By on November 11, 2008

Once upon a time, Honda represented everything that Detroit was not. Efficient, lean, reliable and most of all, innovative. While The Big Three soldiered-on with the same powertrains for decades on end, Honda constantly renewed, redesigned and released cars that genuinely improved their customer’s lives. Profits and widespread admiration followed… until the Honda hybrids came along. Then Honda, long regarded as the technology leader, got its ass kicked by Toyota. What happened?

The 1999 Insight was an absolute masterpiece of technology. Honda coupled a 70 hp. 1.0L engine (with an air fuel ratio of 25.8) to a 13 horsepower electric motor. It was ‘Wow!’ technology back in the Clinton Era. At only 1847 pounds, with a wind whispering 0.25 Cd, the Insight generated exceptionally high fuel economy numbers (70/61) for their customers. What customers? This was an especially difficult question to answer as the Insight was not ready for prime time.

The ‘Integrated Motor Assist’ technology wasn’t the problem. Simply put, the Honda was a niche vehicle. At the turn of the century, with gas at a buck a gallon, the high-tech fuel-miser niche that was so small that the Insight literally offered a zero carbon imprint on dealer’s lots.

Honda optimistically projected 6500 sales for for the model year 2000 Honda Insight. Dealers unloaded a measly 3805 units during the hybrid’s first full year of release. And that was the high water mark. Worse, the sales failure killed the Insight’s evolution. For seven full years, the model’s design and technology became stuck in neutral, with limited modifications. That was where the real tragedy for Honda took shape.

While Honda was initially content with having a long model run and a limited market, Toyota had other plans.

When the first generation compact Prius was released in Japan in 1997, Toyota’s Corolla had officially become the world’s best-selling vehicle. The Prius was designed as a hybrid-only model from Day One. Toyota fully redesigned the Prius in succeeding generations to accommodate the changing nuances of the hybrid buyer.

At first the Prius failed. It racked-up just 5562 U.S. sales in 2000. Even as gas prices rose, both Toyota and Honda were besieged with anti-hybrid issues and innuendos. Both companies had to deal with the financial fears associated with battery packs. Warranties were extended, and some customer assistance was offered.

But Toyota– not Honda– used adversity as a PR tool. Before long Toyota was highlighting battery failures in 56 degree below zero Arctic weather and proudly proclaiming that no other battery had ever needed to be replaced. It wasn’t factually correct (a.k.a. complete bullshit) but the story played well with the general public.

By 2003, Honda was putting the same technology in the Insight (with minor modifications) into the Honda Civic. They gave the conversion more torque, an extra 300cc’s of displacement and a bit more engine heft. Speaking of heft, at 2700 pounds, Honda’s CVT transmissions would now power a vehicle that was nearly 850 pounds heavier than the Insight.

It didn’t take long before Consumer Reports and a rash of owner review sights began to highlight the very expensive and frequent transmission work requireed to keep the Honda Civic hybrid on the road. After a few battles, Honda upped the transmission warranty to 100k and agreed to replace or modify components in the hopes of avoiding the inevitable. Unfortunately, with cases of third and fourth transmissions being replaced within 100k, the Civic Hybrid began to lose serious traction with the public.

While these Civics sat with their Taurus quality transmissions, the Prius was garnering reliability awards from J.D. Power, Consumer Reports, and was quickly becoming the de-facto poster child of a mass ‘hybrid’ market. Honda had abandoned a sheetmetal design projecting their hybrid model’s green, high-tech, Space Age credentials (albeit in a less-than-practical two-seater) for a mass market clone car. The Prius’ shape morphed in the exact opposite direction, from flat-line Echo cardiogram to an Insightful hybrid statement.

With gas prices in the upswing, the Prius’ aspiring hypermilers and the eco-conscious consumers were soon joined by those simply looking at the economic proposition of ownership. By 2005, with a second ground-up redesign, the Prius passed 100k annual sales, heading for over a million hybrids sold worldwide by 2007. In the same year, Honda would sputter-out only 32k Civic Hybridss, 3400 Accord Hybrids), and three of the now defunct Insight. Honda now had a full fledged failure on it’s hands.

Beneath the skin, much of Honda’s failure in the hybrid market can be traced to the same shortsightedness and bad customer support that’s afflicting the Detroit Big 3. The depressed valuations and bad owner reviews for the past Honda Hybrids will undoubtedly make the 2010 Honda Insight a far tougher sell.

Should Honda offer a stronger warranty on their new vehicles? Should they simply recall the defective transmissions and offer a longer warranty for current owners? It’s easy to say yes. But every automaker has to draw their own line is between taking care of the customer, and taking care of the bottom line.

