America's First Hybrid Electric

Honda's Insight is the Year's High-Mileage Champ

On September 23, 1999 American Honda Motor Company unveiled its Insight, the first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle available in America. The little two-seater coupe was immediately lauded for its eye-popping fuel mileage numbers - 70 miles per gallon on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests. In fact, those startling fuel efficiency figures all but over-shadowed the fact that the Insight represented a breakthrough in ultra-low emissions in a car that could operate well with our current fuel delivery and highway infrastructure. Of course, the current infrastructure proved to be the bane of highly visible "pure" electric vehicles like the General Motors EV1. That vehicle's limited range and the nation's lack of recharging stations made the EV1 impractical in the real world even while it was being touted as "the answer."

The Honda Insight, in comparison, can not only deal with today's infrastructure, but it actually thrives in it. The Insight's fuel economy numbers are just one piece of the puzzle; the other key piece is the Insight's extended range. The vehicle can cover 600-700 miles on a single tank of gasoline, significantly farther than the average car, plus, because it can be re-fueled at any gasoline pump it has none of the range limitations of the battery-powered electric vehicles. Meanwhile it meets California's stringent Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) exhaust emissions standard. Not bad for a vehicle that lists at less than $20,000.

How does the Insight weave such magic?

In addition to using Honda's innovative gasoline-electric hybrid system the Insight employs a rigid, lightweight body, aerodynamic design and advanced computerized engine controls. Unlike a dedicated electric vehicle, Insight does not use an outside source of electric power. It never needs to be plugged into an outside electrical source to re-charge on-board batteries. Instead, its electric motor acts as a generator during deceleration and braking to recharge the vehicle's nickel-metal hydride battery pack. In turn, when strong acceleration is needed, the batteries provide power to the electric motor, which then helps the gasoline engine provide adequate performance.

Honda calls the Insight's innovative drivetrain the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system. At the heart of the IMA system is the world's lightest 1.0-liter, 3-cylinder gasoline automobile engine. The engine uses advanced lean-burn technology, low-friction design and lightweight materials such as aluminum, magnesium and plastic. Because the engine runs in a relatively steady state, it can operate much more efficiently than conventional automotive gasoline engines that must meet a wide variety of demands. In the IMA system, the electric motor and stored battery power handle peak loads. The Insight engine also features a new Honda-developed NOx catalyst to help remove oxides of nitrogen.

The two-seat coupe was developed purposely to achieve world-class efficiency and is the culmination of decades of Honda research into lighter, more efficient and cleaner-burning vehicle technologies. Honda is justifiable proud of its environmental engineering efforts. This year about 85 percent of Honda vehicles sold in the U.S. are equipped with advanced low-emissions technology, technology that dates back to 1974 when the company introduced its CVCC Civic, the first vehicle to meet federal clean air standards using regular gasoline.

Having seen other environmentally leading-edge vehicles fall flat on their faces in the marketplace, Honda is making an extra effort to turn the Insight into a significant seller. To help accomplish this difficult feat, it priced Honda the Insight at less than $20,000 with a full complement of standard comfort and convenience features including anti-lock brakes, electric power steering, dual air bags, power windows and mirrors, power door locks with keyless entry, and an anti-theft system. While it may be too early to tell, consumers have reacted to the Insight largely with indifference so far. Through March Honda had sold fewer than 400 Insights nationwide.

But the Insight certainly deserves a better reception in the marketplace. Though small, it does a lot of things right, and it might be the car that convinces the clean-air lobby that clean air and low fuel consumption doesn't require us to drive limited-range, limited-utility "pure" electrics.

While the Honda Insight was the first hybrid electric car to hit the American market, arch rival Toyota isn't far behind. This summer Toyota will introduce the Prius (rhymes with "free us") a hybrid that, it claims, incorporates all the safety, comfort, drivability, and performance of a conventional compact sedan.

Like the Insight, the Prius offers extreme fuel efficiency and extremely low exhaust emissions. According to Mark Amstock, Toyota's national marketing manager for Prius, the new model will turn in EPA mileage of 44-46 mpg on the highway and perhaps as high as 50-60 mpg in the city test. Because the Prius uses its battery-powered electric motor more often in city-cycle driving, it actually gets better mileage in city driving than on the highway. Range is certainly no problem with an estimated in-city range of some 600 miles on a tankful of gasoline.

The Prius is powered by the Toyota Hybrid System (THS), which like the Honda Insight, incorporates both a gasoIine engine and an electric motor. The 1.5-liter engine is tuned for high fuel efficiency and extremely low emissions. In fact the Prius is expected to meet California's most stringent emission standard for internal combustion engines, the super ultra low emission vehicle (SULEV) regs.

Again, its steady-state operation and high-tech computerized engine controls make its level of emissions possible. In testing in Japan, Prius delivered emission reductions of 50% for carbon dioxide and 90% for carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide.

The four cylinder gasoline engine is rated at 70 peak horsepower, anemic for a car that is about the size of a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic, but the internal combustion engine is augmented by a 40-horsepower electric motor whose instant torque is an invaluable aid in acceleration and hill-climbing. Amstock told Driving Today that the vehicle can scoot from zero to 60 miles per hour in 12 seconds - not lightning-fast but reasonable in its segment of the marketplace.

Like the Insight, the Toyota hybrid system features "regenerative braking," a process that uses the car's deceleration under braking to generate electric power that is then stored in the Prius's 100-pound battery pack. The batteries are hidden under and behind the rear seats so they don't encroach on passenger or cargo area. Its electric constantly variable transmission combined with a planetary gearset allow it to use a virtually infinitely variable combination of internal combustion engine power and electric motor power.

The Prius differs markedly from the Insight in one area: size. While the Insight is a two-seat coupe, the Prius is a five-passenger sedan with more interior room than the Corolla. The spaciousness is partly owed to its high profile. The Prius is four inches taller than a Corolla. Since its introduction in December 1997, Toyota has sold more than 34,000 Priuses, far out-stripping sales of all "pure" electrics combined.

When the Toyota Prius goes on sale in July it will bear a suggested list price of less than $20,000. While that represents a premium over a conventionally powered car of similar size, Toyota considers the price premium justifiable. It will be interesting to see if its five-passenger configuration and larger size will make it more popular than the Insight among consumers.

by Jack Nerad