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Honda Insight Hybrid-Electric Car from EV Rental

The Honda Insight two-seat hybrid-electric car went on sale early this year; they have only been trickling into dealerships, though, with a planned first-year production of about 4000 spread across the entire country, so they tend to be pre-sold and not available for test drives when they arrive. However, the folks at EV Rental Cars near the Los Angeles airport had been planning to add them to their fleet when they became available; "EV" in their name means "Environmental Vehicle," and so their scope includes the natural-gas-powered Honda Civic GX and hybrid-electrics as well as the battery-electric vehicles I've rented from them so far. This week they obtained the first five of about 50 they plan to put into service at their various locations this year, and I ended up being the first customer to rent one, getting a pretty little fire-engine-red (sorry, New Formula Red) example with 48 miles on the clock.

Honda Insight and me at EV Rental Cars

This is a small car, perfect for commuting; you can see I kind of had to duck to get my hat through the window... (The photo was shot by Joseph Borges, Jr. using my camera, and later lightened for easier viewing by Bruce {EVangel} Parmenter--thanks!) What makes it "perfect for commuting" is visible on the banner at the rear of the photo: 70 miles per gallon EPA highway fuel economy rating, and more to the point, 61 MPG around town, the highest the EPA has ever measured! The car's MSRP is $18880, or about twenty grand with air conditioning; this makes it cheaper than a Mazda Miata, and then you save several hundred bucks a year on gas. The car has a very efficient and clean 1.0 liter 3-cylinder gasoline engine of about 70 HP, plus a 15 HP electric motor sandwiched between the gasoline engine and 5-speed manual transmission in a configuration Honda calls "Integrated Motor Assist." The vehicle has a front-engine, front-wheel drive layout; the NiMH battery pack (smaller than that in a "pure" battery-electric car) is under a broad "package shelf" beneath the hatchback window.

Insight instrument panel

The instrument panel clearly shows that this is a hybrid-electric car: the tachometer and temperature gauge at left and the fuel level gauge on the left quadrant of the right "dial" are for the gasoline engine, while the rest of the right "dial" consists of a charge/discharge meter and battery level gauge for the electric part of the drivetrain. The top quadrant of the right "dial" is divided into "CHRG" and "ASST," and illuminated bars appear to the left or right of the central white line when the battery is either being recharged or assisting the gasoline engine, respectively. Charging is not done by plugging into an electrical outlet; rather, the electric motor can reverse current and act as a generator to feed energy to the battery, either from the gasoline engine at light-throttle cruise or from the vehicle's motion when braking. The battery pack was about 3/4 full when I got the car, then slowly dropped to half charge and stayed there; since the primary motive energy for the car comes from gasoline, there is no advantage to fully charging the battery pack, since that will leave no room to store the energy recovered via this "regenerative braking" process as the vehicle slows and it will be wasted as heat in the brake linings. (As an aside for experienced EV drivers, I note that in the battery-electric cars I've driven, regenerative braking takes effect when you lift your foot off the accelerator, and is supplemented by friction brakes when you actually hit the brake pedal. In the Insight, the "CHRG" part of the gauge didn't light up much at all when coasting down; rather, regenerative braking seemed to be actuated by the driver's initial, even very light, pressure on the brake pedal.)

There are many different ways to set up a hybrid-electric vehicle, and I found the Insight to be of a design I had never considered. Since the maximum power output of the electric motor is a fraction of that of the gasoline engine, I have heard cynics describe the car as having "a battery for show, and gasoline for go." However, this is based on a misunderstanding of how the Insight is intended to work; the biggest job of the electric motor is not to propel the car directly, but rather to enable the gasoline engine to do so more efficiently (as in 61/70 MPG!). The "ASST" lights did show that the electric motor assisted the gasoline engine when more acceleration was needed (it also seemed to come on to lighten the load on the gasoline engine and prevent stalling when "lugging" at a low speed in too high a gear); however, in addition to its roles as a drive motor and as the generator for charging the batteries, the electric motor also acts as the world's biggest starter motor. The car drives like an ordinary stick-shift car, with one notable exception: when you are coming to a stop and put the transmission in neutral, the engine cuts off! Thus you are not wasting gasoline idling at stoplights, which accounts for a surprising amount of fuel use in city driving. In an ordinary car, shutting down and restarting is a bad idea except for at very long lights, because you'd waste a lot of time, not to mention pollution and engine wear, cranking the engine to restart; however, with its small gasoline engine and extremely powerful "starter motor," the Insight restarts and runs smoothly in a small fraction of a second (faster than I could measure) when you put it back into gear. Also, I didn't see the oil light go on when the "AUTO STOP" light at the bottom of the tachometer lit; I presume this means that a small electric pump maintains oil pressure, so as to give the lie to the Slick 50 advertising slogan that "Starting your engine is a terrible thing to do"! So the electric motor is certainly a valuable part of this unique drivetrain, far from a tacked-on gadget "for show."

