By on May 19, 2009

Eight years ago I was looking at the exact same speedometer in a Honda Helix scooter. No joke. The speedo in the Helix and Insight are absolutely one and the same. Now most of you may not know what a Honda Helix actually is. Fair enough. It’s a very large scooter that can go 70 mph, get 70 mpg, and puts you in a near recliner position when on the road. Honda happily made them for 20 years. The Insight? Well multiply the Helix’ $5000 cost by five and you pretty much get all that and the most fun to drive hybrid on the road today.

Honda decided to make the Insight into what can truly be called a Sport, Utility, Vehicle. The Insight can literally pirouette on a dime and, in normal, non-racing-style driving, it’s extremely flickable. I was able to hit (and feel) every single crevice on the road without fail. Point the wheel. Hear the roar of tires and minimal noise insulation . . . and enjoy the full sensation of an 1850 lb. aluminum bodied masterpiece with a Cd of 0.25 spear its way through the asphalt. I swear that the Insight could have been the perfect template for every sporty car Honda’s made in the last ten years. If only they could have made a profit doing it.

The Insight had some amazing surprises to it beyond the handling. For example, did you know that the Insight could have likely been the best designed car ever for a traveling salesman? As Shakespearean actor Kurt Angle is fond of saying, “It’s true!” If you lift the rear hatch and pull up a chair, you could literally turn the rear of this car into the perfect office.

Picking up items from the hatch doesn’t require any bending at all. None. The space is deceptively large and there’s even a really neat hidden box (à la the Ridgeline) where you can store your more expensive schleppage. I literally handled titles, bills of sale, receipts, and hundreds of other pieces of paper without ever opening the door to my office for the entire week. I just opened the hatch, picked what I needed, and that was it. Absolutely brilliant.

Unfortunately the car has some 1st generation weirdness that I could easily do without. Tires that are a weird size make this car needlessly expensive over the long-term for the “keeper.” So does the tranny fluid that must be made out of liquid gold for the price I was charged. The fact that the Honda dealer managed to under-fill the tranny fluid and overfill the oil made me understand the tendency for enthusiasts to keep far away from the big blue H buildings.

Then there’s absolutely no tint on the windows. In Hotlanta, Georgia! Whoever thought up that wonderful idea should have been made to spend two hours in “time-out” listening to the A/C system at full blast. $35 of tint solved it but this is a common sense quirk that should have never left the factory.

Other than that the car is just beautiful. The prior owner averaged 46 mpg through it’s 145,000 miles. One tint. Four tires inflated to their maximum sidewall pressure, and just keeping up with traffic quickly yielded 52 mpg. A few days later . . . 55 mpg. Then 62 mpg. Finally, a unique 250-mile sojourn without the need for A/C and a slick road yielded 69.6 mpg . . . and that was a combination of highway and stop and go driving. In the words of the next black president of the United States, Ron Simmons, “Damn!”

The Insight also doesn’t really drive small. Unlike the wind-up-and-pray Geo Metro, the Insight has a reasonably wide wheelbase that translates into a comfortable driving experience. Okay, we’re not talking about a Buick here. But I felt far more secure in it than a Miata, Escort, or Corolla of the same vintage. The interior is really a bit like a spacious cockpit where you almost have to lean to get things like the radio, and the quality of the materials is more becoming of a $35,000 car or a $45,000 Chrysler. The noise factor got annoying once you passed the 65 mph barrier but otherwise the Insight is extremely easy to live with.

Now here’s the big question. Is it worth it? For the resourceful enthusiast who rarely has the need for more than two people . . . I would put it on the radar. This is a true enthusiasts car that you can look forward to driving any day that doesn’t involve a hail storm or snow flurry. But if you’re looking for the traditional Toyonda cost effective product or prioritize four seats and quiet . . . don’t even think about it.

Penny pinchers? Get a Corolla. Seriously. You have to really struggle over the long-term to get ahead with the Insight because the battery system and CVT can be God-awfully expensive to replace. But until that happens, and God knows I’m already preparing for it, I’ll be driving the Insight and enjoying flipping Honda’s beautiful bird at the Arab dictatorships and Russian mafia.

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30 Comments on “Review: 2001 Honda Insight...”

  • avatar

    I take this as the most recent interpretation of the CR-X.. only if it had a better styling.

