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Honda Insight makes tester a hybrid believer

You don't see many on the street and they're all but forgotten with the recent launch of Toyota's updated Prius.

But the Honda Insight, Canada's first production gasoline-electric hybrid, is still alive and kicking.

This two-seater coupe remains all but unchanged since its introduction in 2000, an aerodynamically designed little moppet of a car that gradually grew on me over my week with it.

The first question everyone asks is, "Where do you plug it in?" You don't.

Insight never runs on electricity alone. Its powerplant is a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine that produces 67 hp and 66 lb.-ft. of torque on its own. Sandwiched between the engine and transmission is Integrated Motor Assist, a thin electric motor powered by a battery located behind the passenger compartment and recharged by kinetic energy when braking.

When the gas engine needs more power to accelerate, the IMA kicks in and they run together, yielding 73 hp at 5,700 rpm, and 91 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,000 rpm.

It's a seamless transition; if you weren't watching the electronic dash, which indicates when the motor is assisting or charging, you wouldn't know.

The front-wheel-drive Insight is nowhere near as powerful as most conventional cars, but, then, if you could get something for nothing, SUVs would go from Toronto to Kingston on two litres of fuel while expelling pure oxygen out their tailpipes.

What this hatchback does give you is impressive fuel mileage: an average 3.5 L/100 km by the manufacturer's estimates, although in real-world, cold-weather driving I averaged 4.5 L.

And all that technology retails for $26,000, the cheapest (albeit the least powerful and smallest) hybrid available.

Perhaps the coolest trick is the car's idle-stop feature.

Come to a stop in the right conditions (automatic air conditioning off, braking under 30 km/h, outside temperature over 5 C) and the engine completely shuts off and uses no fuel. The radio, lights and turn signals will continue to operate. Put it in first gear, and the IMA starts the car up again.

Insight is strictly intended for two adults – because of its air bags, Honda doesn't recommend carrying children in it.

Insight comes exclusively with a five-speed manual transmission.

Its ground-hugging stance makes it tricky to enter and exit gracefully, and the ride is very harsh.

In its favour, this Honda offers tonnes of rear cargo space (everything behind the seats is flat, with a small hidden box), good visibility through its two rear windows, a well-designed instrument panel with no obstructions, and more leg- and shoulder-room than you'd expect from a car this small.

I even love the controversial styling, which reminds me of the Citroen my brother used to own.

Pricing is all-inclusive; as is to be expected on a low-production car. But standard equipment includes ABS, lightweight alloy wheels, power windows and mirrors, power locks with keyless entry, air and AM/FM/CD with four speakers.

Warranty is always a major concern with innovative technology.

Honda offers eight-year/130,000 km on the motor assist components.

I got into the Insight as a skeptic; I got out as someone who would seriously consider it as a purchase.

This clever runabout is not for everyone, but its (ahem) electric personality just might win you over.

Jil McIntosh can be reached at jil @ ca.inter.net

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