The GTO of MPG | The Online Automotive Marketplace | Hemmings (2024)

Sporting driving isn’t only about carving corners and achieving top speed. And not all sports cars make their reputations with pavement-rippling power. Some drivers are just as engaged and enthusiastic about other kinds of performance contests–like achieving the highest average fuel mileage and the lowest possible environmental impact. Honda has built some famously forward-thinking sports cars through the years, and all have been designed with efficiency as a goal, from the original S500 to the 2016 NSX. But it could be argued that the most advanced regular-production sports car to ever wear the “H” badge was the aluminum-bodied, two-seat 2000-2006 Insight.

The Honda Motor Company built its reputation through technical progress and accomplishing what others deemed impossible. Soichiro Honda famously pushed his company’s engineers to make economical motoring both environmentally responsible and fun, and the first-generation Civic CRX was an excellent example of this. That lightweight two-seat fastback model’s 1985 1.3-liter HF (High Fuel economy) variant offered sporty looks and nimble handling, while also being the first mass-produced four-cylinder car to top a combined 50 MPG with its 52 city/57 highway. This HF was carried into the second-generation, 1988-’91 CRX–a car that, even viewed with the EPA’s post-2008 altered fuel economy ratings, got 41 city/49 highway MPG (originally 50/56)–and would become the spiritual ancestor of the Insight.

Although the CRX’s styling motif wasn’t echoed in its del Sol successor, Honda returned to it with the J-VX concept car, unveiled at 1997’s Los Angeles and Tokyo auto shows. This aerodynamically refined two-door sports coupe featured tapering rear bodywork, and was motivated by a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder, “Integrated Motor Assist” (IMA) gas/electric hybrid powertrain. That concept was refined into the early-1999 VV, an efficiency-focused two-seater that would directly influence the production Insight that debuted in late 1999 for model year 2000.

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Honda gained experience with composites in building the original CRX, while the NSX’s all-aluminum monocoque created another field of expertise. These light, strong materials would star in the company’s turn-of-the-century ecological flagship Insight, which would be primarily powered by an engine featuring NSX-derived VTEC variable valve timing. The engineers set out to create the cleanest and most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered vehicle ever sold in America with this, the first gas/electric hybrid to reach our market. Their timing was fortuitous, considering that gas prices were approaching $2 per gallon in late 1999; that cost seems laughable now, but was real cause for concern 16 years ago.

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Suzuka, Japan, would be the sole assembly site for the first-generation Insight. The heart of this model was the production version of Honda’s IMA “parallel hybrid” system. IMA’s primary motivation was a low-friction, 995-cc, three-cylinder gasoline engine whose three-valve-per-cylinder head featured a lean burn VTEC-E design pioneered on the 1992-’95 Civic VX hatchback. This multi-port electronic fuel-injected engine used an aluminum block and head, plastic-resin intake manifold and valve cover and a magnesium alloy oil pan. Its single overhead camshaft was driven by a chain. At 124 pounds, it was then the smallest, lightest 1.0-liter engine available, and on its own, made 67 hp at 5,700 RPM and 66-lb.ft. of torque at 4,800 RPM.

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Sandwiched between that gasoline engine and a five-speed manual transmission was the IMA system’s 2.3-inch-wide, 10-kilowatt permanent magnet electric motor. Unlike the system in Toyota’s contemporary Prius, this electric motor would be used only for power assistance–adding 6 hp and 25-lb.ft. of torque–rather than primary propulsion, so it could be kept small and light. It acted as a generator, recapturing energy while coasting in gear or actuating the vented front disc/rear drum brakes, and stored that energy in a compact, 144-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack under the cargo compartment floor. Yet another function of the electric motor was as a high-torque starter motor, used to quickly restart the car after the Idle-Stop feature temporarily shut down the gas engine to conserve fuel and reduce emissions when the gearshift was in neutral and the driver’s foot was off the clutch.

