First Drive Impressions : 2G Honda Insight

Finally, thanks to foresight from the Malaysian government, an abolishment of import duties for hybrid cars takes hybrids into the consideration of the mass market car buyer. Continuing their impressive efforts in delivering competitive pricing, Honda have launched the much awaited Honda Insight into the market, at an on-the-road (i.e. out the door and ready to go) price of RM98,000.00. This makes the Insight the cheapest fully imported (from Japan) japanese car in the Malaysian market.

As normal, part of the Insight launch for Malaysia involves a media 'first drive' event, organised by Honda Malaysia for members of the motoring media. This event involves a drive involving highway and twisty country roads and gave me a very good idea of the performance of the Insight, both in fuel economy as well as outright performance.

Clearing The Air

While the Insight has seen quite good success in its home country of Japan as well as Europe, it has not gotten consistently good reception in every part of the world where it is sold. In the world's largest automobile market, the United States of America for e.g., views of this hybrid seems to be quite polarized. There exists many owners who likes their Insight, but also many who do not have any good words at all to say about it. The negative things said about the Insight in the U.S. typically centered on the Insight's apparent lack of power, lack of handling, and most importantly apparent inability to meet its promise to return exemplary fuel economy figures. Therefore in this media drive, my primary objective was to examine those areas in detail.

It it important to highlight that the Insights that are sold here in Malaysia have already received some in-production enhancements, based on feedback from existing customers. As I examined each major area of 'attention' in turn, I will also touch on what I understand from Ohkubo-san and his asistant Tomita-san, are the in-production enhancements - if any - that are in the Malaysian spec Insights.

Fuel Economy

Talk to anyone about hybrids today and you will end up in a discussion about fuel economy. While one of the key advantage of hybrid implementations today is good fuel economy, strictly speaking hybrids are actually about efficiency rather than just only outright fuel economy. Hybrids are about an improved, more advanced use of petrol/gasoline for transportation. It's about extracting the most energy possible out of the combustion of an amount of petrol/gasoline, and about the recycling of energy, which in normal cars, are simply 'wasted away' as heat during portions of our daily driving cycle. An understanding of the true concept of a hybrid implementation is critical for a full appreciation of their merits.

At the moment, all implementations of hybrid is focussed on the use of a electric motor. Honda calls this IMA or Integrated Motor Assist. This implementation is one of the more popular approach currently available though it is true that it carries some penalties of its own, like extra weight (from the extra components required). Of course a direct result of a more efficient implementation of the gasoline engine means lower emissions and better fuel economy. And so fuel economy has become the de-facto measurement of the efficiency of the IMA implementation. So it is fair for us to focus on this first.

Before anything is said, it is important to highlight that Okhubo-san, and his asstant Tomita-san, have been very careful throughout the media drive to highlight that actual fuel economy figures obtained in real-world driving conditions depends totally on the driver. I.e. eventhough it is a hybrid, with all its promises for excellent fuel economy, a heavy footed driver will still easily push the fuel consumption way down to the single digit region. Therefore, it is very important to see the official Honda rated figures, in this case, it would be the 10.15 mode rating of 30km/l as simply a indication of the potential of the Insight in terms of fuel economy. But in practise, Okhubo-san admitted that more realistic figures from owners in Japan are in the region of 25km/l instead. 30km/l would be attainable, but driving conditions must be at or near perfect. In any case, it is important to bear in mind that the 10.15 mode ratings are with the air-conditioning off, which is quite unbearable most of the time here in Malaysia and the rest of ASEAN. They also told me about the amusing incidence of an owner in Japan whom obtained a mileage of more than 50km/l in one journey but later admitted he was driving downhill most of the time.

This question has always been the bone of contention amongst car owners, both pro hybrid and against. It is most probably exactly this, that Honda Malaysia organised this media drive event as a contest. Allocated at three journalists per car. we were give an challenge to obtain the best possible fuel economy from Kuala Lumpur (starting from Holiday Inn at Glenmarie, for readers in Malaysia) to the Philea resort in Melaka, across a mixture of windy country roads and smooth flowing highways.

Driving the Insight for maximum fuel economy was no different than driving a normal car. In fact for the early part of my stint - I took the wheels first, I drove exactly like how I drive my Jazz VTEC. The figure showing on the fuel consumption meter was almost 23km/l when I entered the 'windy road' section of my drive.