As these pictures demonstrate, Honda is determined to take-on the Priora of the world with a kick-ass hybrid. That isn’t afraid to look like a knock-off of its direct, perhaps only competitor. Priced to go. With (one hopes) brand-faithful reliability. Even so, Honda will need to figure-out how to take on a rival who kept their product exclusively focused on a very unique and evolving customer. As Honda and The Bailout Big 3 are learning, the road to redemeption is long and perilous, with persistence, determination and humility providing the best chances of success.

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49 Comments on “Editorial: In Search of: Honda’s Hybrids...”


  • avatar
    philbailey

    Taurus quality transmissions?
    Why pick on Ford?
    When Chrysler was far, far worse.
    Now if you want to talk cylinder head gaskets, you may have a point.

    And the Prius has suffered and still suffers, from more problems than you care to highlight.

    To wit: Dell laptop style self immolation, sudden shut down while on the highways, cautionary approach by rescue crews because of high voltages involved and on and on…..

    Hopefully, Honda has studied these problems and overcome some of them. Maybe not the rescue warnings, those will always remain.

  • avatar
    briancataldi

    I can at least say that Honda has learned their lesson a lot faster than the Big 3 and next year I think the new Inisght will be a new breath for consumer’s who are looking for hybrids and would like a bit more variety in the market place. The Volt will not even be in the running with the roughly 40K price tag and as always questionable reliability. Long Live Honda!

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    it’s poker game all over…

    As with the domestics, Toyota has a bigger purse than Honda, and can think and plan in the long run.

    If the first gen Prius can be seen as a sales failure on the same level as the Insight, what Toyota did was not relent as Hondad did, but up the stakes, with massive initial losses at hand, but possible gains in the long run. Toyota claims the Prius makes a profit, but that can not be the case in the early 2000’s. Not only did they loose money on every vechicle sold, they put a massive amount of cash in pr to make the Prius a household name. Remember that year at the Oscars, with 200 Priuses as courtesy cars for the stars? That was the turnaround year.

    The difference is, had the domestics been in a similar situation, not only had they canned the Prius at that state, but they would certainly not have pumped in billions of dollars in pr to turn the situation around. Toyotas gamble paid off, Honda did not have the cash or the insight (sic) to play that game at such a high level.

  • avatar
    Orian

    Dell laptop immolation? The Prius does not use Lithium Ion batteries, so what kind of spontaneous combustion are you referring to?

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The depressed valuations and bad owner reviews for the past Honda Hybrids will undoubtedly make the 2010 Honda Insight a far tougher sell.

    I doubt this. This editorial was the first I’d heard of transmission failures being epidemic. The Honda = Problematic meme would need time to gain traction. It’s not immediately apparent on Consumer Reports, and a casual Google for “civic hybrid transmission” shows very different results from, say, “caravan transmission”.

    If Honda fails, it’s because they, like GM, don’t “get” the hybrid market.

  • avatar
    Robstar

    When I was looking for my first new car in 2005 I looked far & wide for an insight — and couldn’t find one for sale. Dealers couldn’t even get them. “They just aren’t popular”. After that I said “whatever” and decided on a sports car instead.

    Whoops: Forgot to mention: The prius was on a 6 month wait at the time I looked for my car. No way I was waiting 6 months.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Interesting story. Ask the vast majority of people and they would just assume that the Civic was reliable. I guess that is the luxury you have with a really good reputation. But was it really necessary to state “Taurus quality” transmissions? The Civic problems were in vehicles built in the 2000’s model years. Taurus transmission teething pains were over long before that. Taurus websites have plenty of people with 200K plus on their cars. I have come to expect a Detroit slap in every story, as they have made plenty of fodder, but at least make it relevant. By the way, “site” not “sight”.

  • avatar
    dreamtech

    Honda is so inconsistent. Personally I think they suck. They only brought out the original Insight to be the first car company to sell a hybrid in the US. They wanted to beat the Prius to the USA and as a result they delivered a 2 seat hatch which was not useful for American buyers. The Prius seats 5 and isn`t that much worse on mileage. Why does Honda need to copy the Prius styling. Don`t the Honda managers have any balls?

    How many more years to the design managers need to redesign their NSX? The RL is a turd.

  • avatar
    Fred D.

    Regarding Honda CVT reliability, check out the Dept. of Energy long term testing of hybrids:

    http://avt.inel.gov/hev.shtml

    As I recall, about half of their Insights and Civics required one or more transmission replacements over the lifetime of their long-term testing.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    golden2husky: The Taurus transmission issues took place over a 13 year model period (1985 – 1997) and like Honda, they decided to keep the same defective design for several years instead of improving it.

    Robstar: I remember those times. The Insight didn’t catch even a slight second wind until after Katrina. By then it was already slated for the axe and the Prius had already become the dominating vehicle in the hybrid segment. Honda dealers didn’t order them because the product wasn’t price competitive.

    psarhjinian: Consumer Reports rated the CVT as worse than average and, to put kindly, you may want to look at a variety of owner review sites, hybrid focused sites, and really any site that assesses the reliability of the 1st generation Civic hybrid.

