Review: 2001 Honda Insight
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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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.
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.