Another aspect that made the Insight uniquely practical among hybrids was that its gasoline engine was fitted with a redundant conventional starter and 12-volt battery, which would start the car in freezing weather. This meant that even if the IMA battery pack was not functioning, the car could be started and driven indefinitely on the Honda-reliable three-cylinder, alone.

The IMA was only part of what made the Insight special: Its body was sleek, stiff, and light at 1,856 pounds, and its interior both sporty and space-age. The aluminum monocoque body was 40 percent lighter than a comparably sized steel body, being constructed from stamped sheets, extrusions and die-castings, with front fenders being plastic resin. The 4.3-inch-narrower rear track was complemented by enclosed rear wheel skirts and a flat undercarriage, leading to the excellent 0.25 coefficient of drag. Low rolling resistance 165/65-14 Bridgestone Potenza tires favored ultimate efficiency over ultimate grip.

The two-seat interior included fabric-covered buckets, an S2000-style steering wheel and an electronic instrument display that combined analog and digital readouts and included five (!) separate fuel economy gauges, one of which was a “lifetime” readout. A two-speaker cassette stereo, power windows, mirrors and door locks and variable-assist electric power steering were all standard. Safety features included ABS, dual airbags and seatbelt pretensioners.

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When the Insight debuted in December 1999 for model year 2000, it was available in Citrus Yellow, New Formula Red and Silverstone Metallic, and came exclusively with a black interior and manual gearbox. Its only options were electronic climate control air conditioning and the paint color. EPA-tested without A/C, this Honda proved itself capable of achieving 61 MPG city and 70 MPG highway. The 2008 testing revision changed these ratings to 49/61, but owners still surpass 600 miles on a single 10.6-gallon tank of regular gas.

The EPA recertified the Insight in 2001 using an A/C-equipped model, which led to a 2 MPG highway rating drop (to 68). That spring, U.S. Insight buyers could select the option of a continuously variable transmission, or CVT–a unit proven in the Civic HX–but those cars got lower mileage at 56 city/57 highway (revised: 45/49) primarily because they lacked the lean-burn feature. CVT-equipped variants weighed 1,967 pounds and made two fewer horsepower, but had more torque (89- vs. 79-lb.ft., with IMA assist) and achieved California’s Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle rating, topping the manual’s ULEV equivalent.

Honda’s fuel-sipper was joined by an IMA-powered Civic Hybrid for 2002, and its polarizing Citrus Yellow hue was replaced with Monte Carlo Blue Pearl. In 2004, climate control A/C became standard on the CVT model, while Navy Blue Pearl replaced Monte Carlo Blue and the interior color was now Beige; the car’s final two years were largely carry-over. Although the second-generation, 2009-’14 Insight morphed into a lower-cost five-door Prius alternative, the original Insight’s sporty two-seater ideal would be reborn in the current CR-Z hybrid.

Darin Cosgrove, Insight enthusiast and co-founder of the EcoModder.com website, offers insight into Insight drivers and their cars. “The community’s fairly small, tight-knit and very, very helpful, and owners aren’t afraid to get into a vehicle and work on it. I think these cars are a bit too weird to become big collectibles… like an old Citroën, they were highly-engineered, very aerodynamic and completely unique in the market. But this car’s desirability and value will go up and down with fuel prices. So, right now–this is the time to buy one.

“I never grew tired of driving mine, and found it really, really enjoyable. Every time I drove it, I marveled at the engineering that went into it. But I’m a nerd, you know? It makes sense that I would enjoy it,” he says with a smile. “The Insight is definitely a high-performance car, in one specific definition of performance. For its intended purpose, this car was the Ferrari of fuel economy, and it really did what it was advertised to do.”