    Honda of North America fought tooth and nail with owners of the CVT’s and the battery packs. After a couple of class action lawsuits, Honda at first agreed to extend the warranty in certain states for both. But it made no rhyme or reason for why they did for some and not for others (other than the litigious nature of those states).

    Their recall logic as it pertains to those two items as well as the catalytic converter (parts cost $1500) is one of the strangest I’ve ever seen. You don’t get the software upgrade until AFTER the car’s diagnostic gives a code showing that there’s already a problem. Some of these software upgrades now cost over $150, even though they used to be free, and virtually all the others are available to the customer only after the problem has taken place.

    This type of strategy really doesn’t encourage customer satisfaction, which is one of many reasons why the Honda hybrids didn’t sell well.

    Ingvar: Honda had the money. They just had a strategy which primarily focused on the technology rather than the emerging customer interest. It’s a hard thing to predict and had Toyota’s look and quality for the Prius had not caught on, Honda may have become the leader in this segment… had it not been for their substandard customer service.

    Braincataldi: I wouldn’t bank on the Insight, or the Prius for that matter, until the market has dictated so. If gas goes under $50 a barrel and stays in that range for the next couple of years, both models will more than likely not meet their sales goals.

    Philbailey: Toyota has a far better record of taking care of owner’s problems. It’s not even close between the two. Chrysler was ‘worse’ with their Ultradrive transmissions during the early 1990’s. But they also took care of their customers far better than Ford and Honda when it came to issues.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultradrive

  • avatar
    Bytor

    Toyotas HSD is the superior system. It doesn’t actually use a CVT. It uses dual electric motors and planetary gears. This setup is extremely reliable.

    If you want an automatic hybrid Toyota is clearly the better choice.

    Honda IMA has only one advantage. You can use a manual transmission, but North America is unlikely to get one in the Insight, because on average North Americans drive automatics.

    I would buy a manual Insight if they give us the option, but I wouldn’t touch the CVT, simply because I don’t like CVTs, and that is before I even think of the reliability issues.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Honda also found that the manual transmission will actually drain the battery to a far greater degree than the CVT. The number of battery and battery component replacements for the 5-speed vehicles is extremely high and Honda eventually had to change their strategy due to the difficulty in keeping the batteries charged.

    It would have been far better for Honda to have simply advertised a longer warranty for their hybrid when the problems first surfaced. The Civic and Insight are far more fun to drive than the Prius (really!) and Toyota really didn’t have a strong advantage until the 2nd generation Prius came into being.

    I’m still convinced Honda could have made inroads, even with a less reliable technology, had they been willing to address the reliability issue. Instead they performed cost/benefit analysis that resulted in short-term fixes and piecemeal warranties that only a bean counter could be comfortable with.

  • avatar
    autonut

    I drove original Insight in 2001 with manual transmission. The manual was a gem, the car wasn’t. It did not handle well and I got 33 mpg in typical California driving. I could get the same mileage in 1992 Camry with manual transmission (minus silkiness of operation). I could not understand fascination with electric motor and batteries. If you would drop them off, lighter car would get better mileage and would handle better.

  • avatar
    Bytor

    Do you have a link to this information about the 5 speed draining the battery more?

    The battery drain is under their control, once it gets low, don’t give out anymore juice. It is as simple as that.

    Other than that some driver education might be necessary (Don’t declutch while braking until you are about to stop) and maybe a change in the program. It should be charging anytime you take your foot off the gas giving a stronger engine braking effect.

  • avatar
    SherbornSean

    Steven,
    You make some interesting points. But the idea that Toyota is focused on hybrid customers while Honda is not may need to be revised soon.

    I think the primary issue with hybrids is that no one has really figured out who the customer is and what they want. We know what customers do not want:
    – a small two-seater (Insight)
    – a powerful midsized sedan (Accord V6)
    – large SUVs (GM dual mode)

    Similarly, hybrid crossovers, like the Escape, Vue and Hylander/RX have done alright, but not great. Only the Prius has sold abundantly.

    My take is that there are a lot of people who want a $20K commuter car that gets 50 MPG. This is the sweet spot the new Insight is aimed at, and I think Honda finally has it right.

    We’ll know more in the spring.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Consumer Reports rated the CVT as worse than average and, to put kindly, you may want to look at a variety of owner review sites, hybrid focused sites, and really any site that assesses the reliability of the 1st generation Civic hybrid.

