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Here's a discussion of my transition to a MkI Insight, MkI Insight vs. MkII Insight vs. Prius, and normal cars vs. hybrids in general.
Transition to a MkI Insight
After Ford Mustangs from '87 to '91, and very rust-prone but fun-via-light Civics including 3 MkI CRXes, it was time for something different, something that I could rely on for a many, many years, but yet something that retained fun-through-lightness and efficiency-through-lightness of all those fun but hideously rust-prone older Hondas...
I wanted to stay with hatchbacks, as they are both very aerodynamic and you can fit surprisingly big, bulky stuff in them. That narrowed it down to either a MkII CRX (same issues as MkI, including rust, but it has real suspension travel but weighs more) or a Celica...
Toyotas have always seemed a tad bland to me, with their vast ballooned-looking expanses of textured plastic on the dash. They've generally seemed like the GM of Japanese car companies to me, granted with excellent reliability. They're excellent, top-rate A-B transport appliances, with the soul of a toaster oven. My Mom's previous car, an '89 Corolla, was actually carbureted... It had the 16V DOHC box checked off, but was carbureted. It was as if Toyota was hell-bent on economies of scale for their DOHC 4-cylinder motors, and being able to point out that their cars used modern valvetrains... with 1950s-tech carburetion in that '89 Corolla's case. The Celica is also a little on the heavy side (and looks it), with mpg that varied widely.
And then of course Honda did have that other offering, what is typically thought of as a mutant, underpowered tech-oddity that looked like someone forgot to take it out of the wind tunnel for the night, the CRX-meets-EV1 MkI Honda Insight. It seemed like a Hail Mary pass trying to get one of those, considering how few were sold, but then car buying as a prolonged Grand Interstate Adventure was standard procedure for me with my fixation on small, agile rust-prone little '80s Hondas well into 2009. My price range typically had been $1600 - $2400, and a healthy non-ravaged Insight cost at least $5000... but then, being aluminum alloy, it's not like the local garage would ever condemn it due to excess rust at Annual State Inspection time as had happened with most of my previous Hondas. So I took my time, with checks of oodle.com, eBay and sometimes one or two others at least once a day, often twice (especially oodle.com), followed sometimes by increasingly evolved choice questions to the seller and a quick CarFax background check. And then appeared the the one in Centreville, MD that was clearly mine... Subtly pre-disastered by a rough repaint (a “2-foot car”, meaning the dust and bumps under the paint, and the slight overspray here and there, don't show until you're really close). It had a lot of miles on it (189k, which from my research on insightcentral.net actually didn't seem that high all things considered but was enough to scare off others), shifted fine (the 5-speed tranny is a vulnerable and sometimes abused part in those cars), and the gauge cluster showed it still got good sustained mpg, suggesting it was healthy. The original battery pack's tired cells had been swapped with a Civic Hybrid pack's cells a few years prior, so that seemed fine, the other concern up there with tranny condition.
I bought the car just prior to a New England vacation, meaning except for the drive home the car sat a total of about a month... Nickel-based cells (NiCd, NiMH, NiZn) can develop self-discharge tendencies from nickel dendrite formation probably from a combination of chronic high states of charge and lack of an occasional slow, thorough discharge-recharge cycle. I've read that the first generation of Civic Hybrids also didn't use pack fan cooling, sometimes needed... It soon started throwing IMA errors and tripping out the IMA system, meaning it's hybridness was broken and so it reverted to being a seriously future-looking 2000 CRX HF in aluminum alloy. The local dealership replaced the pack for about half the standard retail price, couldn't go less as it was non-standard Civic Hybrid cells they were replacing vs. the original Insight factory cells, and “about half the 50 bolts in the pack were missing” which I was utterly unaware of.
So, in any case, for a total of about $6500, I have a gorgeous CRX-meets-EV1 4-wheeled metallic silver Cirrus S22 fuselage of a car, a 2000 Insight Lean Burn HEV 5-speed, that uses half the fuel of a Civic while delivering about CRX DX -level acceleration and handling, with CRX HF -level acceleration only if the pack's state of charge is really low. It's not like a Prius where the driver sits back, mouth agape, in oh-wow wonder of the Energy Flows displayed on the central Information Pod in a conventional-chassis compact family car. No, the MkI Insight is from NSX (aluminum world-class sports machine) and CRX genetic stock, with an S2000-derived steering system (Miata-sized roadster with Porsche-level howling high-rpm power). While its overall performance is a close match of the MkI CRX DX (very close weight and horsepower specs) but with none of the old CRX's need for added pitch and especially roll stability or higher lower-rpm power (where the IMA makes all the difference) and isn't Si-grade let alone S2000 or NSX grade, there's plenty of the motorcycle/S600/S800/Civic S/CRX fun efficiency through adding lightness heritage there that you just don't find with Toyota products, because it's not in Toyota's heritage. The '78 Corolla a neighbor had way back was a fine lightweight car, but the '78 Civic CVCC of a late aunt and the similar '81 Civic 1500DX that was my first Honda were funky little engaging things that just wanted be driven somewhere, both starting instantly as if they had simply been waiting for you, patiently wondering what took you so long.