If you look closely at the photo above, by the way, you'll note that the trip odometer shows not only the mileage I had driven since renting the car, but also the fuel economy I'd achieved (almost all in city driving). 46.7 MPG is not impressive compared to the 61 MPG rating; however, you can blame that on me rather than Honda or the EPA test cycle, as I haven't driven a stick-shift in fifteen years! A more experienced driver wouldn't tend to spin the engine to 3000 RPM before letting the clutch out to start moving, or miss shifts and buzz it to four grand, or accidentally "upshift" from fourth gear to third instead of fifth... Also, since the clutch and transmission are between the electric motor and the wheels, regenerative braking goes away when you push in the clutch, and so an experienced driver would be better able to conserve energy that way whereas I hardly ever let it do its job. Even with my crummy technique, though, the fuel economy numbers pretty much stayed between 45 and 50 MPG, which is better than I can get on my Harley despite its being about a quarter the weight of the Insight and having a smaller (883 cc) engine. This car does its job well in spite of me! It will be very interesting to compare the Insight with the Toyota Prius when it becomes available this summer; it has been redesigned for the American market, but at least in the version that has been for sale in Japan since late 1997, the electric motor is designed to power the car alone until speed climbs to about 13 MPH, at which point the gasoline engine turns on. This should push up the fuel-economy numbers when driving in "slow and go" traffic where you have to keep the car creeping along in gear, so that the Insight's gasoline engine can never take a rest.

John Bogert and Honda Insight

When I rent a vehicle from EV Rental Cars, I always look for people to whom I can show it, either buttonholing corporate officers where I work or just parking out in front of my lab at lunch and offering test rides. This time, though, I went a little more public; the gent in the photo above is John Bogert, a columnist for the South Bay Daily Breeze, who has been "dissing" gas-guzzling vehicles on many an occasion for years, and who first attracted my baleful gaze with a less-than-worshipful column about the introduction of the General Motors EV1 three years ago. A couple of weeks back he wrote about the irate and less-than-useful responses he finds in his mailbag to the recent runup in petroleum prices, and so I called to offer him a test-ride in an example of a real solution. He has a lot of readers, and I expect that he can spread hope a bit more widely than I am likely to reach with test rides and my little website! Thanks a lot for your interest, John, and thanks for the column on our test-ride!

Honda Insight at gas station

So, is the high fuel economy of a hybrid-electric vehicle worth the extra complexity and manufacturing cost? Well, as the picture above shows, now seems to be a particularly opportune time to ask that question; of course, if you're reading this during the summer after I wrote it, the predictions I have seen say that you will look on these prices as low! For at least the last two years the United States has been importing more than half of the petroleum it uses, for the first time in history; this puts our economy even more firmly under the thumb of OPEC, such that the Administration recently had to send officials overseas to beg them to loosen supply a bit. We don't need that, any more than we need the pall of brownish gunk that was already starting to refill the sky in these photos after the previous days' rain, and that means we do need cleaner, more efficient vehicles like the Insight. In my report on this year's Los Angeles Auto Show, I discussed the common perception among drivers of battery-electric vehicles that hybrids are a half-measure at best; they are clean and efficient gasoline cars, but they're still gasoline cars, and will get dirtier over time as catalysts age and calibrations drift. However, several of the people whom I took for test rides in the Insight commented that it felt just like a normal car (apart from the Auto Stop feature!), and it seems that the consumer "comfort level" with hybrid-electric vehicles, not to mention their lower price at present compared to battery-electric vehicles, will make for a much more rapid initial market penetration. After all, to keep up with demand Honda is ramping up Insight production to 400 a month, whereas in two or three years they only made about 300 EV Plus battery-electric cars. Then as volume production of hybrids brings down battery and electronics costs, the benefits will surely be reaped by battery-electrics. So when people ask me which is the "wave of the future," battery-electrics or hybrids, I always answer "both!"

That being said, though, let me conclude by noting that at present there are still plenty of people out there who would be happy to see battery-electrics die on the vine. Recently there have been two widespread but erroneous reports that GM was abandoning the EV1, which shows how events will be construed in the worst possible way by those inclined to do so. First, a GM executive commented that the production line on which the 500 second-generation EV1s were built had been disassembled and the space put to other uses, with no immediate plans to build more EV1s; this was reported as an abandonment of the car, when in fact the EV1 production line was designed to build the cars in lots of 500 or so and then to be put in storage until another 500 cars were needed. More recently, there were reports that GM had recalled the EV1s for fire-safety reasons and abandoned the platform; what actually happened was that the first-generation (1997 model year) cars were recalled, along with about the same number (450) of electric S-10 pickups, but the second-generation cars (1999 model year) were not affected and are still on the road. The story I've heard is that it will be easy to replace the defective part (which never actually caused any fires, though there were some cases of heat damage) in the pickups, but the tighter packaging of the EV1s makes this difficult. There are only about 150 second-generation EV1s left unleased (which is a good sign, if you think about it!), so GM can't simply swap them for all of the first-generation EV1s that still have time left on their two- or three-year leases. It is still an open question whether GM will fix the first-generation cars and return them to lessees, build more new cars to meet demand, or what; I also do not know what will happen to GM's intention to refurbish and re-lease the first-generation cars as they come off lease. There is, however, no indication of any plans by GM to abandon the EV1, despite what you may have read.

In any case, I know that some of my battery-powered friends will not like hearing me "giving aid and comfort to the enemy" by talking up hybrid-electric cars and not sticking to the hard line; however, I'd say that we shouldn't "let the best be the enemy of the good," and in my opinion the Honda Insight is very, very good! Many thanks to Terry O'Day, Joseph Borges, Jr., William Michael, and Greg Crosby of EV Rental Cars and Budget for putting me in one; they definitely deserve the Blue Sky Merit Award they just received from CALSTART!

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new 10 March 2000, revised 30 April 2000