    I’m not disputing that, I’m just saying that you have to dig to find out that information because it isn’t common knowledge. Consumer Reports does have little black circles (in an otherwise sea of red) in the Transmission category on a few years of the hybrid, but they don’t actually rate it that poorly overall: it comes out below average on only two model years. To a CR reader, that’s not going to raise much of a flag

    Again, not disputing that the problem exists, but that the real reason Honda failed to move hybrids is their failure to understand the hybrid market, not the quality of their product. Honda’s hybrids have been either cramped, slow and impractical, or fast but not particularly thrifty. GM Marketing made the same mistake: to them, hybrids were either hairshirt fuel-misers, or features to add to a top-line model.

    Toyota sold hybrids in number because they built a car that people wanted to buy: practical (unlike the Civic or Insight), thrifty (unlike the Accord) and well-priced (unlike the any of Honda’s efforts). If Honda had offered a four-door hatchback Civic (or Fit) with a hybrid powertrain, or a hybrid Element, CR-V or Odyssey equipped with a IMA-assisted four-cylinder, they might have had more luck.

    If you want mass-market sales numbers, you need a car with mass-market appeal. That the new Insight looks shows that they’re finally got a clue. The Volt shows that GM still hasn’t.

  • avatar
    volvo

    But every automaker has to draw their own line is between taking care of the customer, and taking care of the bottom line.

    We have seen how well this worked for Detroit.

    As Honda and The Bailout Big 3 are learning, the road to redemption is long and perilous, with persistence, determination and humility providing the best chances of success.

    Not really. The Hyundai model of rebirth is there. Offer a 100,000 mile 7 year bumper to bumper warranty (if you convince your customers you will be around in 7 years) and price your product 10% lower than the competition. Turnaround will only take a couple of years. If you cannot do that and stay in business then your road will indeed be long and perilous and you might not make it.

    I rented a Civic Hybrid once. Drivability was not the best. Jerkiness between electric and gas modes.

    Insight was not a practical car for most of the US. 2 seats and less than reassuring on a busy highway or freeway.

  • avatar
    Redshift

    Honestly, from my experience, I just assume the transmission is going to be the weak point in a Honda.
    Their automatics have been notoriously bad (my parents 2001 Accord had a transmission replaced after 2 years under warranty) and there are numerous stories of failures on Accords/TLs etc.

    My manual 99 Civic SiR coupe had the transmission basically explode (the parts list was 3 pages long) when the car was 4 years old, and a friend of mines 2007 Si coupe just had the transmission replaced under a recall that was finally issued after owners crying for one for over a year.

    I really do like Honda, I have owned several, but have always treated their transmissions as an achiles heel.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I would add the Camry to the list of hybrids that are selling well. For much of this past year the hybrid has actually outsold their v6 model.

    Bytor: It’s common knowledge in the hybrid community. The software for the use of the manual transmission is different than the CVT. The 5-speed focuses primarily on fuel efficiency while the CVT’s were tuned towards achieving lower (SULEV) emissions. The by-product of it all this is that the manual transmission versions will not manage the battery life as well as the CVT although it will offer greater fuel efficiency.

    http://priuschat.com/forums/freds-house-pancakes/1748-dying-batteries-in-honda-insight.html

    I also believe, anecdotally, that 5-speed drivers will usually be more aggressive than those who drive the automatics. The automatics seem to discourage high rpms while the manuals are far more free wheeling. The heavier the foot, the greater the drain in the battery pack. The battery for the IMA system also has a much larger range of depletion (15% vs. 40%) during it’s operations than the Prius which is one of the main reasons why they usually don’t last nearly as long.

    Insight Central and CleanMPG also highlight the issue in much greater detail.

  • avatar
    Bytor

    Anecdotal information is essentially useless. You need the actual global numbers. My Ford ZX2 ate it’s manual transmission when it was 4 months old and less than 3000 miles.

    I have a buddy that does track days and pushes hard on his cars. He goes through a set of tires every every summer and has owned and tracked Civic Si, Integra Type R, and now an S2000. He has never had transmission work. I know tons of people with Hondas, I know some that have had auto tranny failures but none on the manual side.

    But again all of the above means nothing. Anecdotal info is useless compared to actual stats.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    Very interesting and useful posting. I’m disappointed to hear Honda’s approach to its transmission problems because Toyota’s products are so mind-numbingly boring. All else being equal, I would much rather DRIVE a Honda. But I also highly prize reliability in a daily driver. I hope Honda gets its act together by the time I’m looking for a hybrid in a few years.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    CVTs have been a reliability nightmare in most cases where they have been tried. The old DAF company of Holland went bust and was sold to Volvo in part because of problems with it’s innovative CVT. The recent GM/Fiat joint venture CVT factory in Europe produced the Saturn VTi branded CVT which was a failure and resulted in a class action settlement. Ford tried CVTs on the Five Hundred, then backed away.

    Besides reliability problems, the other issue with CVTs is that they don’t achieve the hoped for better fuel efficiency.

    BTW, thank you for the interesting and informative back story Mr. Lang!