    Either way, small cars weren’t the thing back then. That’s why it flopped.

  • avatar

    Theoretically, a commuter car doesn’t need more than two seats. But the market seems to avoid cars without a rear seat unless they’re sports cars.

    If gas prices go back over $4 and stay there, this could change.

  • avatar

    These things certainly have longevity on their side. There were never many in Toronto, but they are easy to spot obviously. I regulary see several in my part of the city, still doing duty as daily drivers.

    Those mileage figures are astonishing. Honda should really have beat Toyota in the hybrid war.

    BTW, I am 6’4″…think I would fit?

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Yes, just an FYI the vehicle I reviewed was a 2001 model.

    As for styling it actually looks very nice in person. Especially when it’s clean, silver, and with good tint. I’ve been complemented more on this vehicle than a blinged out 2002 Mercedes S-Class I used to drive to Atlanta.

  • avatar

    This car is really nice inside. The dash looks like it is out of an S2000, and I think it actually is.

    Also, it’s availabe with stick, unlike any current hybrid.

    I’m not sure if Honda was afraid of tainting the “green” image, stealing sales from the Si and RSX, or if it just didn’t make financial sense based on the cost of the aluminum structure, but this would have been a damn good car to resurrect the CRX with.

    Honda could have easily taken out the battery and put in one of its hot engines (tuners have) and gotten back some more of the money that it put into this platform.

  • avatar

    Its nice to see reviews of cars that I can actually afford to buy.

  • avatar

    A couple of nitpicks:

    1) Insight IMA failures have been rare, and the price for battery replacement comes down each year.

    2) What cars come with standard front window tint? Any? Rear window tint on minivans and SUVs, sure, but front windows on 2-doors?

    3) Wheelbases are long or short. Track width can be wide or narrow. Please don’t conflate the two terms!

  • avatar

    The Insight was about 3-4 inches narrower than a CR-X, and weighed about 200 lbs less despite having batteries and more safety equipment (smaller engine and aluminum body). 2 seat run-abouts are fun, but limmiting and punishing.

    I had a CR-X for 8 years, and if the Insight’s suspension was anything like it, it will get old feeling everything on the road (this is how I know Clarkson is getting old, he had a CR-X and there’s no way the current Civic type R could be half as punishing). Plus you have to like staring at hubcaps (even for fairly ordinary cars, SUVs are in another universe).

    That said, I think I’m going to at least look at the CR-Z when it comes out, nostolgia is a weird thing.

  • avatar

    Michael Karesh:
    Theoretically, a commuter car doesn’t need more than two seats. But the market seems to avoid cars without a rear seat unless they’re sports cars.
    Someday, Ford will realize this with the Mustang. The 2010 rear seats do touch the front seats.

    I never liked this model Insight. Now, I like small cars. Roadsters, to be exact. But this Insight felt scary/unsafe.

  • avatar

    A few years ago one of the tuner companies took a salvaged Insight and swapped the batteries/engine with one out of a base RSX. They also upgraded the wheels/tires and suspension for a very quick, very sporty car that still averaged mpg in the mid 40’s and got higher on occasion.

    I always thought this would be a great car for “super-comuters” (50+ miles to work in one direction)

  • avatar

    The previous Civic Hybrid was also available in stick.

    I know someone who had an Insight; it was totaled when a lifted truck ran over him on the freeway. Didn’t even see the car.

  • avatar

    I didn’t realize that the Insight shared its speedometer with the Helix. Technically, that makes it not a “goofy golf cart” like the Toyota Prius, but rather a silly scooter.

    But seriously. For all the verbage that has been spilled on the subject of hybrid cars, Steven’s five words – Penny pinchers? Get a Corolla – sum it up best. Hybrid cars have nothing to do with economizing, and everything to do with gadgetry, politics and fashion.

  • avatar

    I own a silver 2005 CVT, which is my daily driver. The more I live with this car and the more I learn about it, the more amazed I am. It’s an engineering tour de force, yet is as usable and trouble-free as any Honda. It just seems a shame to me that Honda couldn’t have taken all that design know-how and applied it to a unique 4-seater back during the early 2000s.

    Mr. Lang’s comments match up pretty well with my own experience.