The 2000 – 2006 Insight (technically 1999 to 2006) and 2001 to present Prius both started from the Japanese car industry taking GM seriously when it introduced in the '90s both extended-range electric vehicle (EREV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) concept car versions of its lease-only, hand-assembled, very low production EV-1 Impact battery-powered electric car (BEV). While Honda and Toyota took it to mean their dominance of the efficient vehicle segment was about to be obliterated if they didn't respond quickly with comparable offerings of their own, GM soon ended EV-1 production and bought the Hummer brand as part of its program for focusing more on high-profit SUV sales, recalling EV-1s for crushing soon after that. It then sold the patent for the large-format (high capacity) NiMH Ovionic cells used in about a quarter of the EV-1s to Chevron, which promptly sat on the patent, actively prohibiting any other company from making high-capacity NiMH cells.
MkI Insight vs. MkII Insight vs. Prius
Toyota, with its continuing evolution and relatively enormous (vs. the Insight) sales of the Prius model, now in its third generation, has been seen as taking over Honda's traditional role of making the most eco-friendly cars available. The new Insight has not been selling well at all... i've seen maybe four, possibly five different MkI Insights here in York, PA over the past couple years while seeing none of the new model, and the MkI Insight was one of the worst-selling cars ever produced.
There's a very basic set of differences between the Honda and Toyota approaches to designing a high-efficiency vehicle, including a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV).
Efficiency = adding lightness, something descended from their motorcycle racing heritage.
A worthwhile car = a driver-involving, rewarding-to-drive, likes-corners, lots of gauges right in front of the driver purist's kind of a car.
“The value of one's life may be measured in the times one's soul has been deeply stirred.”, a saying of founder Soichiro Honda, suggests a preference for vehicles that are positively memorable to drive (especially on interesting roads).
“Action without philosophy is a lethal weapon; philosophy without action is useless.” is another saying from Soichiro Honda. It does not suggest that one's vehicle should be a hodge-podge of whatever the latest technologies happen to be at the time.
Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) can, and will, lead to simply rewarding cars without excess stuff that just gets in the way of a good drive.
Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) is very simply a powerful motor/generator sandwiched between an otherwise conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) and its clutch/transmission/transaxle. Three very well insulated and shielded heavy-gauge wires go from it to the back of the MkI Insight, where all the power electronics and the battery pack are. That approach is why the MkI Insight's engine bay is simpler than that of a MkI CRX Si, and why the MkI Insight's hatch floor is higher than that of a CRX's (but includes a MkII CRX -like rear covered storage bin).
The MkI Insight achieves its still-unmet incredible efficiency not through maximum added new-tech, but rather what is actually traditional, old-school methods to get efficiency and agility up: Add lightness, cut drag.
“Toyotaisation” is a term used to describe the fully established, highly evolved quality control standards-based program used increasingly internationally by companies as something to check off as “yes, we do that” to show an interest in quality control to at least their shareholders... But few of the S&P top 50 at any given time have traditionally used that, partly due to creativity constraints it is seen as imposing. One of Honda's main corporate mottos, by comparison, is “The Power of Dreams”.
Their standards-based corporate culture does not encourage going way out on a limb design-wise, or trying for some ultimate “purists only” approach that might not work in the real world. The Prius chassis is shared with the Echo/Yaris platform for economies of scale if at a weight penalty for the exotic one-off MkI Insight aluminum alloy chassis. (The MkII Insight uses the Fit/Jazz mild steel chassis.)
Only the Prius is mechanically capable of electric-only propulsion, and it's always been that way vs. Honda's IMA. The cost is much greater mechanical, electrical, electronic and software complexity with increased weight (especially frontal). Stuffing all the electronics under the hood leads to a crowded and tall engine bay vs. Honda's IMA, but then there's more interior room with the battery pack between the rear strut towers (up high vs. Honda hybrids, where it'll contribute more to cornering lean by raising the car's center of gravity). Until you open the hood, Toyota hybrids seem basically like familiar, normal cars. The ability to operate at low load without the ICE running is why the Prius (and other parallel hybrids like it, especially from Ford) get better mpg in the city vs. highway, the opposite of normal cars, while Honda IMA hybrids get slightly worse mpg in-town. Honda has been working greatly on improving aerodynamics, so that highway mpg can be maximized, and the highway mpg difference Toyota Hybrid Synergy vs. Honda IMA isn't much all else roughly equal. (And the highway is where most high-miles commuters really rack up the miles...)