    All of this is, I suspect, moot for the near term with lower fuel prices. Next year Honda and Toyota might be looking at a glut of hybrids.

  • avatar
    austinseven

    Actually, Honda did have a major problem with second gear in its automatic transmissions failing due to poor lubrication supply.

    Every owner I know of has had the routine “colonoscope” examination of the transmission during routine maintenance – not all transmissions needed any work and the warranty has been quietly extended.

    Toyota went through a similar experience with their new five speed auto transmissions, since some of them felt like the cars were running over rumble strips when they shifted.

    That being said, there’s no doubt that Japanese transmissions have been superior in terms of longevity over the years.

  • avatar
    austinseven

    Nissan seems to have overcome most of the CVT problems of yesteryear.

    Even the first Muranos still seem to be surviving, even though some have humungous towing hitches attached and even though towing heavy loads with a CVT is said to a big no-no.

    Which is all to the good, because a CVT will cost twice or three times as much to repair/replace than that of a conventional transmission, when the time comes.

  • avatar
    Michael Ayoub

    The best thing to do with an old Insight is to swap out the hybrid system — including the engine — and throw in a K-series engine in instead.

    Et voilà: http://forums.dieselstation.com/index.php?showtopic=23902

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Which is all to the good, because a CVT will cost twice or three times as much to repair/replace than that of a conventional transmission, when the time comes.

    Why is that? I ask because a CVT is mechanically simple compared even to a manual, and certainly next to a six-or-more speed automatic or sequential manual. There’s so little to go wrong I can’t fathom why it’d cost more to replace.

  • avatar
    M1EK

    Once again with the “just lose the battery weight” canard. Even with the Insight, the extra horsepower of the electric motor was essential to make it remotely feasible to drive on such a small gas engine.

  • avatar
    whatdoiknow1

    With the except of the Fit, Honda does not sell a single hatchback or wagon in the USA that is not a jacked up wannabe SUV. On the otherhand Toyota sells the Scion xB, xD, Matrix, the new Venza, and the Prius. The irony is that the Fit was an afterthought for the USA market.

    This Accord and Civic are excellent cars IF you only desire a coupe or sedan. If you are looking for that vesatility that once made Honda a unique brand you are out of luck today.

    The mistake Honda is making in the USA is doing something that no one really asked for and that is the “Americanization” of there vehicles. In the here and now Honda will do just fine but in the future HOnda will find itself like many automakers today in search of an indentity.

    This topic is very interesting because I think we can already see were Honda is hurting itself in the US marketplace. I guess honda used one of those stupid surveys that claimed Americans do not like hatches or wagons and decided they could save a bundle by dropping these models from the USA lineup. This is a play for the average Joe in the USA who was NEVER the average Honda customer.
    Just like your average SAAB fan was never a 4 door sedan type of guy/girl.

    The Civic and Accord hybrids do not sell well because they offer ZERO advantages over a lower price Civic or Accord. Why buy a Accord V6 Hybrid when you could just by a 4cyl Accord for far less money and nearly the same gas mileage. The same goes with the Civic. It is hard to pay more up front for a car based on EXPECTED savings over the long term when you can buy essentially the same car for much less out the door.

    The Prius is a success because it is NOT a Camry or Corolla. In addition to it hybrid powertrain it also offers up some unique attributes and a great deal more utility than a 4 door corolla or Camry.

    This were Honda is NOT Toyota. Like em or hate em one must admit that Toyota has an uncanny feel for what the market wants and the ability to get it to market while the demand is still fresh.
    The current RAV4 and the new Venza is a fine example of this. The RAV4 is the cute-ute that is actually VERY useful with its interior volume advantage and a very powerful engine IF you need it. The Venza is the not quite CUV that does still offer up some real advantages over a sedan based wagon. This is contrast to Honda which keeps making its car based CUV/ wannabe SUVs more and more “truck” looking.

    The styling of Honda’s next gen Hybrid is sad admittance that Honda has been caught with an empty bag of tricks this go around and are playing catch up to a gaint that they CANT catch.

    To see that Toyota is giving honda a beating on the unique, querky product front is very interesting. The fault lies with Honda trying to be Toyota without the resources or model lineup to play the same game.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Ford tried CVTs on the Five Hundred, then backed away.

    That had more to do with marketing than mechanical robustness. People–especially enthusiasts–don’t like the way they behave. They feel like a slipping automatic when they’re doing what they were designed for: keeping the engine in it’s optimal powerband for a given task.

    People miss the combination of revvs, shifts and accompanying accelerative shoves after a shift and think the car is slow. It’s not, at least not by the numbers, but since acceleration is linear it “feels” slow.

    The other issue is the odd, off-accelerator creep. It’s different than in an automatic, and feels strange.

    Besides reliability problems, the other issue with CVTs is that they don’t achieve the hoped for better fuel efficiency.

