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Honda takes the next giant step along the hybrid highway

Honda has passed the next great milestone on the road to a greener future with the 2010 Insight Hybrid.

  • The image of cars on a parking

Honda has passed the next great milestone on the road to a greener future with the 2010 Insight Hybrid.

Smaller than a Honda Civic, the Insight five-door hatchback seats five adults, has a flat cargo floor with the back seat folded and can travel up to 640 km on one 40-litre tank of gas.

Fuel economy is estimated at 4.8/4.5/4.7L/100 km (58/62/60 mpg) city/highway/combined.

The Insight doesn’t go on sale until Earth Day (April 22) and pricing has yet to be announced, but it will be “competitive” with its main rival, the Toyota Prius.

The heart of the Insight is its fifth generation IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) system that first bowed on the original two-seat Honda Insight a decade ago.

IMA uses energy stored in a battery pack to provide extra power to the engine when needed. What is different is the new IMA allows the Insight to run on pure battery power under certain low load conditions.

A 1.3-litre, four-cylinder gasoline engine and a 10-kilowatt electric motor are the power source of the IMA system. Combined, they produce 98 hp and 123 lb/ft of torque.

An ultra-thin brushless DC motor is located between the engine and the CVT transmission. During acceleration, the motor adds power. Under braking or gentle deceleration, it acts as a generator capturing kinetic energy to recharge the battery.

When you come to a stop, the engine turns off and the Insight runs on the battery. When you move off, the engine comes back on. Honda calls this Idle Stop.

The seven-module nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery is composed of 84 D-size (1.2 volt) cells giving a total of 100.8 volts and a capacity of 5.7 ampere-hours. Because it has fewer than the 11 modules in the Civic Hybrid, Honda engineers were able to place it under the floor along with the Intelligent Power Unit (IPU) that controls the IMA system. Besides the battery pack, the IPU contains the power control unit (ECU) and electric control unit (ECU) along with the cooling system for the battery pack.

Compared to the IMA in the Civic Hybrid, the Insight’s IPU is 19 per cent smaller and 28 per cent lighter. The beauty is it all sits below the floor between the rear wheels instead of up behind the rear seat as in the Civic. The benefit is a flat cargo floor (with the 60/40 back seat down) that is 1,935 mm long with a capacity of 891 litres.

Despite its complexity, the Insight is straightforward to drive, but there are some interesting extras.

The layout of the instrument panel is like the Civic with an upper tier for the digital speed readout and a lower tier for the tachometre and fuel level. But on the upper level, the speed (shown in numerals) is backed by a colour band that is coloured blue when fuel is being used aggressively.

It turns blue-green when the driving style is moderate and then green when fuel is being consumed efficiently. So at a glance you can tell if you are been good or bad to the environment.

On the lower tier to the left of the tach is a needle that swings up and down between blue at the top and green at the bottom to let the driver know when the battery is expending power or getting a regenerative charge.

At the centre of the lower tier is the Multi-Information Display (MID) that does a number of things like give range, instant mileage and average fuel economy.

But one of its functions is the Eco Guide. Your fuel consumption. A series of five little plants are shown. As you temper your driving style, little leaves will sprout out. The better you are with the gas, the more leaves you get.

At the same time there is a line below the plants with a bar that extends out to the left or right. This shows how much power is being drained from the IPU under load and how much is going back under braking and coasting from regeneration.

In real life, the system is easy to see and understand at a glance.

But wait, there’s more.

To the left of the steering wheel is a green button marked “ECON”. Push it and the IMA is recalibrated for enhanced fuel economy by limiting power by four per cent, making Idle Stop come into play sooner, running the air conditioning in recirculation mode and reducing fan speed while smoothing out the CVT gearing changes.

Why, you ask, if ECON is better, did Honda bother with two modes?

Hondas are supposed to always be responsive and sporty. So what the engineers decided was to have one mode for driving when you need more power like merging onto highways and another for stretching each litre to the max.

I drove the Insight on ECON during 90 per cent of my seat time. My main aim was to keep the colour band in the green no matter what to see how far and fast I could be.

The trick was to get up to speed in the blue/green and then just lift enough to get into the green. At one point I was doing 60 mph (in an American spec car). Above that, however, it was hard to do. But at the equivalent of 100 km/h, that’s just fine.

I did not plot my average mileage or overall Eco Score but will do that in a complete road test later this year. I did get five trees and all but one of 10 leaves.

Several journalists at the press launch noted the Insight bore a passing resemblance to the current Prius. More than flattery, it’s a case of form following function.

Honda did everything to lower drag from moving the radio antenna to the back of the car and adding body strakes near the wheels to smooth out turbulence to making the underneath of the Insight like one, big flat panel. The result was a lozenge shape but with a drag coefficient of 0.28, better than a lot of racecars.

And don’t think that just because the Insight gives new meaning to the term “economy car” that it is cheaply turned out.

There will be two trim levels in Canada starting with the LX that features climate control, power locks/windows/doors, remote entry, cruise control and more.

The EX adds stability control, alloy wheels, steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, Honda’s navigation system with bilingual voice recognition and Bluetooth connectivity.

Unsaid at the unveiling of the Insight was the sense Honda is turning its attention to positioning itself as the “affordable” green car company as the slightly larger Civic Hybrid will continue to be sold on the same showroom floor.

And with the 2010 Insight, Honda has made a great first step in that direction.

AT A GLANCE HONDA INSIGHT HYBRID 2010

BODY STYLE: Compact hybrid hatchback.

DRIVE METHOD: front-engine, front-wheel-drive.

ENGINE: 1.3-litre SOHC inline four-cylinder engine and 10 kilowatt electric motor (98 hp, 123 lb/ft)

FUEL ECONOMY: (Est.) 4.8/4.5/4.7L/100 km (58/62/60 mpg) city/highway/combined

www.honda.ca

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