Hybrids need not be merely virtuous – as the Insight ably proved 20 years ago
By Matt Bird / Wednesday, February 17, 2021 / Loading comments
It's funny, given the technology was intended to clean up combustion engines, that 'hybrid' has become almost a dirty word. To some they're a con, to others they're unnecessarily heavy, and to others they're just a bit cynical, designed to lower fleet CO2 averages with no real thought given to their wider use. Broad brush strokes, sure, and many worthy hybrids have appeared – but it would also be fair to say the genre hasn't always enjoyed an unblemished reputation.
The current plight of the hybrid is especially curious when so many of the gripes currently levelled at them – too heavy, too inefficient, too bland – were largely answered by one of the first: the Honda Insight. For a long time it's been esteemed by Honda aficionados thanks to a level of engineering wizardry typical of the brand, though the original Insight is only now starting to accrue genuine classic status thanks to achievements that seem significant even two decades later. Which is why this one is £10k…
Just think about what the Insight represented at the turn of the century. Even back then, a car with an 850kg kerbweight – thanks in no small part to aluminium construction – was really slender; nowadays it's almost three quarters of a tonne less than a Honda e! Granted, the tiny 1.0-litre triple wasn't very powerful, but then it didn't need to be, and mated to a typically slick Honda manual (a CVT became optional later on) made it an order of magnitude more interesting than yet another droney four-cylinder auto. And while the Integrated Motor Assist doesn't afford the Insight pure electric range like a plug-in, the benefits of mild hybrid technology are still being felt today. It's just they can be even more effective in a car so light.
The Insight used electric power steering and stop-start to the benefit of efficiency (in 2001!), with a claimed combined 83mpg as a result. That was eminently achievable, too, the three-cylinder lean burn capability meaning many owners have reported mid-70s average mpg and anything up to 100mpg on a more considered run. Obviously that doesn't compare to pure electric running, but the Insight still has the measure of many new hybridised cars when it comes to efficiency.
But perhaps the Insight's most compelling trait – or why it's here, at least – was simply the fact that it was interesting. Sadly, the Toyota Prius proved the hybrid money was in making cars that conformed to the status quo; the Honda proved what the technology was capable of, hence its place in our affections. Moreover, it was built alongside NSXs at Honda's Tochigi plant, magnesium and aluminium were used in the construction of the engine, it had a dash like an S2000 and that incredible shape meant a drag coefficient of just 0.25Cd – when it went on sale, the Insight was the most aerodynamic car in production. And the Toyota Prius was not.
Still, even though Honda beat Toyota to offering the first petrol-electric hybrid in Europe, you don't need us to tell you which was the more commercially successful venture – just look at how closely the second Insight mirrored the Prius. And, as a result, it's the Insight nobody cares about. Not this one, though. It's the perfect Insight spec, with the manual gearbox and air conditioning, the latter bumping kerbweight from 838kg to 852kg. It's covered just 55,000 miles in 20 years and consequently looks as much museum exhibit as hybridised daily driver. With only 250 ever coming to the UK as well, these originals must now be extremely rare – the days of picking up a grotty one for £3k and commuting in it seem a long time ago. Nevertheless, a car this innovative deserves some use, if only to prove how far Honda was ahead of the pack twenty years ago. Clearly a car this quirky (and expensive) wouldn't see the light of day in 2021, but the current crop of hybrids could still learn a thing or two from the Insight. For a car as old as it is, that's no mean feat.
SPECIFICATION | HONDA INSIGHT
Engine: 995cc, three-cylinder plus Honda Integrated Assist parallel hybrid system
Transmission: 5-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 80@5,700rpm
Torque (lb ft): 83@1,500rpm
First registered: 2001
Recorded mileage: 55,000
Price new: £15,490
Yours for: £9,995
See the original advert here
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