    Actually, they do, but manufacturers have been inserting false ‘steps’ into their gearing to make them feel like an automatic, which sabotages their efficiency. You end up with a CVT aping an automatic, which is silly.

    I was party to instrumented testing of the manual, auto and CVT versions of the Nissan Versa. The CVT was the fastest and most efficient, the auto the slowest, but the test drivers all felt that the CVT-equipped Versa was the slowest of the bunch.

    I will contend that they’re not really built for towing loads, but the technology is still fairly young. Nissan has done some good work in this space.

  • avatar

    very interesting. thanks

  • avatar
    Gary Numan

    I want Honda to do well and they have produced some great products and have made all automakers step up and be more competitive and thus, we consumers end up with better products to chose from.

    That said, Honda is losing it in my humble opinion. Styling for both Acura and Honda is scaring me. The only “true” Honda that stands firm to the old Honda brand promise is that of the Fit. Sure, I’ll give some kudos to the S2000, Element and Odyssey. But other than that, all other Hondas leave me cold.

    Honda used to be a clear leader in engine size to horsepower, a leader in low vehicle weight and a leader in mpg. Not so true anymore. When you see Chevy Malibu ads touting better mpg than Honda Accord ads, the general public takes notice.

    Reliability and service were another hallmark for Honda too. Not so much in recent years too. Have you priced your local Honda dealer for what they charge for simpy draining 3 qts out of your tranny and refilling? And let’s not forget tranny failures looming out there too.

    Honda is losing its Edge. How can we convince them to find the errors of their ways? Should we petition for them to bring vehicles like the Stream stateside?

  • avatar
    rudiger

    There are a couple of inaccuracies in the article. Although similiar in appearance to the first Japanese ’97-’00 Prius (NHW10), the improved NHW11 Prius was introduced in the US for MY01, not 2000.

    Although that first gen car wasn’t a sales blockbuster, as a four-door sedan, it was certainly a lot more practical than the diminutive Insight. The second generation NHW20 Prius made its appearance for MY04, not 2005.

    In essence, it appears the article is saying that the first generation Prius was sold in the US for five years (MY00 to MY04) when, in fact, it was just three years (MY01 to MY03). It’s a minor point, but one worth clarifying.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Steven Lang: “The battery for the IMA system also has a much larger range of depletion (15% vs. 40%) during it’s operations than the Prius which is one of the main reasons why they usually don’t last nearly as long.”This is a critical element in how Toyota has managed to corner the market on effective hybrid application and why the second generation Prius was such a breakthrough.

    Toyota’s main hybrid feat was finding the proper ECM algorithm that balances battery use with longevity to the maximum possible effectiveness, the so-called battery ‘sweet-spot’. No other car company has managed to figure this out as well. Other hybrids have a tendancy to either quickly deplete the battery, severely limiting life (Honda), or maintaining battery longevity to the detriment of a performance improvement which doesn’t justify the cost (GM).

  • avatar
    John Horner

    “CVTs is that they don’t achieve the hoped for better fuel efficiency”

    Check out the EPA numbers for 2006 Ford Five Hundred with the CVT or optional 6 speed automatic. 18/25mpg for the CVT and 19/26 for the automatic. This is one of the few cases where a car has been available with either a CVT or a conventional automatic.

    http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/findacar.htm

    Likewise, when the Insight was available with your choice of a manual transmission or the CVT, the numbers were: CVT: 45/49mpg, 5 speed manual: 48/58

    Mini Cooper: CVT: 23/31, 5-speed manual: 24/33

    As I understand it, the problem is that CVTs have high internal losses due to the hydraulics which must be constantly powered to keep the adjustable pulley halves at the correct, but always changing, spacing. These losses are high enough to negate the theoretical optimum engine operating point gains. Modern engines with variable valve trains and highly sophisticated engine management computers have a much broader band of nearly optimal operating conditions than did the fixed valve train engines of old.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    rudiger, it didn’t make the final edit that I did before giving it to RF. In fact what we call the 1st generation Prius is in actuality a second generation model. You’re right about the time length as well. Text will be amended.

  • avatar

    They’re undercutting the Prius in price – that should move the Honda despite any other factors.

  • avatar
    Honda_Lover

    I want a Honda hybrid CR-V that will cost no more then 20K and give me average 50mpg. Honda can do it!

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Actually, my bad. I never made a direct mention of generations.

    “At first the Prius failed. It racked-up just 5562 U.S. sales in 2000.”

    But your point is still taken rudiger. The first generation Prius never made it to the North American market.

  • avatar
    James2

    Besides the relative failures of Honda’s hybrids, the larger question is: What is happening to Honda? Isn’t this supposed to be the most engineering-driven of the Japanese carmakers? The innovation the author mentions in the first paragraph has completely evaporated. All Honda can do now is build a Prius-lookalike.

