Detroit—The goal of the 2010 Honda Insight, based on information Honda released today at the Detroit Auto Show, is to make the best use of the most cost-effective hybrid technology. And that may be a smart strategy from what some analysts consider to be the smartest car company in the world.
When members of the media troop past the new Insight today, they’ll see Honda’s take on a shape that’s coming to define hybrid and electric vehicles: a five-door hatchback with a smooth front and a high, abrupt tail. You can add the Insight to a list of similarly shaped cars that begins with the Toyota Prius and includes the Chevrolet Volt as well. In this case, Honda leans heavily on styling cues from its much-publicized FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicle.
Under the Insight’s hood is a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine putting out 98 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque—obviously tiny for what Honda claims is a five-passenger subcompact. It’s mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which provides infinite ratios to keep the engine operating within its most efficient range. On the upscale LX model, Honda offers paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel that give the driver the experience of a seven-speed gearbox. A CVT doesn’t actually have gears, so the system uses electronics to direct the transmission to up- or downshift in specific ways when a driver hits the paddle.
The hybrid heart of the system is the fifth generation of Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system. The lightweight, ultra-thin electric motor between the engine and transmission puts out 10 kilowatts (13 horsepower). It is powered by a flat nickel-metal-hydride battery pack that sits under the rear deck, just behind the gas tank under the rear seat. The battery holds 0.58 kilowatt-hour of energy—just slightly less than half the 1.3 kilowatt-hours of the current Toyota Prius pack. The Insight battery is recharged with both spare engine power and regenerative braking, and its accelerator connects to an electronic sensor rather than a cable, also known as “drive-by-wire.”
The electronics in the control system let Honda offer what it calls the Eco Assist system, which tells the driver how economically she’s driving by changing the background color of the speedometer. Green means good, blue means you’re a lead-foot. There’s an ECON mode that enhances fuel economy further by resetting the control logic, so the car accelerates more slowly and backs off the gas engine quicker.
The dashboard EcoGuide accumulates data on driving patterns, so hypermiling drivers can analyze their history to improve driving strategies. Honda even shows up to five green leaves in the display—similar to graphics in the Ford Fusion Hybrid—to reward drivers who display the most economical behavior over time.
Squeezing more out of less, the Insight’s electric motor not only moves the car away from rest after the engine has shut down, it can also power the car by itself at urban speeds—under some conditions. Honda says, very cautiously, “When driving on a flat surface at steady speed in the low 30 mph range, for example, it is possible for the driver to determine that the vehicle is being propelled exclusively by the electric motor when the IMA system Power Flow Indicator on the Multi-Information Display shows that only the battery is providing power.” OK, then…
Honda has worked hard to keep weight down, so the Insight—at 14 feet, 4 inches long—weighs just 2,720 pounds despite the usual complement of airbags, consumer electronics, other “comfort and convenience features”—and that heavy battery pack. Overall, Honda claims the Insight’s IMA system is 19 percent smaller and 28 percent lighter than the previous generation used in the current Honda Civic Hybrid.
And minimalism can produce maximal results. Honda projects that the Insight will get 40 miles per gallon on the city cycle, and 43 on the highway, for a combined mileage of 41 miles per gallon. So the car will do roughly 400 miles before drivers have to refill the 10.6-gallon tank.
Ah, but what does it all cost? Honda didn’t release pricing in the information it gave to the media, but it has consistently said that the Insight will be “the lowest priced hybrid offered in the US” when it goes on sale in April—with a starting price under $20,000, or several thousand dollars below the Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius.
The Insight is the first of several vehicles that Honda will build on a dedicated hybrid platform—the next will be the sporty two-seater CR-Z. The new Insight is expected to sell in relatively high quantities. Honda is targeting annual global sales of 200,000 units per year, with approximately 100,000 in North America. Along with the Civic Hybrid, the new vehicle will be produced at an expanded hybrid vehicle production line at the Suzuka factory in Japan.
In September 2006, Honda stopped making the original Honda Insight, a teardrop-shaped two-seater—widely perceived as impractical by consumers. Despite real-world fuel economy approaching 70 miles per gallon, the company sold fewer than 2,000 Insights in 2005, and fewer than 1,000 units through September of 2006.