The Honda Insight is a 2-seater hatchback hybrid automobile manufactured by Honda. It was the first mass-produced hybrid automobile sold in the United States, introduced in 1999 (in Japan, however, the first generation of the Toyota Prius was launched in 1997). According to the EPA, the 5-speed manual transmission variant of the Insight is the most fuel-efficient mass-produced automobile sold in the United States.1 The Insight also features low emissions: the California Air Resources Board gave the 5-speed model a ULEV rating, and the CVT model earned a SULEV rating. (The 5-speed's lean-burn ability is a trade-off which increases efficiency at the expense of slightly higher NOx emissions.)
The Insight uses the first generation of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid technology (the next generation, used in the Honda Civic Hybrid, is much more space-efficient). The Insight has a 3-cylinder engine and a brushless electric motor located on the crankshaft. Behind the driver's and the passenger's seats there are a set of 144 V NiMH batteries. During heavy acceleration, the electric motor provides additional power; during deceleration, the motor acts as a generator and recharges the batteries using a process called regenerative braking. A computer control module regulates how much power comes from the internal combustion engine, and how much from the electric motor; in the CVT variant, it also finds the optimal gear ratio. The current battery charge is shown on the dashboard, as is the instantaneous fuel efficiency and current state of the electric motor — whether it is assisting the engine or charging the batteries.
Unlike the Toyota Prius, which has a planetary gearset, the original Insight had a conventional manual transmission. Starting with the 2001 model, a CVT variant of the Insight has been available; the CVT is similar to that used in the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda Logo. The Insight is not considered a "full" hybrid vehicle because it cannot run on the electric motor alone, whereas its competitor, the Prius, can be operated solely on the electric motor. A feature shared by the two hybrids is the ability to automatically turn off the engine when the vehicle is at a stop (and restart it upon movement). Since it is more powerful (10 kW) than most starters of conventional cars, the Insight's electric motor can start the engine nearly instantaneously.
While formidable, the Insight is not the most fuel efficient mass-produced car ever sold in the United States, which was the Messerschmitt KR200, a three wheel vehicle similar to the Corbin Sparrow and about the size of a Commuter Cars Tango.
The Insight is assembled at the Honda factory in Suzuka, Japan, where the Honda NSX and the Honda S2000 are also assembled. The Insight and the NSX are aluminum bodies, while the S2000 employs a steel body. Sales are small, but Honda sees the vehicle as more of a halo car than a volume seller. As of 2004, under 2,000 Insights are sold per year in the United States, with just 5 sold in November, 2004.
At the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show, Honda introduced the concept car Honda IMAS, an extremely fuel-efficient and lightweight hybrid car made of aluminum and carbon fiber, which was perceived by most observers to be the future direction where the Insight is heading.
In May 2006, Honda announced that production of the Insight will stop in September 2006. According to Honda, it will be replaced by a new hybrid car smaller than the eighth generation Civic. While year round production of the Insight will stop in 2006, limited production during the winter will continue as necessary, presumably for parts. During its six year production, Honda never sold more than 14,000 Insights. It was designed as a real world test car for hybrid technology and to gauge driving habits. With its aluminum body and frame, it was an expensive car to produce, and with an aerodynamic fuel saving shape like Audi A2 it was a bit more than American buyers could handle, preferring more conservative styles.