More Than Just The House is Wired Now...              (six month update)

I was getting tired of driving the old SUV around, so I started looking around for something different.  The SUV made sense when I owned a company and was trucking people around, but nowadays I make most road trips solo and I hated burning all that gas just to lug myself and my stuff around.  So I looked at the two fuel-electric hybrids currently on the market, the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius.  As an long-time Honda driver, I picked the Insight.

I've had it since 29 November 2000, but I'm still having fun with it -- learning how to constantly improve the lifetime average miles per gallon is a hoot.  I made my first long trip with it from Virginia Beach to Washington, DC, a trip of roughly 215 miles.  On the way up I paid attention to the miles-per-gallon meters but got tired of only driving at the speed limit about two-thirds of the way through and reverted to my normal Han Solo driving style.  Result:  3.5 hours, 68.9 miles per gallon.  On the way back I had more weight (a second passenger, Darcee) but just drove to get home quickly, paying no attention to fuel economy at all.  It took almost three hours exactly and averaged 54.9 miles per gallon.

Since then, I've figured out how to drive it to get better mileage even around town.  It's got several trip meters so I can track each trip without affecting the lifetime MPG numbers.  As of early March 2001, I'd gotten the overall lifetime MPG to almost 65, and most of that's city driving.  On a recent trip to the airport, I managed an average 75 mpg for the 25-mile trip.  For those interested, here are a few things that I've figured out.

It's not a car, it's a cult

I didn't realize it before buying it, but this isn't a car, it's a cult.  There are people who are absolutely nuts about getting and recording unbelievable gas mileage.  There are a number Web sites about the thing and even a magazine for Insight owners with tips and tricks.  You can type "Honda Insight" and max out Altavista.  There's an excellent site chock-full of interesting stuff called Insight Central at www.insightcentral.net.  For just generic background, there's www.fueleconomy.gov.

But it's got terrible acceleration, right?

How's it for pickup?  The car runs on a three-cylinder engine and when you need a bit more ooomph, it kicks in an electric motor.  As it's a five-speed that you can red-line at 6000 rpm, you can get a reasonable amount of acceleration, certainly better than my CR-V had.  I'd compare it to the old Civics with the small engines from about 15 years ago.  Here's another measure that works for me, given my travel schedule: ever rent a compact or subcompact car?  The rental companies in the US tend to only buy underpowered cars with automatic transmissions.  Well, compared to that measure, the Insight is preferable.  The interesting thing about how best to handle acceleration for the Insight is that the fuel-saving strategy that seems to work best is to nearly red-line it in the first and second gear, then go straight to fifth and cruise there.  At first it seemed a bit anemic, but once I'd driven it a few hundred miles, I revised my opinion.  It's got lousy pickup if you're concerned about fuel economy.  If you're not watching the miles-per-gallon meter and shift for maximum power then it's quite snappy.  And even lead-foot miles per gallon are in the 55 miles per gallon range for novices, 62 mpg once you get better at driving it.

The Slalom King

Popular Science did a review of the Insight and was surprised to see that it outperformed almost every other car they'd tested on the slalom.  I'm not surprised at all.  Its low-to-the-ground height and relatively decent wheelbase makes it about the most sure-footed car I've driven.  But here's a tradeoff:  to get the best gas mileage, you want to keep the tires pumped up to provide the least rolling resistance.  Some folks keep their tires a bit above the Honda recommended values -- they keep the rear tires at 38 psi and the front tires at 40 psi -- and when I've tried that, I can definitely detect the decrease in rolling resistance.  But on the other hand, that will of course reduce the car's surefootedness.

There's very little storage space

This car has no back seats and no trunk space at all.  Don't let anybody tell you differently.  See that hatchback space behind the seats?  That's all you've got for storage.  (Well, almost -- there's a small box -- 2 cubic feet -- that lets you store things away from prying eyes.  

Now, I originally thought that'd mean that I'd have to fill up the hatch and therefore wouldn't be able to see out of the back.  I soon found that wasn't the case.  On the DC trip  I found that I could pack a large garment bag, a video camera hardcase, and three laptop bags in the back without obstructing my view at all.  There's a decent amount of area in the hatch and so I just laid everything out in the back.  You can even put a second layer of bags strategically and not suffer for visibility.  I then used the cargo net that I bought when I purchased the CR-V to tie down the stuff in the back so that it wouldn't fly into the front seat if I stopped short.  I now regularly drive to the airport with a big garment bag, a wheeled equipment bag and usually a third bag without that restricting my vision.  However, the visibility straight back -- such as you'd use to back up to a wall or a fence -- isn't great.

