I happened to be following an original Honda Insight the other day. I’m pretty sure it’s the closest I’ve ever been to one and I could count the number I’ve actually seen on the road on the fingers of one hand.
Its sleek lines and aerodynamic enclosed rear wheels reminded me of what a ground-breaking car this was when it first arrived in the UK at the turn of the millenium. It was the first hybrid to go on sale here, beating the Toyota Prius by several months, and was an incredibly brave move by Honda as they tried to convince the public that their hybrid cars were the way forward.
You could tell it was ahead of its time because most people didn’t really understand it. Some struggled with the concept of an electric engine working alongside a conventional petrol engine. Some didn’t see the need to sacrifice performance for economy when fuel was still relatively cheap at just 75p a litre. Others were put off by the high list price even though the Insight was one of the cheapest cars you could run.
And yet here we are, thirteen years later, and a car that can achieve 83mpg and only emit 80g/km of CO2 is still considered ahead of the game. You know that new fad for downsizing to fewer cylinders, as recently seen in Fiat’s TwinAir and Ford’s Ecoboost? That’s so last decade. The Insight did that in 2000 with a 995cc 3-cylinder petrol engine.
How about making extensive use of aluminium to cut weight, improve economy and cut emissions? Yes, the Insight did that too, along with magnesium and plastics in the engine to keep it light. It’s aluminium body weighed half that of a Civic and yet it was more rigid. The result was a kerb weight of just 850kg and that’s including the battery packs and electric motor. The low weight helped it reach 60mph in 12.1 seconds, which might not sound quick until you realise it only had 66bhp at its disposal.
The problem for Honda, and indeed any other manufacturer working with internal combustion engines, is that they’re now at the point of diminishing returns. The amount of effort needed to squeeze an extra mile or two per gallon gets ever greater and requires more technology, adding to the cost and complexity of the engine. As it becomes increasingly difficult to squeeze extra economy from their petrol engine what does the future hold for hybrid cars?
With electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe proving that you can have green motoring and still travel further than the bottom of your road it seems like the hybrid, as originally envisaged by Honda and Toyota, is reaching the end of the road.
The obvious step is for hybrid technology to move closer to the electric car. Now it’s all about plug-in hybrids, or PHEVs, that use extra battery capacity to allow the car to travel short distances on electric power but keep the internal combustion engine for those longer trips. They’re proving to be very effective and, as I discovered when I tried the impressive Volvo V60 plug-in hybrid, they can be very, very quick too.
Ironically the fuel efficient revolution that was started by the Insight is now coming to the aid of the keen petrol head. The likes of the Insight and Prius may have been laughed at by the performance car community when they first appeared but now their green technology might be the only thing that keeps petrol-powered performance within the tightening grip of emissions regulations.
Can’t see it happening? Look at what Porsche are doing with their new 918 supercar. It’s a hybrid that bolts an electric engine to a screaming V8, gifting it with stonking performance when both engines are working together but also allowing it to make a mockery of the official EU economy and emissions figures.
Ferrari and McLaren are it too with their LaFerrari and P1 supercars. They’re using electric technology derived from their F1 teams to both boost performance and record ridiculously low emissions. This is the sort of technology that will gradually evolve and filter its way from today’s hypercars to tomorrow’s sports coupes and hot hatchbacks.
Early rumours of the next Focus RS suggested it might be a four-wheel drive hybrid with the electric motors powering the rear wheels. That might prove to be off the mark (Ford are now talking about using just a 2.0 Ecoboost) but the fact that they were even considering it tells you the direction the performance car is heading.
And, of course, Honda have their CR-Z coupe. It’s a two-seater hybrid just like the original Insight but it’s much quicker and looks great. It might not be the eco-warrior that the Insight was but it’s a decent compromise between performance and economy.
So really we should be grateful to the Honda Insight. What may have seemed like a sop to the environmentalists over a decade ago may turn out to be the only way we get to enjoy petrol-powered fun in the future.