Continuing from the previous point, the Prius is really a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) inside a normal ICE-powered subcompact, with the two basically switching fully back and forth or working both together as circumstances dictate to accelerate/slow the vehicle.. Honda's IMA by comparison makes for a “mild HEV”, with the EV part literally inline with the otherwise normal ICE-based drivetrain.
The only way Honda's IMA can lead to a full Toyota Hybrid Synergy -like full HEV mode is if a clutch is added between the motor/generator and the ICE. This would seriously add to space, complexity, parts count and possibly weight issues vs. standard IMA.
There are no “row your own” stickshift Toyota hybrids. The mechanical basis of that Hybrid Synergy system is basically an additional differential where a second electric motor plays referee between the ICE and main electric motor/generator, all very thoroughly under control of computer systems that in the original Prius were much more complex and frankly modern than corresponding systems in the MkI Insight. The only way to add driver involvement in the CVT-only Prius would adding “up down” shifting paddles to tell its continuously variable (belt/chain -drive) transmission (CVT) to increase or decrease ICE rpm. Many folks, such as myself, have an aversion to automatic trannies of any type, with new “automated manual” trannies being a possible exception.
It's the level of driver interaction that's the main philosophical design difference between Toyota and Honda HEV designs; the former relies on a do-everything all-knowing computer system to allocate resources most optimally in system a wee complicated for regular manual control, whereas the MkI 5-speed Insight gives the driver nearly full control over battery pack State of Charge (SoC), engine rpm, technically even whether to run in Lean Burn or not. It's for enthusiasts, where the Prius is for “Can't I just go pick my kid up?!? Do I really have to care about SoC?!?” folks.
The problem with the new Insight is that it's retaining the simpler, for-enthusiasts IMA but not the go-for-it aluminum alloy etc. weight reduction of the MkI, leading to a very mild hybrid with half again the weight of the original Insight but with 2/3rds the battery pack capacity. Honda will tell you “we were able to reduce the size of the battery pack vs. the original”, but the chemistry's the same, so you have half the EV-ness to the car vs. the original, with the original accelerating noticeably quicker and also getting much better mpg than the new.
The new Insight (2750 lbs. vs. 1850 lbs. for the MkI 5-speed), while seating four or in a pinch five vs. two for the original, can technically get seriously better mpg per occupant, but don't try to pass anyone while climbing the Appalachians with all seats filled. With 84 hp from its ICE and about the same weight as a Prius, which has a comparable 80 hp ICE rating, the mountain-climbing ability with its SoC-depleting sustained power demand is about the same for each, with the MkI Insight better than each (61 ICE hp, but only 1850 lbs.).
Where the new Prius especially whoops the new Insight is maximum EV propulsion power, 80 hp, equal to the ICE for 160 hp total peak, vs. 13 hp for the Insight (the same for each generation), 97 total hp in a much shorter peak. When you remember that the Prius can run in pure BEV mode when it wants to, and it has now over twice the battery pack capacity of the new Insight (2kWh vs. 670Wh, 1kWh for the MkI Insight), the new Insight is a very mild hybrid indeed. It does however corner just fine, and Car & Driver recognized that by awarding it as the best green car over the Prius for its much better-controlled switchback handling vs. the Prius.
With the MkI Insight, Honda took the same hard-core “add lots of lightness, cut drag to nothing” approach as GM did in making the EV-1 Impact, whereas Toyota rather brushed all that aside to add lots of modern tech to a normal car with its Prius. Both the EV-1 and MkI Insight were largely laughed at at the time, except for the dedicated few who hailed/hail them as the miracles of efficiency that they were/are. The EV-1 leases were terminated without option to renew within one year followed by the vehicles' being crushed, Insight production was halted in 2006 without a replacement in sight, and the Prius continued on as “the car” for green-leaning families.
