CAREFREE, AZ – My Honda Insight is going too slowly for the blue-haired woman closing in fast from behind in a 1990s Mercedes E190.

Her impatience is obvious as she whizzes past and shoots a glance my way that says, “Can’t you see I’m late for pinochle?”

Undeterred, I putter along, attempting to set a record for fuel efficiency in the all-new second-generation ’10 Insight hybrid-electric vehicle. As part of the media launch, American Honda Motor Co. Inc. invited journalists to drive a 16-mile (26-km) loop along undulating roads here in suburban Phoenix to see which light-foot could achieve the best mileage.

Before journalists competed one by one in the “MPG Challenge,” we familiarized ourselves with the Insight and its features, driving a mixed route of highways and city traffic and managing, between two drivers, a respectable 48 mpg (4.9 L/100 km).

We spent a lot of time with the Insight, but the essence of the vehicle and everything it represents could be distilled into that simple 16-mile loop. That’s because a growing number of Americans are willing to sacrifice speed and sportiness in the quest to conserve fuel, while others are not.

Drivers of the Insight and other hybrids should be commended for wanting to save the planet by consuming less fuel, but these vehicles also have the potential to incite road rage.

Several times during our drive, even before the MPG Challenge, we were beeped at or sneered at by people who wanted to go faster and had to maneuver past us. How long before we start seeing Hummers with bumper stickers that read, “I Eat Hybrids for Lunch”?

Drivers serious about achieving truly outrageous fuel economy will leave no stone unturned – and are more likely to pitch it out the window – to reduce mass and fuel consumption.

To these drivers, the Insight is a gift from heaven, the latest and greatest tool for “hyper-miling,” a new type of grassroots motorsport that gained practitioners daily as fuel prices ran up to $4 per gallon earlier this year, forcing America to reconsider vehicle choices, driving styles and their impact on the environment.

The basic tenets of hyper-miling are common sense: avoid harsh acceleration and sudden stops; coast and use cruise control whenever possible; tune your engine regularly; and drive the speed limit.

Extremist hyper-milers take the practice to levels that are unsafe and annoying: They roll through stop signs; over-inflate tires to decrease rolling resistance; drive well under the limit; hog the left passing lane; tailgate 18-wheelers to gain the drafting effect; and shut off the engine to coast down hills. This last maneuver is particularly dangerous because braking and steering are extremely difficult with the engine off.

Thankfully, Honda recognizes the risks associated with zealous hyper-miling, so the Insight comes equipped with a new Eco Assist mode that boosts fuel efficiency about 10%, without endangering others on the road.

Activated with the touch of a green “econ” button, Eco Assist allows the engine to shut off sooner at idle; reduces climate-control fan speed; operates air conditioning more in recirculation mode; optimizes throttle angle input and operation of the continuously variable transmission; and limits power and torque by about 4% (except at wide-open throttle).

Some enthusiastic hyper-milers will look down on Eco Assist as a way to take the fun out of their hobby. Others will realize Honda’s sophisticated new approach is way more effective and smarter than rolling up all the windows and turning off the air on a stifling hot day.

Of course, Eco Assist doesn’t preclude hyper-milers from pushing the Eco Assist button and driving shoeless (for better accelerator feel), while swearing off the McDonald’s drive-through (too much idling).

All the journalists who participated in the MPG Challenge did so with Eco Assist, and every one achieved at least 60 mpg (3.9 L/100 km) during the competitive loop. The winner scored 68.8 mpg (3.4 L/100 km), while I came in fifth with 65.8 mpg (3.5 L/100 km), driving the loop in 34 minutes.

’10 Honda Insight EX
Vehicle type Front-engine, FWD 5-passenger hybrid-electric vehicle
Engine SOHC i-VTEC1.3L I-4; aluminum block/aluminum hea
Power (SAE net) 88 hp @ 5,800 rpm
Torque 88 lb.-ft. (119 Nm) @ 4,500 rp
Electric motor 13-hp @1,500 rpm; 58 lb.-ft. (78 Nm) @ 1,000 rpm
Total system power 98 hp @ 5,800 rpm; 123 lb.-ft. (166 Nm) at 1,000-1,500 rpm
Transmission Continuously Variable
Wheelbase 100.4 ins. (255 cm)
Overall length 172.3 ins. (437 cm)
Overall width 66.7 ins. (169 cm)
Overall height 56.2 ins. (142 cm)
Curb weight 2,727 lbs. (1,236 kg)
Base price TBD
EPA estimate 40/43 city/hwy (5.8-5.4 L/100 km)
Competition Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid, Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan hybrids
Pros Cons
65 mpg possible Get ready for dirty looks
Sub-$20k hybrid Bare-bones interior
Rear wheel skirts gone Just another jellybean

Not bad for a vehicle with preliminary Environmental Protection Agency ratings of 40/43 (5.8-5.4 L/100 km) city/highway fuel economy. Expect those official numbers to rise.