Once here, I apologised to my car-mates and explained that I needed to check out the handling of the Insight and then proceeded to threw most concerns for fuel economy out of the window in favour of a rather spirited drive, throwing the Insight along the windy corners and also overtaking slow vehicles. But when I finally turn the wheels over to the next guy, the fuel consumption meter was still reading almost 21km/l! Not too bad then because I did drive quite fast over the windy roads.

Driver 2 had a bit less patience than me and didn't really baby the Insight while driver 3 was a model of a patience driver. As a result, our final figure when we reached the destination - within the time limit given to us, was 21.3 km/l. For an almost 3 hours drive, and without really trying hard, I thought this was quite a good acheivement. Drivers of other cars were a lot more serious than us though. The best mileage acheived by all 12 teams were in the region of 25-26km/l, though with most cars arriving late because many were practically crawling along at 60kph !

Given this result, I think one can conclude that when driven properly, the Insight really do return exemplary fuel economies. It's just that one needs to have a lot of patience, especially with the state of driver attitude and (lack of) road courtesy in many parts of ASEAN.

Performance at highish speeds

At the moment, all Honda implementations of hybrids are focussed solely on fuel economy. That is, a hybrid car is tuned purely for maximum fuel economy and lowest emissions under as wide a range of driving conditions as possible. This includes also the CR-Z which is tuned for economy first, then outright performance second. So in reality, talking about 'performance' with regards to a Honda hybrid car is a contradiction itself. At the moment with regards to hybrids, performance and hybrid can be said to be somewhat mutually exclusive.

Nevertheless, the Honda fan is a demanding fellow. And furthermore, no matter how much one argues, it is a fact that there will be occasions in daily driving when we will require some level of 'power' and matching performance. This is not only for cases of merging into highways mind you. We often also need to get across a busy street for e.g. So sometimes we are at an intersection and this huge bus or lorry starts bearing down on us at breakneck speed. A sudden 'burst of acceleration' would really be a necessity then. I will go so far as to call anyone who insists that he or she will never be in a situation where he/she needs a sudden burst of power, unrealistic. And I am actually being very polite.

Consequently, when I had the Insight all to myself on the return leg of the media drive event, I took the change to really check out the 'power' of the Insight. In this case, 'power' means the Insight's ability to accelerate, as well as its ability to reach and sustain high speeds.

To cut right down to the chase, let me state unequivocally that the Insight is no slough. Not by a far margin. Now, I do not expect someone to come and tell me he got into a high-speed duel with a sports car on the highway -in an Insight- and then proceed to complain the Insight lost badly. But for a sane and sensible driver, in normal highway travel, at high speeds where 'power' is needed the most, the Insight is definitely able to take care of itself. Quite ably in fact. I shall start with the following two situations which in my opinion clearly shows the ability of the Insight to handle highway speeds, before going into details.

In situation 1, I was testing the fuel economy of the Insight at light-throttle cruising at speeds of around 120-130kph. So I was staying in the middle lane. As there are several cars and a lorry blocking my lane, I decided to overtake so I can conduct the testing in the clear roads ahead of them, safely. As I cut out to the overtaking lane, I can see in the rear view mirror a white car charging towards me very very fast. As I was already committed to the overtaking, I floored the throttle in order as to avoid the annoying situation where, typical of such cars, they will come bearing down right against the back and start tailgating and flashing. I easily overtook the train of slower vehicles, which were travelling at around (est) 100kph with ample space to spare. As I eased back into the middle lane ahead of the lead vehicle in the pack, it was quite a while before the charging white car zoomed past me and when it did, I saw that it was a BMW 5-series which I estimated was going at around 150-160kph. So, the Insight is indeed fast enough, even in ECON-mode, to overtake slower vehicles travelling at speeds of up to 100-110kph but without hogging the over-taking lane. This of course is with the cavert that the overtaking is done sensibly and safely.

