batteries automatically for you. In fact, it continually displays this for you when it is using battery power and when it is recharging. It’s fascinating to watch, though I advise keeping your eyes on the road.
Now that I’ve grown comfortable with the car in an urban/suburban setting, I am looking forward to see what it does on the open highway. I’ll hopefully get that chance later this week when I have to make a trip to Des Moines to pick up my daughter’s cat. She is attending a medical research conference in Chicago and we get to baby sit our "grandchild" while she’s way.
If you want to know how that trips went, as well as those of other EV and HEV owners, be sure to check out the EVWorld Owner’s Journal.
I am happy with my purchase? Absolutely, though I still hope to someday replace the Insight with a true battery-electric or fuel cell vehicle. When I do, I feel I will be doing my generation and future generations a small, but important favor. I will be reducing the amount of pollution and greenhouse gases I personally generate while encouraging the development of a new, cleaner, more efficient… and yes, fun class of
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