Honda Motor Co. Ltd. is ready for a December sales launch for its 2-seat Insight, the first hybrid-powered (gasoline engine/electric motor) production vehicle headed for sale in the U.S.

Company executives and engineers are particularly proud of Insight's outrageous Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fuel economy figures of 61/70 mpg city/highway, with California-certified ultra-low emissions vehicle (ULEV) certification, to boot.

But at the same time they are pragmatic enough to admit that in today's market of cheap gasoline and gargantuan vehicles, few customers may find Insight appealing. Honda says initial sales of only about 4,000 of the small hybrid cars annually are likely.

By today's standards, the Insight is a flyweight in a world of cruiser-class vehicles. With air conditioning the car tips the scales at just 1,887 lbs. Insight's body and chassis are constructed largely from lightweight aluminum, with some plastic pieces, such as front fenders. The car is propelled mainly by its all-aluminum 1L 3-cyl. engine that develops 67 hp and 73 lb.-ft. of torque. The electric motor sandwiched between the engine and the 5-speed manual transmission can augment the gasoline engine with another 6 hp (73 total) and 25 lb.-ft. (91 total) of torque.

Power for the electric motor comes from Insight's 48-lb., 144-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. When the engine is developing an excess of power or the car is braking or decelerating, the electric motor becomes a generator to re-charge the battery pack. Unlike all-electric vehicles, the Insight never has to be plugged in to recharge the batteries. When stopped at a traffic light or in heavy traffic, the gasoline engine shuts off to save fuel, only to be instantly restarted automatically when the driver shifts into gear.

Honda says it will discuss pricing closer to Insight's December sales date, but insiders hint the car will be less than $20,000.

Less clear is who will buy the Insight. Honda product planners believe potential customers will fall into three broad categories: technology buffs; families with one or two vehicles already, who will buy the Insight as a fuel-saving commuter/errand car; and the final group, young urban singles. All will have two things in common: higher-than-average income and education, Honda says.

Don Bonawitz, Honda vice president-product planning, admits that for now the Insight isn't likely to be profitable. But near-term, the car helps Honda to rationalize its underutilized Tochigi assembly plant, previously building only the low-volume and low-in-demand Acura NSX sports car. For the future, the Insight may help Honda to be an early player with environmentally conscious buyers.