Perfmon on the road

For a computer geek like me, this car is sort of a trip to learn to use.  First of all, there's the strategizing about fuel economy and battery charge -- the battery only charges when you're decelerating (whether braking or not).  The dashboard is one big set of backlit LCD displays.  They're very bright, so don't worry about visibility in the daytime.  You can, however, dim them, which led me to wonder (tongue-in-cheek)  if the reason for the dimmer switch was the same reason as on my Handspring Prism -- to save on batteries?  Nah, the Handspring uses lithium batteries, and this puppy is back in the mid-90s with nickel metal hydride batteries.  I asked the dealer if there was a lithium upgrade, but he didn't get it.  But the dash also shows you all kinds of statistics, kind of like running NT's Performance Monitor while driving.  You can see whether the battery is charging or if the motor's running (and discharging the battery).  You can see your miles per gallon at that instant (up to 150 mpg), or the moving average, or the MPG over the life of the car, or just this segment of the trip, or in two pre-programmed trips... I may have to put black tape over the silly thing to keep myself from getting into an accident by watching the system status instead of the road ahead.  Hey, Honda, next time make it a heads-up display projected on the inside of the windshield!

Creature comforts "R"-n't Us

As with most Hondas, it's Spartan vis--vis creature comforts.  Terrible seats, no lumbar support.  You pump the tires up to get the best gas mileage but it makes for a bumpier ride.  (The tires are these weird 13" low-rolling-resistance things.  Can't wait to get to some snow to see if the front-wheel-drive is as effective in bad road conditions as it was in the Civics.)  No one seems to know if it's even possible to put in a single CD/cassette player in the thing, and I'm looking around to find someone to put a sunroof on this without electrocuting themselves on the electrical system.  Interestingly enough, however, Honda has finally discovered climate control.  Dial up the A/C (the only option, BTW) to a temperature and it's smart enough to turn on either the heat or A/C to get you there.  Congratulations, Honda; let's see, Mercedes has been doing this for what, twenty years now?  Clearly the weather must always be moderate in Japan, never too cold or too hot.

Okay, confession time.  I've become such a mileage junkie that I almost never use the heat or defroster; if the windshield's fogging up, I just crack the window and the cold dry air clears the glass, even if it does cool the interior.  The reason that I do this is that if you're running the heat or A/C, then the  idle stop" -- a feature that shuts the engine off when you're stopped at a stoplight -- doesn't work, so the car idles at a light and burns gas, hurting the miles just a trifle.  No idea if I'll still do that in summer, but I imagine that compressor will have deleterious affects on my mileage.  Guess I can always drive in a swimsuit to stay cool ... or maybe I'll just get therapy.

ABS standard, which makes sense -- the brakes use electromotive force to slow the car, so telling the computer to pump the brakes should be easy.  (Wonder what the car's like to drive with a dead computer?  Hmmm... perhaps the 2002 model could have a two-CPU cluster option?)  I'm told there's a computer-traction-controlled automatic transmission version available for the 2001 model, but I'm happy to be back to shifting -- that automatic in the CR-V drove me crazy.

Beyond all that, however, is perhaps the most interesting thing for me about the Insight:  it's a new experience.  Driving an fuel/electric hybrid and doing it well is a learning experience on the order of learning to drive a stick if you've only driven automatics.  It's pretty neat.

Now I just need it to sync to the Handspring and do wireless comms to the house so that I can start it up remotely...

Six Month Update:

I've had the thing since September 2000 and it's May 2001 as I write this update.  If you're thinking about buying an Insight, I still recommend it; here's what I've learned.

What's It Cost And What's Missing?

There aren't any options, basically, so you get two choices (I'm simplifying):  $18,900 A/C, $20,000 with A/C.  It may be rough to get much of a deal because Honda's deliberately selling these at a loss to generate a market.  Comes with a radio/cassette, you can opt for radio/CD for a bit more but you lose the cassette. You really don't have much in the way of options; in particular:

Honda did one thing very right, however -- the battery warranty.  These are NiMh batteries, as I mentioned above, and you've got to wonder if they'll last for years.  Honda guarantees them for eight years; according to the dealer, it would be about $2500 to have them replaced.

With Some Experience, MPG Can Be Quite Good

As of late May 2001, my average MPG is 67.5 MPG, including city and highway.  My record trip was one home from the airport (25 miles) that netted 81.7 MPG.  And since I bought it in September, I've put gas in it just five times.

Forget Air Conditioning

I bought the car with air conditioning and only recently has it made sense to try using it.  The performance?

Well, in a word, yuk.

With the A/C engaged, economy drops to about 40 MPH from my current average of 67 MPG.  But beyond that, the car can hardly get out of its own way.  Check back with me at the end of the summer and I'll know how well-ventilated the car is once I've been through a Virginia Beach summer without A/C.

Storage Is Sufficient

I haven't yet had trouble finding space for everything, despite the lack of a trunk.  But of course with just two seats, this probably couldn't be your only car if you've got a family. But if Dad or Mom need a cheap-to-run vehicle for trips around town or to work, I'd recommend looking at the Insight.

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