    Had the original Insight had a rear seat –and maybe visible rear wheels– and it might have done better. As it is, though, it’s just a toy that appeals to only hardcore eco-drivers. Like the CR-X before it, its design intentionally limits its market appeal.

  • avatar
    Honda_Lover

    James2

    Any evidence that Honda isn’t an innovator? I can’t stand the relentless negativity against one of the great automakers of our time. Last I checked, Honda has a better reputation for reliability these days then Toyota.

  • avatar
    folkdancer

    All Honda can do now is build a Prius-lookalike.

    How many shapes are there for a car that will carry 4 people, their luggage, travel at 70 to 80 mph, and get 48.6 mpg? That is what my Prius did on a recent trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix.

    The old Citroen ID 19 tear drop type shape is still the best.

  • avatar

    Amory Lovins drives an Insight. ‘Nuff said.

  • avatar
    ghillie

    I don’t agree with a lot of what is said about the Insight in this thread.

    The main site is InsightCentral.net

    It’s a pretty good site. I couldn’t find anything on there about high levels of CVT failure or even particular problems with the CVT. I don’t know about the Civic, but for the Insight I believe that the claim of high levels of CVT failure is not true. I would like to know where Steven has got his information on this.

    Manual transmission Insights do get substantially better mpg than CVT’s mainly because the engine in the CVT does not have “lean burn”. How much better depends a lot on how the car is driven. Insight CVT’s do not have “false steps”.

    Even with the Insight, the extra horsepower of the electric motor was essential to make it remotely feasible to drive on such a small gas engine.

    In the case of the Insight this is an overstatement. But there is no doubt that without IMS an Insight is less easy to drive and less fuel efficient.

    Steven Lang :
    The software for the use of the manual transmission is different than the CVT… The by-product of all this is that the manual transmission versions will not manage the battery life as well as the CVT although it will offer greater fuel efficiency.

    The issues with Insight batteries appears to be complex and I am no expert but I believe that what Steven says above is correct.

    However, I understand that Honda’s warranty on the Insight battery is now 10 years or 150,000 miles throughout the USA. The only class action I know of was about odometer accuracy in cars that were outside the mileage limit for warranty but inside the age limit.

    A read of the Insight Central site indicates that the great majority of owners are still getting battery replacement under warranty by Honda without argument.

    I doubt that any article about long term Honda Insight performance and problems can be considered properly informed unless a good review of the Insight Central site has been undertaken.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Ghillie, you need to read my article again.

    I wrote the following…

    “It didn’t take long before Consumer Reports and a rash of owner review sights began to highlight the very expensive and frequent transmission work requireed to keep the Honda Civic hybrid on the road. After a few battles, Honda upped the transmission warranty to 100k and agreed to replace or modify components in the hopes of avoiding the inevitable. Unfortunately, with cases of third and fourth transmissions being replaced within 100k, the Civic Hybrid began to lose serious traction with the public.”

    You have the right idea, wrong car. At 1850 pounds the Insight didn’t have any serious issues with the CVT transmission. The Civic was a completely different story. Honda has needed to make several hardware and software upgrades in order to improve it’s reliability. Everyone from the Department of Energy to Consumer Reports have already highlighted this issue.

    I do take issue with Honda’s handling of the CVT issues, the battery issues (until late 2006), and the catalytic converter replacements. As I mentioned Honda advocated a piecemeal strategy that effectively helped some owners and not others. For example, the 150k battery warranty you mentioned was only enacted in certain states at first. Why they decided to include California and New Mexico into the mix if heat was an issue, but not Alabama, Georgia or New Mexico is beyond me unless there are other (legal) factors involved.

    Even now a Civic Hybrid owner will have to pay for certain software upgrades which, I’m sorry, strikes me as ridiculous. If Volvo can offer a 10 year / 200,000 mile warranty on their ECM issue, Honda should easily be able to offer a similar standard when it comes to a software upgrade without charging the customers $150 for it. Honda dealers and their parent have effectively made a multiple amount more money than a marginal niche player like Volvo, and at the very least I would expect them to stand behind their products. Especially when the technology behind them is costly for consumers to replace.

    I’ve had the Civic hybrid (only replaced an 02 sensor), as well as both Priuses and a TDI. I genuinely liked the Civic. But the IMA technology simply isn’t as robust as Toyota’s or VW’s. It’s a shame because I really did find the Civic to be a more satisfying vehicle to drive than the other two. If Honda offered a warranty on the Civic Hybrid that would protect the owners from the unusually high costs of parts replacement on this vehicle (or at least subsidize those costs), the enthusiast community for Honda hybrids would be far greater than it is at the moment. Keep in mind that the Civic version was the best selling version of their hybrids since 2003.

