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Back in 1999, Honda introduced their Insight. The tiny two-seater debuted as a 2000-model year car, and it heralded things to come. The Insight was the first gas/electric sold in the U.S. While the first-generation Insight was capable of impressive fuel economy (61 mpg city, 70 mpg highway using an older, more optimistic EPA rating system), it's size and spartan interior limited the car's general appeal. It required too many compromises.

At the 2009 Detroit Auto Show, both Honda and Toyota showed that major compromises are no longer necessary in the quest for more efficient transportation. Honda and Toyota introduced their all-new 2010 editions of the Insight and the Prius. Both are larger and more capable vehicles that push the envelope of practical fuel efficiency.

In Video: 2010 Toyota Prius Debuts at the Detroit Auto Show

The 2010 Honda Insight

While it's hard to tell from the photos, the 2010 Honda Insight is smaller than the 2009 Civic Hybrid. To give you a frame of reference, the smaller hybrid rides on a wheelbase that is nearly half a foot shorter and has less overall length compared to the Civic.

The Insight's style is clearly driven by aerodynamics. The bullet-shaped nose blends smoothly into the passenger cabin and then cuts off abruptly. Any aerodynamics engineer will attest that this is the most efficient automotive aero shape known to date ... the wind doesn't show favoritism to any one brand. This reality is also evident in the shape of the new Prius and Chevrolet's upcoming Volt; the profiles of these cars are quite similar because airflow created the shape, not stylists. The smallish 15-inch wheels make the body appear bulkier than it is, but one can't argue with efficiency.

Inside, the Insight offers a generous 85 cubic feet of passenger volume with another 15.9 cubic feet of cargo room. This is slightly less passenger but more cargo volume than the larger Civic. The cabin appears bright, airy and fully modern.

The Insight's hybrid powertrain uses a 98-horsepower 1.3-liter four-cylinder with what engineers call Integrated Motor Assist. This is the electric motor (rated at 10 kilowatts, or about 13 horsepower) that occupies the space (and helps provide the functionality) of a traditional continuously variable transmission. Fuel economy, while not yet certified, is expected to be 40 mpg city, 43 mpg highway. Currently, the Civic Hybrid is rated at 40 mpg city, 45 mpg highway.

Honda's EcoAssist system helps drivers achieve maximum fuel economy by recommending driving style recommendations and then showing the driver's results real-time. (While your author hasn't experienced the system in action, he assumes that it is similar to the EcoGuide system introduced by Ford at the L.A. Auto Show in their 2010 Fusion Hybrid.)

The 2010 Honda Insight provides a complete range of safety and convenience features, including six airbags, electronic stability control, power interior features (windows, door locks, etc.), automatic climate control, and a 160-watt audio system. Options include the Honda Satellite Linked Navigation System with voice recognition and Bluetooth HandsFreeLink system. These features were never even considered for the original Insight, but are required to make a car attractive to the mainstream automotive buyer who likes a full complement of equipment.

2010 Toyota Prius

In the U.S. alone, Toyota has sold more than 670,000 Prius hybrid models. The car has become an icon of the environmental movement. By all accounts, the all-new, third-generation Prius will continue to be popular with the eco-conscious.

Evolutionary describes the new Prius's shape. The all-new design rides on the same wheelbase as the second-generation model (106.3 inches). (This makes it larger than the 2010 Insight by about six inches.) While the roof is the same height, the peak roof height has been shifted back almost four inches. The move gives the Prius a more wedge-like shape for improved interior room and reduced aerodynamic drag. According to Toyota, the Prius achieves an aerodynamic drag coefficient (Cd) of just 0.25.

Even though the 2010 Prius is slightly larger and carries more features than the outgoing car, its combined mpg rating is expected to increase to 50 mpg, up from 46 mpg for the 2009 model. Toyota achieves this mileage using a 98-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine running on the ultra-efficient Atkinson cycle. The engine's extra size enables it to make more torque (105 lb-ft), and although it runs counter to conventional thinking, the additional torque enables the engine to get better highway fuel economy (because the engine can run at lower engine speeds).

The motor portion of the Prius hybrid system produces a peak 80 horsepower, and when combined with the engine, results in a maximum powertrain output of 134 horsepower. Acceleration should be more than ample.

Additionally eco-enhancements include dull engineering advancements such as an electrically-driven water pump. Water pumps are normally driven by the engine's crankshaft and continuously sapped power even when water flow wasn't necessary. Toyota also cut the weight of many components including the transmission. A lighter vehicle is easier to make efficient than a heavier one.

The new Prius will also be more involving for the driver because it offers three driving modes. EV-Drive Mode allows driving on battery power alone at low speeds for about a mile, conditions permitting. There is also a Power Mode, which increases sensitivity to throttle input for a sportier feel, and an Eco Mode, which helps the driver achieve their best mileage.

Like the outgoing Prius, the 2010 model will be fully equipped with all manner of modern road-going conveniences. But Toyota did not just xerox the old car's feature list for the new model. The company added clever features such as an available sliding glass moonroof that is packaged with solar panels used to power a new ventilation system. This solar ventilation system uses an electrically powered air circulation fan that does not require engine assist. In addition, an exhaust heat recirculation system reduces heat waste by warming engine coolant during cold startup, for improved performance. It also heats up the passenger cabin more efficiently.

Further reducing the vehicle's power consumption, available LED (light emitting diode) lamps are used for low beams and also in the tail and stop lamps.

Lastly, touch sensors on the steering wheel switches are designed to reduce driver eye movement for better concentration on the road. When the driver

touches the audio or info switch located on the steering wheel, a duplicate image is displayed on the instrument panel, directly in front of the driver. This system, called Touch Tracer, is the first system in the world to allow steering wheel controls to read out on the instrument panel.

In Video: 2010 Toyota Prius Debuts at the Detroit Auto Show

The Green Giants Line Up

As soon as possible, AOL Autos will bring you driving impressions and complete evaluations of these important hybrids. Each represents improvements in efficiency, and shows the incremental innovations that point to the expansion of hybrid vehicles on U.S. roadways.

For those following the latest in hybrid vehicles, the new Insight and Prius are in direct competition with the recently introduced Ford Fusion Hybrid. The new Ford is worth checking out if you think a hybrid might be in your future, because it's not only the imports that know how to make efficient cars these days.

Rex Roy is an automotive writer based in Detroit. He can be reached through his web site at www.RexRoy.net.



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