Hybrid technology is, by and large, a good thing. On that we can all agree. But clean-running and environmentally responsible though they may be, hybrid cars have been out of reach for all but well-heeled buyers. Most consumers simply arenít willing to - or canít - shell out the $30,000 - $40,000 needed to get behind the wheel of a part-internal combustion, part-electric automobile.
There are a few exceptions, of course. General Motorsí Aura Greenline sedan has a reasonable price tag, all things considered, as does the Chev Malibu Hybrid, but in terms of what you get for your money, hybrid vehicles have yet to attract consumers in any significant numbers....especially younger buyers.
Honda is hoping to change that with the introduction of its second generation Insight hybrid. Priced below both the Civic Hybrid and popular Toyota Prius, itís aimed squarely at first-timers and buyers under 35, according to Honda Canada manager of production planning, Ryan Kelly.
"The number of hybrid products on the market is six times greater than it was when we first introduced the Insight, in 2000," he observed at the launch, in Scottsdale. "And there are 38 times as many of them on the roads....but few of them are being driven by younger buyers." So when it goes on sale this Spring, the 2010 Honda Insight will be priced in a "sweet spot" around $20,000 or below, according to Ryan Kelly.
With technology fundamentally similar to that found in the current Civic Hybrid, the new Insight is expected to yield fuel consumption of 4.8 L/100 km in town and a miserly 4.5 L./100 km on the highway. These are better numbers than the Toyota Prius and only marginally inferior to those delivered by the first generation Insight, which is still the fuel consumption champ in Canada.
Like the Civic and original Insight, the new Insight will have a compact electric motor sandwiched between the vehicleís internal combustion engine and a gearless CVT transmisison. The engine displaces 1.3 litres and the electric motor develops 10 kilowatts. Together they generate some 98 horsepower and 123 foot-pounds of torque. The engine also features Hondaís i-VTEC variable valve technology, drive-by-wire throttle, and is virtually identical to that found in the Civic Hybrid, if a smidgeon less powerful. It is purpose-built just for hybrid drivetrains and is what Honda calls a "low friction" powerplant. Total output for the nickel metal hydride battery pack is 128 volts, and Honda claims it will last for 15 years or 240,000 kilometres....whichever comes first.
Managing the combined output of the batteries, electric motor, and gas engine is Hondaís Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, which in this configuration, is more powerful and lighter than that found in the Civic or the original Insight. The IPU (Intelligent Power Unit) for the new Insight is located under the floor in the rear cargo area, along with the battery pack. Unlike its predecessor, this model will actually seat five adults, but back seat elbow room is still at a premium, and the guy in the middle will be snug. With the back seats folded flat, the Insight provides some 450 litres of cargo space.
Behind the wheel, drivers are confronted by a "two tier" instrument panel and multi-information display. An eye-shaped nacelle above the tachometer and IMA readout displays vehicle speed with a tri-colour background that shows you at a glance if youíre driving sensibly and gleaning maximum mileage from the drivetrain. Top fuel economy gives the display a green background, while "somewhat less than efficient" shows light blue, and inefficient driving behaviour shows dark blue. Like all good hybrid vehicles, the new Insight has regenerative braking that harvests electrical power during deceleration.
But thatís not all. An "Econ" switch located on the left side of the dash allow s you to choose driving modes, and the multi-information display also has a cute little "tree" graphic that "scores" your driving performance.
"The economy mode harmonizes the engine, electric motor and transmission," explains Yuji Fujiki, Hondaís project leader for the Insight, "as well as reducing the time the air conditioner operates, and controlling the idle time of the engine when the car stops." To wring optimum fuel economy out of the entire system, the driver would ideally be in "green" mode, with all the "leaves" of the tree in place.
It may sound kind of childish and maybe even a tad precious, but the whole arrangement actually works well and is easy to get along with and quite user-friendly. On a 45-kilometre driving loop laid out at the product launch, I managed a 5.0 L/100 km fuel economy average, and that was while keeping up with traffic and staying at the speed limits. The key is to avoid jackrabbit starts, letting the engineís momentum carry the vehicle, coasting downhill, and braking gently and well ahead of stop signs/traffic lights. The system is designed to allow drivers to closely monitor their performance, and itís almost fun to use. According to Honda, the whole idea is to encourage drivers to "take an interest in developing fuel-efficient driving habits over the long term."
The new Honda Insight will be offered in two trim levels: LX and EX. Most of the usual modcons - power windows, etc - will come standard with the LX, and the EX will have extras such as a Navigation system, steering wheel-located paddle shifters, Bluetooth capability, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, and lightweight alloy wheels.
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