Owning a Hybrid

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Hotline, Fall 2002

by Marla Ferrency, GASP Board Member and Alan Ferrency

No, we don’t need to plug it in. Yes, we get over 70 miles per gallon on highway trips. And it costs only about as much as a new Honda Accord. These are the answers to the most common questions we are asked about our Insight, Honda’s first gas-electric hybrid car.

This two-seater has served as the primary vehicle in our household (consisting of two adults and a well-traveled dog) for the past year and a half. It’s great for daily commutes and provides a comfortable, efficient ride on long distance trips.

Insight The Insight has two bucket seats in a fairly spacious interior. Because there are no back seats, there is plenty of leg room and space to move around in the front. The rear compartment under the hatchback is big enough for carrying a load of groceries, or even a large dog. Under this platform are the batteries which store energy for the electric motor and a small “trunk” compartment for extra storage.

The Insight’s super efficient 1.0 liter, 3-cylinder gasoline engine complements its electric motor to achieve 61 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and 68 mpg on the highway, according to the manufacturer. In reality, we’ve found that the Pittsburgh terrain and traffic conditions yield about 50-60 mpg on short trips, and on road trips we use a gallon of gas every 65-75 miles. Some Insight drivers average up to 80 miles per gallon in areas with fewer hills and warmer weather.

The internal combustion engine provides primary power for the car, running on regular 87 octane gasoline. The electric motor kicks in when extra acceleration or speed is needed (this differs from Toyota’s hybrid technology; see below for more details). The motor also acts as the vehicle’s starter and alternator. It is powered by nickel metal hydride batteries, which are charged while driving and through regenerative braking, capturing energy that would otherwise be lost when the car slows down.

The Insight’s high fuel efficiency is due not only to the gas-electric motor, but also to the construction of the car. The car’s aerodynamic shape, a lightweight aluminum body, and low-rolling-resistance tires reduce wind resistance and friction, and decrease the amount of power required of the engine. The reduced power requirements allow for a smaller and lighter engine, increasing efficiency even more.

Honda has included another feature in its hybrids which goes beyond high fuel efficiency when the car is moving. The Insight’s engine turns off when the car is stopped, to prevent gasoline from being used (and emissions from being released) while the car idles. This “auto-stop” feature only requires that the driver shift into neutral when stopped. The motor restarts the engine instantly and quietly when the driver shifts into gear again.

Honda’s efficient fuel technology allows the Insight to be rated as an ultra-low emissions vehicle (ULEV) according to California’s emissions standards. Because the Insight burns so little fuel, it has fewer carbon dioxide emissions than any other car in production today.

One of the most interesting things about driving the Insight is the ability to see exactly how much fuel is being used at any given time. The extensive dashboard has gauges which show the lifetime mileage of the car, the trip mileage, and the amount of fuel being used at the moment. This allows us to see how small things like changes in ambient air temperature, tire pressure, and driving techniques affect our gas mileage. This instant feedback has helped us become more careful and safer drivers while striving to achieve better fuel efficiency.

The biggest and most obvious drawback to the Insight is its two seat design. Although it isn’t appropriate as a primary vehicle for a family with children, it works quite well as a secondary commuter vehicle, or as an only car for singles or couples without children. Those who have a greater need for carrying passengers may want to consider one of the other high efficiency hybrids currently on the market (see Hybrid Basics below).

The Honda Insight is a concept car, with the concept of getting the best fuel efficiency possible in an affordable production vehicle. If you embrace this concept, then the Insight may be the right car for you.

Hybrid Basics

Three different gas-electric hybrid automobiles are on the market today: the Honda Insight, the Toyota Prius (“pree-uss”), and the Honda Civic Hybrid. Each of these cars have unique features to consider if you’re thinking of buying a hybrid.

First, a few similarities. All three cars are fueled by ordinary gasoline. None of them require you to “plug-in” to keep the batteries charged. And of course, all of them have much better than average fuel efficiency and emissions ratings.

The Honda Insight is the most efficient choice, with the current model rated for 61 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and 68 mpg in highway driving. These impressive numbers are accomplished with a combination of light weight aluminum construction, aerodynamic design, and Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) powertrain. The Insight is available in both 5-speed manual and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) options. The tradeoff for these benefits is a limited two-seat hatchback configuration. Insight price: $19,080 (manual transmission), $21,280 (continuously variable transmission).

IMA uses a small, high-efficiency internal combustion engine to power the car full-time, with with an electric motor and batteries to provide extra acceleration and climbing power when necessary. The motor replaces the car’s alternater and starter, which reduces the car’s weight and eliminates the noise typically associated with starting a car. This allows another improvement, the “auto-stop” feature, which shuts off the engine when it would otherwise be wasting gas while idling. CVT also increases fuel efficiency over a traditional automatic transmission by eliminating a fixed set of gears and allowing a continuous range of motor speed to vehicle speed ratios for stepless acceleration.

The Toyota Prius is a five-passenger sedan with conventional body construction and an extraordinary powertrain. An electric motor powers the car full-time, and an internal combustion engine provides extra power and keeps the batteries charged. Since the gasoline engine isn’t always used at low speed, the Prius’s fuel ratings are better for city driving: 52 mpg in the city, but only 45 mpg on the highway. The Prius’s only transmission option is a continuously variable transmission. The Prius has more space for passengers than the Insight, but its trunk space is limited by battery storage. Prius price: $20,480.

The Honda Civic Hybrid, released last spring, combines some features of the Insight and Prius. It uses the same IMA technology found in the Insight, but has a five-passenger sedan format similar to the Prius. Its efficiency is similar to the Prius’s: 46 mpg in the city and 51 mpg on the highway. The Civic has plenty of trunk space despite its batteries. Civic price: $19,550 (manual transmission), $20,550 (continuously variable transmission).

The Insight is an optimal choice for those with long commutes or small families, while the Prius and Civic are better options for carrying more passengers. The Civic is a good choice if you do a lot of highway driving, but the Prius shines in stop-and-go traffic.

For detailed information on the Insight and comparisons between all three hybrids, visit www.insightcentral.net.