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    Sorry to be off-topic, but I posted something in this article a couple hours ago, but my comments never showed up. This has been happening with increasing frequency over the course of the last month or so.

    Any ideas?

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    I’ll try this again; though by now, this editorial is probably off of the main page, and it may not matter what I say. Heh. Oh well, here goes:

    philbailey :

    …the Prius has suffered and still suffers, from more problems than you care to highlight.

    Okay, now you’ve got my attention!

    To wit: Dell laptop style self immolation, sudden shut down while on the highways, cautionary approach by rescue crews because of high voltages involved and on and on…..

    Wow, you’ve really got it in for the Prius, using these old scare topics. I have had none of those problems with my 2004 Prius, and neither have the people I know who also drive the 2004 or later Prius.

    And all high voltage cabling is easily recognizable, being in bright orange casing. First responders mostly know this by now, what with the Prius having been in the US market for what…8 or 9 years?

    Steven Lang to Philbailey: Toyota has a far better record of taking care of owner’s problems. It’s not even close between the two. Chrysler was ‘worse’ with their Ultradrive transmissions during the early 1990’s. But they also took care of their customers far better than Ford and Honda when it came to issues.

    You’re right, Steven; it’s not even close.

    Although I was disappointed when I recently learned that my hybrid coolant pump needed to be replaced, and it was not covered under the hybrid components warranty.

    At least the work was done correctly, and I didn’t find spare parts on the bottom of my passenger footwell.

  • avatar
    James2

    Any evidence that Honda isn’t an innovator? I can’t stand the relentless negativity against one of the great automakers of our time. Last I checked, Honda has a better reputation for reliability these days then Toyota.

    Even on this site (not to mention, Autoblog) many have cited Honda’s fragile-as-glass transmissions –and this is a car company that still doesn’t offer 6-speed autos or dual-clutch transmissions. They are probably too busy fixing their 5-speeds.

    The new math: Toyota’s declining reliability = Honda innovation. Right.

    All Honda can do now is build a Prius-lookalike.

    How many shapes are there for a car that will carry 4 people, their luggage, travel at 70 to 80 mph, and get 48.6 mpg? That is what my Prius did on a recent trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix.

    I don’t know why you are equating my Honda statement to your Prius. Since the Honda hybrid approach is less advanced, similar aerodynamics alone don’t guarantee the Insight will match the Prius in efficiency.

  • avatar
    ghillie

    Steven Lang :
    November 12th, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Ghillie, you need to read my article again.

    My bad.

    Both Fred D. and Bytor refer to CVT problems with Insights – maybe that’s what I was thinking of.

    Also Steven your post at 10.38 immediately following Fred D.’s does not correct him on this and what you say there does not confirm that CVT issues are confined to the Civic and do not afflict Insights.

    Anyway – I’m glad that that’s cleared up.

    As for the intricacies of Honda’s warranty response to BCM and battery problems, you obviously know much more than I do, so I’ll keep out of that one other than to repeat that the experience of most people posting on Insight Central seems to be a good one.

    Despite it’s faults (leaks around the driver’s door seems to be a not uncommon problem) I think the Insight is one of the most amazing cars ever made. It’s a light weight all-aluminum sports car. It’s impractical only if you need more than two seats (like most sports cars) and it has more storage under the hatch than most sports cars. Most owners seem to get about 70mpg in the MT cars and don’t have a problem with the handling. Those that do, find that swapping out the LRR OEM tires transforms its road manners for the loss of a few mpg. But mostly, it’s just plain fun at road legal speeds – quick steering and light weight see to that.

    The Civic hybrid seems an inferior car to a Prius – it will be interesting to see how the new Insight stacks up.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Yep ghillie, I definitely agree with everything you’ve mentioned.

    The Insight is an exceptional vehicle. But related to the Insight, I think Honda’s recall activities may be partially attributable to the fact that there is such a strong enthusiast foundation for that model and that it sold in such limited quantities.

    Most folks who look at hybrids are concerned about the ‘economic proposition’ of keeping them. In many cases, they are willing to even forgo a lower overall cost IF the product is generally reliable and the long-term maintenance expenses are reasonable. Buying a Prius instead of a Corolla these days would be the textbook example of that mentality.

    Unfortunately the Civic Hybrid failed in part because Honda chose not to stand behind their own product. A lot of folks have been saddled with bad CVT’s, catalytic converters, and battery packs that end up costing far more than the typical engine or transmission repair. A company with the name, perceived quality, and commitment to innovation that Honda has should have performed far better when it came to taking care of their own customers.

    As much as I love many of Honda’s products (I’ve owned everything from Acuras to Helixes) I think the parent company has really left the customer holding the bag when it comes to expense. Until that mentality changes, I wouldn’t advise anyone buying a Honda hybrid until the costs of long term ownership become far more reasonable.

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