Normal cars vs. MkI Insight:
Normal car =
lots of cupholders
at least two airbags
mild steel that within a decade or certainly two rusts
mild steel that makes it weight well over a ton, if not 1½ or 2 tons
reliant entirely on electric DC temporary-duty starting motor engaging with flywheel teeth to start at all
reliant entirely on belt-driven, bracket-mounted electric generator spinning at high speed for electricity supply
reliant entirely on pistons sucking in fuel-air mix, compressing it, igniting it, then pushing out the exhaust fumes
when sitting at intersection will keep its pistons reciprocating to avoid wearing out the starter teeth and mechanism from frequent restarts
when slowing down has to convert momentum into lost heat via friction-based braking system
engine is only 38% efficient at best, usually more like 10 to 25%, partly from sending so much energy out its cooling and exhaust systems
engine is only 38% efficient at best, usually more like 10 to 25%, partly from work required in sucking air past a usually partly-closed throttle valve
engine is only 38% efficient at best, usually more like 10 to 25%, partly from needing to operate smoothly at idle while also being able to generate great power
large powerful engine is 5 – 10% efficient when unable to warm up when restricted to short cold-weather trips
large powerful engine when unable to warm up when restricted to short cold-weather trips will acidify its oil with combustion blow-by gases
large powerful engine when unable to warm up when restricted to short cold-weather trips will rust its exhaust plumbing with pools of condensed exhaust
increasing congestion kills its efficiency further by turning its momentum to waste heat in stop-and-go driving, worsened by heavy weight
two cupholders, one for each person
two airbags, one for each person
aluminum alloy that doesn't know how to rust (if oxidized, it keeps its oxide as a protective cladding unlike the shedding of rust)
aluminum alloy that lets it have full modern safety by rigidity plus battery pack while weighing less than 1 ton
aluminum alloy that lets it weigh less than 1 ton lets acceleration and slowing take less energy
aluminum alloy that lets it weigh less than 1 ton lets the car's CRX DNA shine, letting corners be fun.
aluminum alloy that lets it weigh less than 1 ton lets inexpensive narrow efficient tires be enough to let corners be fun.
aluminum alloy that lets it weigh less than 1 ton lets it not really need its minimal power steering, letting corners be fun.
13kW motor/generator 10X as powerful as a starter bolted to crankshaft and crankcase, serving as replacement for a 4th cylinder
13kW motor/generator 10X as powerful as an alternator bolted to crankshaft and crankcase, turning engine braking into recoverable energy
1kilowatt-hour battery pack that sends energy to and from that 13kW motor/generator via electronics in the back with the battery pack
friction-based braking very little used from momentum energy mostly being given back to battery pack
engine can be small enough that it warms up easily, and is gracefully automatically shut down and restarted when stopped at intersections
engine can be small enough that it warms up easily, so little combustion blow-by is able to settle in oilpan
engine can be small enough that it warms up easily, so little exhaust condensate is able to pool in its light exhaust system
engine can be small enough that less energy is wasted via cooling and exhaust
engine can be small enough that little energy is wasted trying to suck air past the throttle valve
engine can be small enough that less oil is used for oil changes
engine can be small enough that coolant is needed in coolant changes
engine can be small enough that car weighs much less, letting corners be fun.
small engine up front, battery pack down low in the back, plus aluminum alloy helps weight distribution, letting corners be fun.
smaller engine with smaller cooling needs means smaller needed radiator means lower air drag means quiet highway efficiency
small engine's high-rpm power complemented by motor/generator's good low-rpm torque to allow pistons to reciprocate slower
small engine's high-rpm power complemented by motor/generator's good low-rpm torque to allow much smoother power delivery
small engine's high-rpm power complemented by motor/generator's good low-rpm torque to provide decent acceleration
MkI Insight 5-speed vs. MkI CRX
2000 Insight 5-speed w/ AC:
1880 lbs., 73 IMA-assisted peak hp (61 continuous), 0-60 mph in 10.5 sec., 50 – 71 real-world mpg
Torque has two noticeable peaks, with a low-rpm EV-powered peak and a weaker but higher-rpm gas-engine peak
When you stomp on the gas from low rpm there's this cool “EV whine” from the engine bay w/ the IMA “EV turbo” at full Assist
If the battery pack's decently charged, acceleration is like that of a MkI CRX DX but with the low-rpm pull-away of an Si.
The closer the battery pack is to totally discharged as the BCM sees things, the more the car becomes a 2000 CRX HF in aluminum.
When you lightly touch the brake pedal you get light to moderate braking with zero braking system wear, plus a little “EV whine”.
4V/cylinder VTEC-E with wide-band O2 sensors and indexed spark plugs allow 13:1 – 25.8:1 air:fuel ratios for diesel-like efficiency w/ Honda lightness.
little body pitch or lean, 2 airbags, ABS, feels plenty rigid, complies with modern safety standards
The rear suspension's passive rear steer can do a funky mini side-step, but it's all good, and very stable with OEM RE92s.
