Honda offered the first hybrid in the U.S., the Insight, which bowed in December 1999.
A 1-liter, 3-cylinder, 67-horsepower gas engine and a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack powered the bullet-shaped, look-at-me gas/electric that shouted reduced reliance on foreign oil.
It was followed by a 2003 hybrid Civic and a 2005 hybrid Accord. Insight disappeared to let those normal-looking sedans win converts, though Accord later dropped the battery pack.
Insight is back for 2010, arriving in showrooms now. It soon will have competition from the next-generation 2010 Toyota Prius, the hybrid sales leader.
The 2010 Insight looks strikingly similar to Prius, though the former is a compact, the latter a midsize. There's the same sharply sloped hood and split-glass hatchlid to reduce aerodynamic drag. Insight sports the front end of its hydrogen-fuel-cell sibling, the FCX Clarity.
Insight is offered in base LX and uplevel EX, the version tested. The original had two seats; the new one two rows of seats for up to five, though after four it's a squeeze. The cargo hold is adequate though not generous unless rear seatbacks are folded to make room for luggage, skis or golf clubs.
But the point is the amount of gas saved. The 1.3-liter, 98-h.p. 4-cylinder and nickel-metal-hydride battery pack with a continuously variable automatic transmission is rated at 40 m.p.g. city/43 m.p.g. highway and more than 400-mile range. The smaller original was rated at 61/70.
Insight starts in gas mode to avoid cold-weather problems but switches to batteries once moving and stays there to 25-30 m.p.h. with a light foot and a level road.
On a 100-mile plus trek along the interstate, we managed 50 m.p.g., topping the official rating.
Insight can keep up with traffic, though to merge, pass or climb with confidence, the battery boost is essential.
Insight gauges show when in gas or battery mode or both and when the engine shuts off rather than idles.
On one gauge, stems "grow" leaves as you conserve fuel by being light on the pedal, coasting, etc.; another gives m.p.g. updates.
But the info is displayed in a tiny square in the instrument panel that takes eyes away from the road to decipher. Sadly, a magnifying glass is not an option.
Honda says most will simply focus on the speedometer in the top of the dash for an environmental update. Background lighting for the digital numbers changes color based on fuel use, from dark blue if expending gas by standing on the pedal at takeoff to dark green when saving it by coasting.
For optimum mileage, push the green "econ" button in the dash: The engine will stop sooner instead of idling, air conditioning will go into recirculation mode at lower fan speed, and engine power will be cut by 4 percent. But inclines feel steeper, and the cabin a tad warmer.
While air rides smoothly up and over hood, roof and deck lid, Insight does get shoved by the turbulence when 18-wheelers pass.
Honda compensates by making stability control (EX) and traction control (LX and EX) standard to minimize any misadventures. The 15-inch radial tires are designed to propel Insight without scrubbing pavement to optimize mileage. They did, but hold the comfort. The tailbone suffered after the 100-mile trek. Thicker cushions, larger side bolsters and longer seat bottoms would help.
There's room up front for driver/passenger to stretch, but head and foot space is snug in back, and small door openings require limber limbs to get there.
The glass hatchlid opens wide for cargo loading, but its sharp slope makes it tough to pack tall items.
Nice touches included a small covered box in the lower dash to hold a cell phone, with a power-plug outlet nearby, and small cell phone, iPod or I-Pass holders behind a pair of cupholders in the center console.
Insight EX starts at $21,300 with anti-lock brakes, side-curtain air bags, automatic climate control, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power windows/locks/mirrors, AM/FM audio with six speakers and CD player, cruise control, USB cord and heated mirrors with integrated turn signals. Voice-activated navigation and Bluetooth phone connectivity are optional.
Gas prices will dictate how close Honda comes to its 90,000 sales goal.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Rides. Contact him at email@example.com.
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