Click above for high-res gallery of the 2010 Honda Insight

Honda may not have been first to market with a modern hybrid electric vehicle, but the original Insight did beat the Toyota Prius to the US by a few months. As so many other companies have discovered over the years, being first doesn't necessarily guarantee success. You also need the right product for the market at the time. The original Insight had a lot of interesting technology, but it also suffered from some of the same limitations that doomed the EV1.

Still, the original Insight soldiered on from 1999 to 2006 with the Civic hybrid, using the same technology, joining it in 2002. As 2009 kicks off, Honda is launching a new hybrid-only model that revives the Insight name on an altogether more practical machine. This time Honda is aiming for real mass market appeal with a price the company hopes will make the new Insight "The Hybrid for Everyone." Honda invited us out to Arizona before Christmas to sample the new Insight and we can now tell you all about it. Read on to find out if Honda's Insight is on target.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

In many respects, the original Insight was what the EV1 might have evolved into if GM had followed some of the development paths it looked into. The parallels to the EV1 are numerous. As much as people like to mythologize the EV1, even if GM had continued to produce it, it is unlikely that it would ever have been a commercial success because of its configuration. As much as green car fans like to tout the facts that most people drive alone most of the time and don't drive very far, the chasm between what people need most of the time and what they buy is a large one.

Two-seat coupes have never amounted to more than a small niche in the overall market, and the EV1 and Insight were both small. People buy for the worst case scenario, meaning that two-seaters usually have small sales. In the case of the Insight, that amounted to about 18,000 copies sold worldwide over its seven-year run.

The Insight achieved its tremendous fuel efficiency by a variety of means, some of which contributed to a high manufacturing cost. Its 1,856 lb weight was achieved by extensive use of aluminum throughout its structure and components. Like the EV1, few of its components were shared with other cars, further increasing cost.

For the 2009 edition, Honda has taken all the lessons learned about its Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system and applied them to a new vehicle that should be much more appealing to a mass audience. The combination of a more appealing vehicle and significantly reduced cost should provide what Honda hopes will be a profitable, high volume hybrid car.

So why is it that this car should be attract more customers than the original Insight. First of all, it nominally seats five although four adults is a more realistic maximum occupancy rate. Then there is the price. Honda has yet to announce final pricing but officials had previously indicated it could start as low as $18,500. At this point, all Honda will commit to is that the Insight will be the most affordable hybrid on the market.

Like the larger Civic, the Insight has a 1.3L four cylinder engine mated to the IMA system with an electronically-controlled CVT. Both cars develop 123 lb-ft of torque but the Insight only peaks at 98 hp compared to the 110 hp of the Civic. The electric motor also has a lower capacity at 13 hp and 58 lb-ft vs. the 20 hp/76 lb-ft of the Civic.

The hardware configuration of the motor is an interesting one. The rotor is attached to the crankshaft on one side and the transmission input on the other. A series of field coils are mounted around the outside of the rotor. A position sensor keeps track of the rotor angular location. The electromagnetic flux in alternating coils is switched on and off causing a torque on the rotor. This is known as a flux-switching motor. It's a mechanically simple device that can easily superimpose additional torque on the engine output.

Energy for the motor is stored in the usual nickel metal hydride battery pack. Just as Ford has done with the new Fusion hybrid, Honda has updated the Insight's battery, making it smaller and lighter. The pack is 28 percent lighter and 19 percent smaller in volume than the Civic pack. It contains 7 modules with a dozen D-size cells each. The power output of the modules is 30 percent greater than the Civic and the pack has a total capacity of 580 Wh. That's somewhat less than the 869 Wh of the Civic but it's in keeping with the cost-reduced nature of the Insight. The power electronics, motor ECU and an air cooling system are all integrated with the battery pack. The entire assembly sits below the cargo floor between the rear wheels.

Part of Honda's goal with the new Insight was to create a car that was recognizable as a hybrid. This led directly to the shape you see in the photos (check out the gallery). As both Toyota with the Prius and General Motors with the Volt, one of the keys to maximizing the efficiency is to minimize the aerodynamic drag. Hence the Insight has a shape that moves through the air with minimal resistance.

When the first images of the Insight concept appeared last fall, many observers felt it looked too much like the Prius. Once we saw the car in the metal it was apparent it still had a resemblance in terms of the basic shape. However, the design detailing was significantly different and the roof has a flatter contour than the more rounded Toyota. The Insight picks up design details from the FCX Clarity, particularly in the shape of the nose, the base of the A-pillar and the side glass. The result is a decidedly sleeker look than the Prius.

The Insight is smaller than the Prius by 2.5 inches in both length and height, and also has a 6-inch shorter wheelbase. While the Prius is classed as a mid-sized car based on its interior volume, the Insight is a compact. The Prius has a decidedly spaceship-like feel, the Insight is far more conventional looking. The dashboard of the Insight looks like a blending of the Civic and Fit. The dual level instrument cluster looks like it has been lifted straight from the Civic with its digital speedometer visible above the steering wheel and tachometer and Eco-Assist down below. More on Eco-Assist later.

While no one can argue with the remarkable efficiency of the Prius, the iconic hybrid - like most of its Toyota siblings - is definitely lacking in vehicle dynamics. The steering feels like it has no connection to the wheels, and body roll around corners is excessive. When I drove the Civic Hybrid last summer, I noticed it had many of these same characteristics.

