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The 2005 Honda Insight is the fifth edition of the original hybrid production car, but it has hardly changed since its U.S. introduction in December 1999. Why has this car evolved so little? Partly because the Insight is so heretically different from anything else on the road and partly because it occupies a market niche other carmakers don't cover in their U.S. lineups: simple, two-person vehicles with maximum fuel economy. The $19,330 (base) Insight commands the number one spot in the EPA's fuel economy ratings, leaving even the lauded Toyota Prius in the dust. If you're strictly looking for a fuel-efficient car for day-to-day driving, the Honda Insight is a very admirable choice.
The Honda Insight qualifies as a high-tech car solely by virtue of its drivetrain and its construction, not for its cabin luxuries, which are spartan. Wireless keys, GPS navigation, Bluetooth, speech recognition, and video screens aren't even offered as options. This car is all about extreme fuel economy and getting from point A to point B. The Insight, like the Honda Accord and Civic hybrids, is based on the company's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) technology. As the name suggests, there's an electric motor onboard to assist the Insight's 1.0-liter, three-cylinder, 65-horsepower gas engine, revving it up with an additional 13 horsepower. Though the extra 13 horsepower sounds fairly trivial, the extra 24 pound/feet of torque that come with it make a difference. When the electric motor kicks in, the car gets a 36 percent increase in its ability to grunt.
That said, none of this makes the Insight a fast car, but it has adequate power for day-to-day driving while achieving remarkable fuel efficiency. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the continuously variable transmission-equipped Honda Insight at 57mpg for city driving and 56mpg on the highway. During our tests, we averaged 45mpg in combined driving. Honda also offers a five-speed Insight rated at an even higher 61mpg and 66mpg, city and highway, respectively.
Beyond the IMA power train, the Insight uses other novel tricks to achieve its fuel efficiency. Idle Stop technology shuts down the engine whenever you come to a stop, no matter how brief. This feature is enabled, oddly enough, by placing the climate control system into Economy mode. If you have climate control in the standard Auto mode, the car avoids shutting down so that it can keep either the heater or the air conditioner working. To restart the engine after an idle stop, just lift your foot off the brake pedal, and the electric motor instantly kick-starts the gas engine back to life. The system works very quickly, though things can get a little hectic in stop-and-go driving when the engine isn't sure if you're stopping or just slowing to a near stop. Nonetheless, the Insight always delivered when we needed it.
To monitor some of the hybrid's technology in action, the Insight's instrument panel offers a green and orange mosaic of digital and bar-graph gauges that are both familiar and odd. The large speedometer digits and fuel gauge are easy to grasp, but the Charge, Assist, and FCD (Honda's unnecessary acronym for fuel consumption display) meters will be new to most drivers.
Fairings on the rear wheels and a narrower rear track than front are functional and stylistic cues that this car is focused on fuel economy. The narrower rear track contributes to the overall aerodynamic design, and the fairings lower the drag from the wheel wells.
The remainder of the external styling is strictly a love-it-or-hate-it situation. The pinched rear end and the narrower rear track are what give the Insight an unconventional appearance from any angle. From the B-pillars forward, it looks like a Civic, but the fastback rear section is not like anything else on the road. Owing to the batteries housed aft of the seats, the rear cargo area has a surprising high floor, which limits stowage space. A hidden box sits under the carpet in the rear, not unlike that on early Porsche 911s, which gives you a cubic foot or two of stowage.
Once on the road, the 2005 Honda Insight gives the impression of riding inside a drum. It's stiff and noisy, but that's to be expected from a car with an aluminum monocoque construction covered in lightweight plastic panels inside and out. Plus, the skinny 165/65-series tires don't help either. Another characteristic that takes some getting used to is the high-pitched whine from the Insight's IMA power train during acceleration or deceleration. It's not so much annoying as different, and it sounds uncannily like a jetliner spooling its engines up and down as it taxis on the runway.
Speaking of sound, the Insight's AM/FM/cassette stereo sounds awful, but we're convinced it's the fault of the speakers and not the head unit. Based on a number of user reports, we suspect an upgraded set of aftermarket speakers would do wonders. Honda offers a six-CD changer that can be added as a dealer-installed option for about $550.
For safety, the 2005 Honda Insight comes equipped with dual front air bags, and the car's front and rear have been designed to crumple on impact. Honda's warranty covers the Insight bumper to bumper for three years/36,000 miles and the battery pack for eight years/80,000 miles. You can find basic information, such as specs, FAQs, technology explainers, and tips on how to take advantage of the clean-fuel tax deduction, on Honda's Web site. We're also fond of the Owner Link minisite that tells you about your car's maintenance requirements, how to order parts, and dealer locations, among other things. There is also a 24-hour toll-free support line if you can't find the answers you need on the site.