In the second situation, I decided to be 'naughtier' and when one Mercedes C200 Kompressor zoomed past me, I decide to play 'keep up'. My intention was to see how well I can keep pace with the car or how far I will get left behind. Of course a Merc C200K is not the reference sports sedan by any means. But this is a hybrid so we need to be sensible. In this instance, I was surprised that when in sports mode, and because the IMA battery pack is fully charged (due to my fuel economy testing before that), I was able to keep up fairly well with the charging Merc C200K. I kept a respectable distance behind, because I don't want to tail-gate the Merc. It would be a stupid thing to do anyway because when it comes to an outright 'race', I am sure the Merc C200K will eventually leave the Insight behind 'eating smoke'. But the Insight really did manage to keep up with the Merc quite well. It wasn't a case of 'smelling smoke' and seeing the Merc dissapear into a small spot in the far distance. It pulled on me but very slowly and every once in a while when it ran right into the back of a fast-lane hogger, I was very quickly right up behind it.

So, in my own evaluation, the Honda Insight is nowhere the 'slow-poke' that one might mistakenly imagine it to be when reading some of the comments on the internet. In fact I even tested its top speed on the highway, something I seldom do but I decided to make an exception with the Insight. I exceeded 180kph, and that is in a car with less than 2000km of mileage. In this instance, I believe the famous 180+kph speed limiter is intact in the Insight and was what prevented me from going even faster.

Electric motor assist

The base motor on the Insight can be considered 'small', at only 1.3l displacement. But with the electric motor boosting it up, the total torque and power is quite respectable. Boost is more at low rpms as the electric motor is a low rpm unit. So less boost at high rpms. However, IMA boost has been reprogrammed for the Malaysian units to deliver better on-throttle performance.

A nice surprise was that in Sports-mode, this new ECU programming enables maximum assist from the IMA electric motor at speeds of even up to 130+kph. Meaning that I WOT several times, each time starting at different speeds, from 90kph through 100, 110, 120, and finally 130kph and slightly higher and each time the assist meter shows full assist lasting for several seconds upon WOT. This full assist lasts for a few seconds, gradually decreasing as engine rpm starts to climb. As I understand from Tomita-san, this is part of the enhancements to the ECU reflash recently. However, Tomita-san cautioned that seeing full assist on the meter does not correspond to absolute extra power in motor assist. The electric motor is a relatively low-rpm design and delivers it max torque/power in the rpm region below 3,000rpm. Thereafter, its power capacity drops off quickly as we approach the LDA engine's max rev of above 6,000rpm. Consequently, at high speeds, say 120kph, yes WOT will receive maximum assist from the IMA motor. But the actual increase in torque/power will be a lot lower than what would be available at lower speeds, when the engine needs to rev at lower rpm. Once engine rpm goes abover 4500rpm, there is really not much assist from the IMA motor. There is still some assist but not a lot. For this reason, the motor is tuned not to deliver full assist over sustained WOT operation because engine rpm would have peaked into a region the IMA motor is not very efficient in.

One common criticism of the IMA implementation is that the battery pack will get drained eventually, in a sustained WOT run. One very common scenario would be an extended WOT run up-hill. On this point, throughout my return journey testing, I never drained the battery pack. However, on the top-speed test, it is true that the IMA assist was getting weaker and weaker upon repeated WOT runs. But once again, for me personally, if I want to charge at breakneak speed on the highway, I would be driving my Integra. The Insight, and all economy-tuned cars hybrid or otherwise, are definitely not designed for balls out runs on the highway or twisty roads. This is something a prospective buyer will have to understand and accept.

In summary, a lot of arguements against the Insight stems from its use of a smallish 1.3l engine. Although boosted considerably by the IMA motor (although Honda says it drives equivalent to a 1.6l engine, a max torque rating of 17 kgm is nearer that of a 1.8l engine), most arguements focusses on the condition where the IMA battery has drained and thus the 1.3l engine is left to solder on by itself. In practise, I find that this does not really make the Insight as slow as one might think. Remember that here in Asia, and especially in Japan and even in Europe, very small engines are quite popular and they get around fine. The Honda Fit/Jazz for e.g. is available with a 1.3l in Japan and that handles fine. The original 2001 Honda Jazz was launched here in Malaysia as a "1.4 i-DSI" with what is in reality a 1.3l SOHC i-DSI engine and I have had it for review over a slightly longer than normal period (more than 4 days) and I felt it can take care of itself over almost all situations. The key is the CVT transmission because it allows optimum gear ratio to be obtained at any operating conditions. So, no matter at what speed the car is going at, WOT and the CVT will modulate itself to a gear ratio that gives the best possible acceleration (in S-mode). Of course without any assist at all from the IMA motor, fuel economy will suffer. But then seriously, if one pushes the Insight till the battery is almost drained of charge, that person should not have any right to still expect the Insight to deliver anywhere near its rated fuel economy.