Timeline

1999 Insight owner achieves 83.6 MPG average to win 250-mile American Tour de Sol economy rally

2000 Insight is named a finalist for 2001 North American Car of the Year

2001 CVT automatic becomes available; Monte Carlo Blue Pearl is a late color chart substitution

2002 New Civic Hybrid sedan uses a derivative of the Insight’s IMA hybrid system

2003 Insight tops U.S. Department of Energy’s “Fuel Economy Guide for Model Year 2003”

2004 Navy Blue Pearl is a new color choice, while all interiors are now Beige

2005 The IRS allows Insight buyers to make a one-time Clean Fuel tax deduction of $2,000

2006 Insight production ends in September, with global sales finishing at 17,020 units

Specifications

Engine Inline-three, alloy block and cylinder head Displacement 995 cc (61 cu.in.) Horsepower 67 @ 5,700 RPM (73 @ 5,700 RPM with IMA) Torque 66-lb.ft. @ 4,800 RPM (91-lb.ft. @ 2,000 with IMA) Induction Multi-point fuel injection Electric motor Permanent magnet Power output 10 kw @ 3,000 RPM Gearbox Five-speed manual/CVT Suspension Front: MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar; Rear: Twist beam Steering Electric, variable-assist rack and pinion Brakes Front disc, rear drum, power assist, ABS Tires All-Season P165/65 R14 78S low-rolling resistance Wheelbase 94.5 inches Length 155.1 inches Height 53.3 inches Width 66.7 inches Curb weight 1,887 pounds 0-60 MPH 10.6 seconds* Top speed 107 MPH*

*Source: Car & Driver, January 2000

ENGINE The Insight’s inline-three has proven to be a durable unit. “There are very, very few issues with the engine itself, to the point where people don’t talk about it,” says Insight enthusiast Darin Cosgrove, co-founder of the ecomodder.com site. One problem that can arise is a clogged EGR system, which can lead to bucking under certain conditions; the cure is to clean the carbon out of the passages, and possibly replace the EGR valve, an inexpensive item.

If there’s a weak link anywhere, it’s the gearbox. On five-speeds, the second gear synchronizer tends to go, while CVTs can suffer from juddering, which is cured by a fluid change or, in more extreme cases, a replacement of the clutch pack.

BODY Although the Insight’s all-aluminum construction means that rust is generally not a problem, it’s still necessary to check the brake and fuel lines for corrosion, especially in high-salt areas. A known problem area is a bracket holding the fuel line on the passenger side of the firewall; it traps moisture, and leads to rust-through. If you smell gas while running the heater fan, this may be the source.

The Dzus fasteners that hold on the distinctive rear-wheel skirts must be properly fastened; check the owner’s manual to see how they work. If they’re missing or have been modified to show more of the wheel, figure in $310 apiece for new skirts; alternatively, you may be able to find them used.

INTERIOR The Insight’s no-frills cabin is generally well finished and durable, with the exception of the seat covers, which can wear, especially on the outer bolster of the driver’s seat. Replacement covers are available; seats from other Hondas and Acuras will bolt up, too, and are a common swap. If the carpeting and the seat belt are wet, or there’s mold and a musty odor, suspect the trim that runs along the A-pillar to the B-pillar. A search of Insight forums will reveal many cures.

If the four buttons in the instrument pod ( -, +, Trip, and KM/MPH) aren’t working properly, the repair could be as simple as pushing in the buttons and moving them in all directions to clean the switch contacts.

ALSO CHECK The key item to check, and the main reason for Insights being put up for sale, is the condition of the battery pack. A healthy battery uses the whole range of the state-of-charge gauge; a battery that’s lost two-thirds of its capacity will set a check engine light.

New and rebuilt batteries are available in the $1,500-$2,000 range. Darin notes that a tired battery that has set the IMA fault light can sometimes be restored to working condition by reconditioning. “You can buy a $99 charger that will cycle the individual sub-packs within the main battery pack and bring it all close to spec again, and then it will work,” he says. “For the person who’s interested in learning about this, everything you want to know is on the forums.”

Production

1999 17

2000 3,788

2001 4,726

2002 2,216

2003 1,168

2004 583

2005 666

2006 722

2007 3

Total 13,889

Note: Figures reflect U.S. sales by model year.

