The first-generation Insight is the first gasoline-electric hybrid sold in the U.S. Technically it’s a “mild hybrid” because the gasoline engine is connected directly to the drivetrain and it must be running to drive the vehicle. Additional power for acceleration comes from the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, which is an electric motor that’s attached to the engine’s crankshaft. While this concept is almost as old as the automobile itself, Honda has developed it to a very high degree of efficiency. Still, the technology is limited, and although the Insight is rated at 61 mpg on the highway, it’s only a two-seater.
The 3-cylinder engine and electric motor produce a combined maximum of only 81 horsepower, but the car weighs less than 1900 pounds. While some owners regularly get 80 mpg, the car’s light weight, low center of gravity and free-revving engine prompted us to drive it like a sports car, so we averaged ‘only’ 54 mpg. As noted, the vehicle cannot move under electric power alone, but this provides one major advantage; if the high-voltage electrical system stops working, the car can still be driven on the gasoline engine.
While there are no significant service issues (the only recall was for a defective headlight switch), this car is very different from other hybrids and from most other Hondas too. With aluminum body panels, exotic light-weight chassis construction, special tires, special fluids and special tools required to work on the vehicle, it’s best to have it serviced by a Honda dealer or a Honda Insight specialist. However, an enthusiast community has grown around these cars, so there is a healthy support network. The right mechanic should have no trouble keeping this car in good repair for a long time to come.
Bottom line: the Insight is a two-seat commuter car that provides excellent gas mileage, an entertaining driving experience and the kind of reliability we’ve come to expect from Honda. But given its age and practical limitations, it’s not the kind of car that most hybrid customers expect.