The Honda engineering team wanted something different from the Insight. They wanted a hybrid that was appealing to drive. Fortunately they already had a small car that met that criteria: the Fit. So, naturally, the important dynamic bits of the Fit form the basis of the Insight. The entire front structure of the Insight is in fact common to the Fit. Compared to the Fit, the rear axle has been moved back two inches and the roof has dropped 3.8 inches. Inside, the roof sits two inches closer to the front seat and three inches closer to the rear.

That means that occupants in the Insight sit lower to the ground and have a cozier feeling than in the Fit, but the new Insight actually ends up feeling sportier than either the Fit or Prius. The Insight's front seats contribute to the feeling of sportiness thanks to the supportive side bolsters. The seats proved very comfortable during our drive time. Further to that sporting feel, the up-level EX trim adds paddle shifters behind the steering wheel just like the Fit Sport. Paddles may seem an odd addition to a car with a CVT, but Honda has programmed 7 ratios that are selectable via the paddles.

For our day of driving, Honda defined several routes starting with a 100-mile mixed drive route that included in-town, rural and highway driving. After lunch we set off on a series of shorter routes that included a 16-mile efficiency route and a 22-mile sport driving route.

One of the features that Honda has incorporated into the new Insight is an ECON button. Pressing the button modifies the control strategies for the throttle, CVT, auto stop, cruise control and air conditioning. Essentially it applies a filter to most controls to slow the responsiveness. This causes the throttle to ignore small fluctuations in the accelerator pedal position, keep the engine off longer and make the cruise control less aggressive in trying to maintain speed.

Let's get right to the matter at hand that will be of most interest to ABG readers, the mileage. On the morning drive route I made no real attempt at maximizing efficiency beyond avoiding aggressive driving and leaving the econ mode engaged. On this route I managed a respectable 52 mpg. Even more impressive, the Insight proved to be a very enjoyable drive. It wasn't quite up on the same performance level as the VW Jetta TDI, but the handling was easily on par with the Fit which is indeed a good place to be for a small car.

Like Ford on the new Fusion hybrid, Honda has added some extra visual feedback for drivers to help coach them to better fuel efficiency. Just as Honda's hybrid hardware isn't as elaborate as Ford's, neither is the visual feedback system. In spite of that the system is still useful. The background color of the digital speedometer gives a quick indicator by transitioning from blue when driving too aggressively to green when driving efficiently. The multiple information display inside the tachometer can be toggled between several different displays.

A bar indicator goes left braking and right when accelerating. The further it goes to one side or the other the less efficient you are driving. Optimal efficiency comes from keeping the indicator as close to the center as possible. Just above that are some leafy indicators that give you a running feedback of your performance. You can also get a rundown of the average mileage for the last four ignition cycles.

After lunch, I headed out to try the efficiency loop. The loop consisted of mostly stop and go driving over varied terrain (up and down hills) with speed limits ranging from 25-55 mph in and around Carefree, Arizona. I stuck to the speed limits and kept a light foot on the throttle and brake pedals. With the speedometer up above the steering wheel, the colored background was easily visible in my peripheral vision. Glancing down to the main efficiency indicator graph helped to optimize my driving style. With all the feedback I was able to achieve 62.2 mpg over the 16-mile loop. A second attempt later in the afternoon, yielded an even better 63.4 mpg. Ambient temperatures in the mid-60s made air conditioning unnecessary. Warmer temperatures like those we experienced in Los Angeles earlier in the week would have definitely pulled the mileage down a bit.

After the mileage loop I headed out of town into the mountains on the 22-mile sport loop. This loop consisted of even more hilly terrain and lots of curves outside of Carefree. Speeds were a bit more "brisk" on this loop along with harder braking into the corners. I switched off the ECON button and found that the throttle response was definitely crisper. Similarly, moving the shifter from D to S had the engine running at higher revs during acceleration.

The EX model comes equipped with paddle shifters on the back side of the steering wheel allowing you to select from seven pre-set gear ratios. The shifts were surprisingly quick when the paddles were tapped. With the shifter in D, the left paddle gives a downshift for passing maneuvers if needed and then returns to automatic control after the car is cruising again. In Sport mode the transmission holds the selected gear ratio until another ratio is selected, right up to red line.

Combined with the tight handling and good steering feedback, the Insight is a shockingly fun car to drive in a spirited manner in spite of the comparatively modest thrust that is available. Even with all the fun I was having on the sport loop when I returned to the staging area, I still averaged 44 mpg.

In the Insight Honda has created a compact car with outstanding fuel efficiency and all the best dynamic traits of the Fit. What it loses is some of the incredible packaging of its sibling. The lower profile means less passenger volume and the loss of the Fit's rear magic seats. Nonetheless, the Insight has ample room for four adults and some cargo in the back. Honda expects the Insight to score a 40/43 mpg city/highway rating for the EPA when the final numbers are in. Based on the experience I had driving in Arizona, that shouldn't be hard to achieve in ideal conditions. We'll be looking forward to see how it performs in colder and hotter weather.

Honda has not announced pricing yet, indicating they will wait until closer to the on-sale date of April 22. Honda spokesman Sage Marie indicated that the volatility of commodity prices like steel would make it unwise to lock down a price yet. Previously, Honda CEO Takeo Fukui has alluded to a base price as low as $18,500 which is about the same as a loaded Fit Sport. Honda will likely try to keep the starting price under 20 grand. Regardless, Honda intends for the Insight to be the most affordable hybrid on the market and is planning on 200,000 world-wide sales annually, with half of those in North America. We can't wait to spend more time with one.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

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