Price Guide

Low $2,000

Average $5,000

High $8,000

Parts Prices

Air cleaner element $23

Airbag, passenger $1,040

Catalytic converter, OEM $900

Headlamp unit $308

Hood emblem $46

Ignition coil assembly $122

IMA battery, OEM $1,575

Instrument panel assembly $584

Key cylinder kit, trunk $45

Radiator hose, lower $29

Shift boot $24

Seat back cover $318

Taillamp $225

A Pro’s Advice

The key thing, obviously, with any old hybrid is the battery, and that’s why it’s number one on the list of things to look for. But it turns out that a lot of people who bought the car just as a commuting appliance will sell it as soon as the battery starts to act up. And that can make it a very good purchase deal for somebody who understands the way the hybrid system works in that car, because you can actually drive the car without its hybrid system working, which is unusual. That’s one really big plus to taking a chance on an older Insight–you can still drive it while you’re sorting out other problems, if you need to. It will get lower fuel economy, obviously, but you can still drive it. -Darin Cosgrove

Recent Ads

2000 Insight Red, 71,000 miles, lifetime mileage of 51.7, Mike’s Smart Charger with discharger and harness installed, short shift kit with S2000 shift knob, some dings and small holes in carpet, A/C compressor makes noise but still blows cold; $5,500.

2000 Insight Citrus Yellow, 247,000 highway miles, 67 MPG lifetime, I average 60 MPG. Never been smoked in, no accidents. A/C blows cold, hybrid battery discharged to 0V and trickle-charged to 190V-pack works correctly. Common crunch on downshifting into second gear, some paint fade; $3,250.

2002 Insight Silver, CVT, 135k miles, trans fluid changed, correct Bridgestone RE92 tires, good brakes, all underbelly panels in place, good battery pack with no issues, engine fully tuned up, lifetime MPG is 57; $4,995.

2006 Insight Blue, manual transmission, 135k miles, ice cold A/C, leather seats, aftermarket radio with aux input, Viper car alarm, 56.6 lifetime MPG; $5,000.

Alternatives

1989-2000 CITROËN XM

Price now: $2,000-$15,000 Pros True Citroën aerodynamics and suspension design; thrifty with the turbodiesel engine Cons Fewer than 20 Federalized CXA XMs were officially imported, so you’ll likely need to import your own

1988-1991 HONDA CRX HF

Price now $1,500-$4,500 Pros Nimble and fun to drive; simple mechanicals and great MPG Cons Few original, stock examples remain; lacking modern safety features

Viewpoint

I have always been a gas mileage guy. When Honda first announced the Insight, I thought I was reading a misprint when the ad said 61/70 MPG. I was very impressed with the great effort Honda made to produce such a high-performance, purpose-built, publicly available, super high mileage car, and I had to have one.

The car is plenty fast enough to keep up with traffic, and is capable of much faster speeds than I ask of it. It will climb any mountain in the country, but this is a sip-sip car, not a zoom-zoom car; speed is the enemy of MPG, and as such, I have very little use for it. That said, I did push it one time and got it up to 107 MPH, under less-than-ideal conditions.

My lifetime average, over 178,174 miles, is 83.99 MPG. My worst-ever tank was 58.9 MPG and my best tank was 112.0 MPG. I have gassed it up 188 times since I have owned it, and my average range is 947 miles, with my best range being 1,520 miles.

I like my Insight very much, and plan on keeping it forever, even if I have to replace the IMA battery every few years. There is nothing new on the market now that is better than the Insight, and nothing that interests me. -Louis Hudgin

Resources

www.insightcentral.net

Forums, information and classifieds

www.insightman.com

Historical information, Insight resources

EcoModder.com

Forums, blogs, DIY/how to, hypermiling tips

Visit the Hemmings Car Clubs pages at www.hemmings.com/clubs for news and information on over 1,400 car clubs!

The GTO of MPG | The Online Automotive Marketplace | Hemmings (2024)
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