The new Insight represents the fifth generation of Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist parallel hybrid powertrain. Powering the system is an all-new, low-friction 1.3L SOHC i-VTEC 4-cyl. engine that produces 88 hp and runs most of the time, especially when throttle inputs are aggressive.

Mated to the engine is an ultra-thin DC brushless electric motor that provides up to 13 hp and 58 lb.-ft. (78 Nm) of torque, while enabling generation of electricity that is stored for use when the engine shuts off.

Combined, the engine and motor have a maximum output of 98 hp at 5,800 rpm and maximum torque of 123 lb.-ft. (166 Nm) at 1,000-1,500 rpm.

An “intelligent power unit,” consisting of a 7-module nickel-metal hydride battery pack and two electronic controllers, serves power to the electric motor as it assists the engine and also stores electricity generated during regenerative braking.

During complete stops, the gasoline engine shuts off and the IMA electric motor restarts the engine. During deceleration, Honda’s excellent Variable Cylinder Management system virtually eliminates the pumping action of the cylinders, allowing the motor/generator to more efficiently generate electricity to charge the battery.

Along the way, Eco Assist is ready to heighten the system’s fuel-saving efficiency. Young drivers will appreciate the video game-like “Eco Guide,” which appears on the dashboard once Eco Assist is activated. A moving bar indicates when the driver is conserving – or consuming – the most fuel.

Conservative driving is rewarded with cute little flower icons that eventually turn into bigger flowers. Keep at it for an extended period and the flowers become trees. Collect enough tree icons and a congratulatory wreath and trophy (ironically similar to the Cadillac brand logo) appears on the dashboard, allowing drivers to revel in their eco-finery.

The new Insight is certified as a partial zero emission vehicle by the California Air Resources Board.

The first-generation IMA in the Insight, when it debuted as America’s first hybrid in 1999, was capable of spectacular fuel efficiency, but it was coarse and jarring to drive.

The new Insight is infinitely more enjoyable and represents vast gains in refinement, noise management and power delivery. The engine kicks on and off smoothly, and 30 mph (48 km/h) on pure electricity is possible for a light-footed driver on a flat surface at a steady speed.

By comparison, the new Ford Escape Hybrid is capable of 40 mph (64 km/h) with the engine off, and recent evaluations by Ward’s editors produced fuel-economy numbers as high as 46 mpg (5.1 L/100 km).

During our drive of the Insight, my partner mustered 59.3 mpg (3.9 L/100 km) in the first 39 miles (63 km) on fairly flat, urban terrain. On the highway, mileage suffered as the vehicle worked harder, but the system continued to operate seamlessly, without disruptive power surges typical in earlier hybrids.

By the time I got behind the wheel, the route was decidedly more uphill, which may have been the wrong time to evaluate functionality at higher speeds. Together, we registered a respectable 48.6 mpg (4.8 L/100 km) with a wide mix of driving styles and terrains.

The new Insight seats five, unlike the less-practical, first-generation 2-seater. While the front seats are reasonably spacious, the back seat will be awfully cramped for three occupants, even if only one is an adult.

Head and shoulder room is at a premium in the Insight’s second row, a victim of the coupe-like backlight and jellybean proportions designed to maximize aerodynamics.

Particularly aggravating in the back seat is a roof line that falls below eye level for average-height adult males, forcing the occupant to lower his head and crane his neck just to look outside.

Despite the back seat, the Insight’s interior meets Honda’s high standards for fit-and-finish. The Insight is supposed to be Honda’s attainable, more affordable hybrid, slotting below the Civic Hybrid, which starts at $23,650, and the segment-topping Toyota Prius.

Insight pricing will be announced closer to the April 22 launch. But for a vehicle with an ostensible starting price below $20,000, most potential buyers will accept the cheap carpeting and hard surfaces throughout the interior.

The Insight isn’t about creature comforts but rather fuel efficiency and energy independence, and it manages nicely on that front.

At rampup, Honda plans to sell 200,000 Insights annually worldwide, including 100,000 in North America and 90,000 in the U.S. Hybrids lost money for several years following their introduction, but Honda says the new Insight will be profitable, even at the low price point.

Some hot-blooded motorists won’t care about Honda’s profit margin but instead will curse the Insight every time its rear bumper comes into view.

Still, Insight buyers should stand resilient, considering their Earth-friendly ways a mild form of rebellion against all things obnoxious on the roadways, like ear-splitting subwoofers, frantic lane weaving and cell phone-induced inattentiveness.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com