Through the winding roads

Windy roads handling is quite good. After an initial miscommunications, I was finally told that Honda has some revisions to the 2011 Insight production, which includes all units delivered to customers here in Malaysia. For the suspension, Honda R&D has increased the camber slightly. To allow the suspension to work better, the chassis mounting points were also slightly strengthened by using thicker steel.

The Insight's composure over twisty country roads or wide corners on the highways is very stable and confident. Any body roll is surprisingly quite well concealed and when driving at a brisk pace, the Insight will quickly leave other cars, even those with supposedly higher performance potential, but with less confident drivers, behind when negotiating a wide corner. Through the twisties, there is no violent rolling when taking left-right-left kind of corners. Brakes are solid and gives good confidence when there is a need to stop quickly.

Overall, I honestly believe the Insight, at least the Malaysian variants, delivers a level of performance quite near the Honda Fit/Jazz, at least the original 1G i-DSI version. Given the design objective of the Insight, there is quite a bit of the good old Honda driving DNA in it.

Ride, Comfort and Noise

Malaysian Insights comes with 16inch wheels, shrodded in either Bridgestone Turanza ER370 tyres or the equivalent Dunlop tyres. In terms of ride comfort, larger rims usually compromises due to the shorter side wall and thus less cushioning over bumpy roads. In the media test drive however, I was consistently surprised by how nice the Insight rode. I think it could also partially be that I have been spoilt by the slight hard ride on my Jazz VTEC, especially after I installed sports coil-overs in it. But the Insight's ride felt nicely 'cushy' and it handles road imperfections quite well. Having said this however, in a test-drive at a Honda dealer later after the media event, where I was front seat passenger, I could feel a bit more harshness in the ride.

Noise is very nicely surpressed. This could be due, in part, to the Insight's superior aerodynamic shape over other vehicles. Wind noise is there but quite subdued, as is tyre roar. The 'heat absorbing' glasses equipped in the Insight were really effective. Even sitting in the rear where air-cond vents were not blowing anywhere near me, I still never felt stuffy or hot.

Quick detour : rear headroom

I intentionally spend one stint in the rear seats, right behind the driver. I find the legroom to be quite adequate. The driver was quite tall but I was still quite comfortable behind him. As a 6 footer (almost exactly to the inch), my head was flush against the roof when I sit straight and upright in the rear seat so I had to slouch in order to be totally comfortable. I.e. I could have sat upright and with head up against the roof for the whole journey - and the ride of the Insight is plaint enough for the risk of hitting the head from bouncy roads to be quite small. But I felt more comfortable slouching. It was only a very slight slouch, not enough to be tiring to the lower back. Okhubo-san explained that they had an extra ~20mm of headroom in the back, by thinning the roof material, in response to criticisms of rear headroom for the initial production units.


I have always been convinced of the hybrid. In fact I feel that all gasoline cars should be IMA because it makes the most sense. IMA is in actual fact an implementation of re-cycling but in automobiles. With petroleum getting scarcer and scarcer, for those who realizes how much energy is wasted in braking and idling, the IMA and IMA implementations like idle-stop is simply the most sensible way to go.

As manufacturers makes progress with battery technology, for Honda, especially from their joint-venture with YUASA, future implementations of IMA will see smaller but more efficient batteries as well as electric motors. But the current implementation in the Insight is already in my eyes very good. For the concientous car owner, if it is the time to change cars, then it is the right time to consider a hybrid and the Insight should be given serious consideration.

Side Note

Following the Tohoku earthquake in March, and after hearing rumours of bookings being suspended for the Insight, I finally confirmed it with my regular dealer. Subsequently, rumours of production of other models slowing down and causing shortage of units for sale were also confirmed, again with my regular dealer. As of last month however, bookings for Insights have resumed again. Subsequently, even production is to return back to normal by next month. So readers who are interested in getting the Insight, now is as good a time as any !

Wong KN
July 2011
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