    NickR: The seats slide way back and there is a ton of leg room. I’m 6’3″ and have no problem. However, there is no cruise control, so this might be uncomfortable on long trips. And forget about listening to the stereo at speed; too much road noise and not enough wattage.

    BTW, 47 mpg around town, and 65 hwy (held to 60 mph) with two people and their luggage. These are my own calculations. The computer in the car is slightly pessimistic.

  • avatar

    I’d put it in the top five all time best looking Japanese cars. That’s reason enough to own one.

  • avatar

    If I had the money, I’d buy this Insight to drive as a daily commuter, saving my Suzuki SX4 for trips on the twisties, hauling my NuCanoe on weekends and inclement weather drives.

    If I had the money, time and mechanical skills (plus a touch of insanity), I’d buy a second Insight like this for conversion to ICE-only drive, with two words in mind:

    Peregrine Falcon

  • avatar

    CR-Z? Yes I owned a CRX in my youth and I would love to see it come to pass. AndrewDederer what year was your CRX?

  • avatar

    Darn! – I wanted to write a review of the Insight for TTAC.

    Everything Steven says is true. An Insight is nimble and fun at road legal speeds. Honda took a leaf out of the Lotus book and added lightness – and strength too. Apparently (I assume these are Honda’s figures), the body has 13 percent more bending strength and 38 percent more torsional rigidity than a comparably-sized steel body, but weighs 40 percent less.

    The 995cc 3 cylinder engine won engineering awards every year it was in production, it has been recorded on the road operating in lean burn at up to about 26 to 1 fuel to air ratio and the electric motor will “pulse” in order to act as a dampening system to smooth out the vibrations of a 3 cylinder engine. It runs up to 6,000 rpm like a sewing machine.

    Unlike the new Insight it has a great dash. It’s simple and effective with neat looking dials.

    So it’s safe, sweet, fuel efficient and fun. But it’s not for everyone. You don’t have to be an enthusiast to get the most out of an Insight (especially in manual form) – but it does help.

  • avatar

    I quit reading this review at the second misuse of the word “literaly.”

  • avatar

    I’ve only recently become a Gen1 Insight owner but have found it to be quite the car.

    Coming from a Miata I’ve found that the interior space is huge in comparison.

    I picked up my 2000 model 5-spd with just under 40k miles on the clock for $7500.

    I purchased this car as a commuter, I drive 35 miles each way to work. I’ve been averaging over 70mpg on my commute. It’s actually something akin to work to get good mileage numbers, sure I could drive it like I stole it and still get 50mpg but a little attention to the operation is all it really takes.

    I think this review was pretty spot-on, I don’t regret this purchase one iota.

  • avatar

    Neat car, but it goes to show that when purpose-built eco-mobiles will fail sales-wise if they don’t have four doors and a back seat.

  • avatar

    The anti 2 seat thing just won’t die. A 2 seater is seen as being anti-family, and non-practical, and that’s all there is to it.

  • avatar

    Landcrusher :
    May 22nd, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    The anti 2 seat thing just won’t die. A 2 seater is seen as being anti-family, and non-practical, and that’s all there is to it.

    I think you misunderstand. I’d love a two seater, but they really aren’t practical if you have a family. Remember, a kid who’s under 10 can’t isn’t even supposed to ride in the front seat of a car with airbags.

  • avatar


    No, I don’t misunderstand, perhaps I wasn’t clear. It’s the image of the impracticality that hurts sales ABOVE AND BEYOND the fact that folks like you would never be a likely buyer.

    People will buy 4 doors because of the image, just like anything else (not that there is anything wrong with that). For instance, a young lady may not want a 2 seater because she really wants to marry and start a family, so she doesn’t want to send the wrong message. Or, a business man wants to be seen as reliable and trustworthy rather than a hedonist, so he gets the sedan or SUV even though he has no kids, or even a wife.

    Then there are the folks who grew up hearing comments about different cars, and won’t ever stray from what their elders thought was proper and in good taste.

    That last one is why you sometimes find young people buying a buick. :)

  • avatar

    This sounds like a more positive review than the TTAC review of the current model Honda Insight.
    Yet, the current model has more safety equipment and presumably would handle better and have less of a “tinny feeling” due to sound deadening and a more capable chassis, brakes, better tires, etc.
    Is it only new hybrid models that are disliked?