The OEM RE92s, despite having a 165/65R14 size, actually do generate decent-enough grip. The car's decent in the twisties as-is.
With CRX Si -spec tires it has aggressive agility, without a MkI CRX's need for additional anti-sway.
it's very quiet. did i mention it's very quiet? i'm avoiding upper case to make sure i'm not shouting... it's very quiet in case i didn't say so.
Auto-stop puts you in blissful utter silence upon stopping... my dad remarked “you can hear the icicles melting” one cold day.
Being aluminum alloy, not only will the floorpan corners not vanish along with the rocker panels, but the hard points will not turn soft and crunchy... You can actually use the hard points without any worries of lift points being absorbed as your skull is crushed like a walnut and as your rib cage gets flattened in a series of pops!
HF: 1750 lbs., 59 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 0-60 mph in 13.5 sec., 30 – 50 real-world mpg, good as thrifty car for heavy commuting (or heavily modified in the engine bay to be a flyweight giant-annihilator at autocrosses)
DX: 1760 lbs., 76 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 0-60 mph in 10.5 sec., 26 – 35 real-world mpg
Si: 1880 bs., 91 hp at 5,500 rpm, 0-60 mph in 8.5 sec., 28 – 42 real-world mpg, hard to drive without inducing of an uncontrollable impish grin
High stock center of gravity + high popularity with enthusiasts led to large market for add-on anti-sway, adjustable struts/shocks, stronger torsion bars
Chassis flex led to market for strut tie bars, partial and full roll cages.
If in accident, expect crumple zones to certainly crumple. It's actually a fairly safe car, but the crumple zones aren't huge.
If you rear-end well, anyone, the front bumper will submarine under the next vehicle's rear bumper.
It's easy to think of the rear wheelwells as being the real rear bumper, if hit by a truck.
Modestly lowering the car was typical and greatly helped handling, but ate much of the little available front suspension travel.
At lidle the engine vibration often, in my experience at least, matched the dashboard's resonant frequency, setting the dashboard vibrating.
The EW4/D15A3 in the MkI Si made not only decent low and mid-range power, but usable power to a bit past 6,000 rpm, depending...
The MkI Si was mechanically capable of a full zing to 7,200 rpm where its PGM-FI shut off its injectors, inviting high-airflow mods.
The MkI DX (and HF I gather) had fairly tall 1st gears, plus carbution (CVCC), meaning lots of clutch slippage needed starting up a hill with a cold engine.
The MkI Si had decent low-end power/torque, a highly bog-resistant PGM-FI -fed engine and a short 1st gear, leading to zero pull-away issues.
The MkI Si was easily given an Integra drivetrain swap, leading to a DOHC 8,000 rpm ZINGGGG! monster that would still get good mpg.
I actually described, to a coworker, at work, the Baltic Blue '85 Si I had with a needed rear added-on anti-sway bar as “It used to be way too much fun... It's beyond that now.” said with a huge, very impish grin. That pretty much sums up CRXes, especially the rambunctious '85 Si.
The Insight is different... I've read it described “as fun as mud” but that's really not the case at all. If you think of normal roads as all a series of dragstrips, and petroleum as an elixer of the Gods, and/or a real vehicle, by definition, can hold/tow two at least Insights in weight and/or volume, then, well, have fun with your F-150 and/or Mustang. I wanted a worthy successor to all the MkI CRXes and the two Civics I've had. I saw no reason for a newer vehicle to get worse mpg than an older vehicle, and that massively narrowed it all down to the Insight right there and then. Throw in a view of anything much over 2,000 lbs. as just simply fat, stupid, unresponsive, dumb and unfun for single-person commute duty with the fact that the Insight is incapable of ever rusting, and the choice becomes rather clear... There's only one car that meets that criteria, and it wasn't made after 2006.
During the '80s, for fun mpg you had the choice of the CRX of any flavor or year, most of the Civics, some Corollas, the VW Rabbit and its derivatives (including the GTI and the fun in a mutant way 55 mpg Rabbit Diesel), plus the Mitsubishi/Dodge Colt and Isuzu Sprint with its turbo derivative, plus the less fun Subaru Justy and Toyota Tercel. In the '90s it would have restricted you pretty much to the very humble Geo Metro, a GM-manufactured (!!!) derivative of the Sprint. Then everyone seemed to prefer SUVs, everyone else getting called a “tree-hugger”. Then in 2008 gas hit $4 / gallon... Long-term reality, it turned out, could not be illusioned away after all.
As far as no longer getting an out-of-control impish grin from a flyweight Honda, I can't help but smile whenever I approach my wonderfully odd little aircraft fuselage of a car.
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