WASHINGTON, DC - Is it right for today's market? Probably not.
Does it say something - not entirely flattering - about our automotive priorities? No question.
Motor Co. Ltd. comes to the nation's capital last month to show off for the press and bureaucrats here its 2-seat Insight, widely billed as the first hybrid-powered (gasoline engine/electric motor) production vehicle for sale in the U.S. Honda has targeted aDecember showroom date for the innovative hybrid.
Company executives and engineers tout Insight's outrageous Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fuel economy figures of 61 mpg (3.9L/100 km) city and 70 mpg (3.4L/100 km) on the highway. What's more, the car is certified in California and some northeastern states as an ultra-low emissions vehicle (ULEV); elsewhere the car is certified to low-emissions vehicle (LEV) standards.
Unfortunately, even's most ardent Insight backers - its engineers and developers - admit they expect a rousing snore of a response in the U.S., where sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) clog the roads and their drivers proudly hog the gas. Thus the Insight marketers' sales expectations: a pitiful 4,000 units annually.
Right off, let me say I like the car but think Honda planners badly missed the mark twice: first with the decision to make the Insight a 2-seater - tantamount to suicide when even the teenagers in this market believe seating for seven is their birthright. Second miss is with Insight's heady, just-under-$20,000 price. Honda wants hip younger types and early adopters to buy this car, but I'll bet if they've got 20 large to spend they're going to want more than what the tiny Insight offers - and their supposed environmental leanings be damned.
What 20 grand does buy is a carful of Honda's most, uh, "insightful" technology; 70-mpg doesn't come cheap. Insight's showpiece technologies to achieve its fuel-sipping goals are numerous:
n Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) is the cornerstone of the 2-seater's high-mileage strategy. IMA is a thin, 2.3-in. (6-cm) 10-kW permanent-magnet electric motor situated between the engine and transmission; it acts directly on the gasoline engine's crankshaft. The IMA provides auxiliary acceleration power to the engine, plus acts as a generator during braking and deceleration to recharge the battery pack. Finally, the motor also provides the starting function for the engine, spinning it instantly at approximately 1,200 rpm.
n A 1L 3-cyl. all-aluminum engine that Honda crows is the world's smallest and most efficient 1L automotive engine. It incorporates a wealth of high-efficiency design features, including Honda's well-known VTEC variable valve timing.
Perhaps most interesting, the engine's crankshaft axis is offset by 55 ins. (14 mm) from the bore centerline. Honda engineers claim this design circumvents a common trait of internal combustion engines in that the piston has already passed top-dead center - and thus the most high-friction portion of its travel - before the onset of combustion. This delivers the most useful work from the combustion event while also reducing side forces on the piston during the heaviest part of the combustion event. Honda says this design offers as much as a 3% reduction in overall internal friction.
n The Insight structure is made primarily of aluminum in what Insight chief project engineer Koichi Fukuo calls a "hybrid" of unibody and spaceframe construction.
The car's body-in-white is comprised entirely of aluminum, weighing 40% less than a comparable all-steel Civic coupe. The "hybrid" chassis, meanwhile, employs stressed body panels (except for the plastic front fenders) and an integral floorpan. But the Insight structure combines this typical unibody design with extruded aluminum frame members and die-cast connecting joints. Honda says this method is more cost-efficient for aluminum construction than either an all-unibody or all-spaceframe design.
Additionally, the Insight's hybrid structure provides uncommon crash-energy absorption. Honda engineers say their new "G-Force Control" design optimizes each portion of the Insight body/chassis for maximum crash protection. Mr. Fukuo says the Insight's full-frontal collision performance of 35 mph (56 km/h) surpasses the U.S. federal standard of 30 mph (48 km/h); also, the U.S. standard for side impact is 33.5 mph (54 km/h), yet Insight is built to withstand 38.5 mph (62 km/h).
n Honda says the Insight is the company's first passenger vehicle to use a new catalytic converter that absorbs the excess oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions present in engines that operate a high percentage of the time in lean-burn mode. Engineers, however, are highly secretive regarding the materials used and the basic operation of this new catalyst, and will not disclose its catalytic recipe, although platinum is the chief ingredient. The catalyst absorbs excess NOx, then purges it during cycles of rich-running engine operation.
On the road, the Insight drives smoothly and directly. The IMA helps to reduce vibration and torque fluctuations from the 3-cyl. engine and provides a satisfying torque boost under part-load conditions when the throttle is fully opened. However, the Insight sometimes feels too highly geared and the engine's basic 67 hp (73 hp in total if IMA is fully employed) provides only modest acceleration and pulling power. Yet because the Insight weighs just 1,887 lbs. (856 kg), the 0-to-60 mph run comes in 12 seconds.
Don Bonawitz, Honda vice president of product planning, admits that at a projected sales rate of 4,000 units annually, the Insight likely will not be profitable. But selling the car now will have advantages. For now, it helps Honda to rationalize its underutilized Tochigi assembly plant, previously building only the low-volume Acura NSX sports car (which shares its aluminum body and chassis construction with Insight) and now the S2000 roadster. For the future, the Insight may help Honda to be an early player with what some believe is a ready-to-emerge niche of buyers expressing strong environmental concern.