  • avatar
    Jeff Puthuff

    @CV: Newer doesn’t necessarily mean better. New design, but cheaper materials; new rear seat but smaller than main competition’s; etc.

  • avatar

    I understand what you mean, but I’m comparing the TTAC review of the original Insight to its review of the new one.
    The 2010 Insight is a smaller car than the 2010 Prius, so it’s not surprising its back seat is smaller. And the original Insight didn’t have a back seat at all. If that’s the criteria, the original Insight review would have been more critical than the new one, wouldn’t it?
    My point is TTAC appears to be hostile to the new hybrids, both Prius & Insight, and yet this older hybrid gets a pretty positive take. Is it safer or better built than the new models? Does it handle better than the new hybrids? My guess is no.

  • avatar
    Jeff Puthuff

    There is no “TTAC” standard. Each car has been reviewed by a different person each with different tastes.

    To say that TTAC is hostile is toward the new hybrids in disingenuous. In this review of the 2010 Insight, the reviewer gave it four stars. In Take Two, the Insight was given two stars. The 2008 Prius scored three stars. Hardly hostile when you realize that very few cars are rated five stars by TTAC’s reviewers.

    If anything, we welcome and encourage multiple opinions to be offered/posted.

  • avatar

    It isn’t my intention to argue with you and I am in no way being disingenuous when you consider the comments about “smug” hybrids on this site.

    I have noticed there seems to be a wide difference of opinion as to the respective comfort of the ride for the new Insight and Prius. I’ve read reviews that praise both for being comfortable and quiet, and others that criticize both cars as noisy and stiff riding. Is it possible the ride differs from car to car? That just doesn’t seem possible.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    OK, I guess I should chime in here.

    Whenever I do a capsule review I compare it to it’s contemporaries. The Insight I drive these days would still be considered the cutting edge… even today. Very few cars from that era can be given the same endorsement. Hence the four star rating.

    By the way, the only car from 2001 I would give a 5-star rating to would be the MX-5. Driving one of those is like listening to a beautiful new symphony every day of your life.

    The current Insight is aimed primarily at a non-enthusaist audience. That may be what hurt it here. Personally I would love nothing more than to drive the new Insight and Prius for a year with my wife’s input as well. Most of you can tell after a five minute conversation that she’s my better half.

    4 Benz Diesels, 2 TDI’s, an 01 Prius, an 01 Insight, and an 03 Civic Hybrid have been in our garage.

    I didn’t like any of the Benzes (not even the 1995 W124).

    Both the TDI’s were far better than the chintzy, crappy cars that they had to propel.

    The 01 Prius was a beautiful work of art. One of my few regrets was selling one that had been dealer maintained every 3,000 miles AND had been given a new battery along with new tires. I made $2000 without even having to take it out of the auction. But I should have kept it.

    The Insight is as stated. Perfect for my work.

    The 03 Civic Hybrid is a great fit for my family. But I have to be extra careful to make sure the tranny lasts. I have no plans on taking it through any thousand mile trips.

  • avatar

    My friend’s brother was a Honda salesman detested by the other Honda salesmen at his dealership, because he was a real upbeat guy with things to do in life beyond flogging cars, like running a racetrack.

    Anyway, he figured I should buy one of these original Insights, due to my interest in all things mechanical, and brought it round for an extended test drive.

    My memory is that, as a motorcycle rider, he basically revved the hell out of it and got lousy mileage, according to the Flash Gordon dash display, which I found incomprehensible to read at short acquaintance. He never went over second gear in the city.

    When I got to drive it, I found the thing was so high-geared that you had to slip the clutch like crazy just to launch it from rest. The lack of torque was monumental, even at the light weight. Third gear at 30 mph meant almost zero acceleration. And the car had no joie-de-vivre at all, unlike an ’88 CRX.

    Then we come to the other usual Honda Achilles heel of old — limited suspension travel. The ride was awful.

    Combine the overly high-geared tranny and the rotten ride, and I could see commuting would quickly become totally unbearable. Like on Day 2 of ownership.

    Not impressed really. Just a machine. An interesting experiment, and more fun to inspect for the aluminum body and the IMA than to actually own. Like a six cylinder Honda bike. The new Insight, well that’s just pathetic to look at, and all the reviews say driver’s seat comfort is totally nonexistent, which seems like an incredible thing to get wrong.

    Oh well. YMMV.

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