By on April 13, 2010

I am not in the ‘keeper’ business. Cars to me have always been an investment asset, like stocks, bonds, and a good accountant are for most other folks. My daily drivers are supposed to make me money. But then I have to balance this against one other unavoidable fact: I’m married.

With two kids, a wife, a home, and a long list of future obligations, I have to make my daily drivers ‘work’ for me. So it came to be that two older hybrids entered the family garage. A 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid and a 2001 Honda Insight. As all of you know, I’m a tight bastard when it comes to money. My mindset is always in penny pincher mode. So like any other frugal zealot, I sat down and did the numbers while driving them a combined 50,000 miles. The findings?

Hybrids are ‘financially’ the absolute best buy if you fit three criteria. First off you have to be a ‘keeper’ who drives a lot. I’m talking at least 10 to 12 years of service for your commuter and at least 15k miles a year. In the 27,000 miles my wife has driven the Civic it’s averaged 42 mpg. The Insights 25k gave us 55 mpg. Those are amazingly strong numbers for what amounts to 50/50 driving between town and highway. I would expect that the Prius would have hit in the high 40’s and even the lesser-loved Accord and Camry variants would have likely hit around the high 30’s given what’s around the web. If we were to keep both these used Hondas for a full 200k combined, our savings on gas would be right around the $15,000 range with the majority going to the Insight. Even if you spent half of that on maintenance you’ll be far ahead.

Second, you can’t be an aggressive driver. When you press the pedal to the lightened aluminum metal both cars effectively say, “Oh, let me think about that!”. If you have ever owned an underpowered diesel with a slushbox, the Civic and Insight with the kinder and gentler slushbox gives you the exact same lack of initial response. It’s not dangerous in the real world. Like their overburdened diesel brethren, hybrids actively encourage more cruising and foresight than a normal car. So most folks whether they like it or not become comfortable with a defensive driving style in short time.

Eventually you get to where you need to go. Just not right now… in a few extra seconds… yes…there it is! Then it’s a slo-mo deal. These earlier hybrids are constantly playing the numbers game and flat out acceleration is never a part of it.

Unfortunately there’s one other ingredient that you must consider in the hybrid’s recipe that separates the good from the drek. There’s a quality issue… and boy what an issue it is when it comes to hybrids. The first generation Insight was essentially a $35,000+ vehicle that sold for $20,000. It is without doubt the most over-engineered car I have ever experienced given it’s price point. The body is not only devoid of squeaks and rattles. It feels like what I would term a ‘vault of precision’, and this came with 140,000+ miles in the nasty roads and road salt of Massachusetts.

The 2002 S-Class I have doesn’t even remotely compare to it. A 2003 Camry I had recently? A complete joke compared with the Insight. Other than the 1st generation Prius and the 1st gen LS/SC 400, it’s impossible to find a car that was so far ahead of the curve when it comes to it’s contemporaries. My view on the Insight from my last review hasn’t changed one bit.

The 2003 Civic Hybrid on the other hand is a buggy little bastard and most ‘keepers’ will agree with that statement. Honda decided to take the Insight’s powertrain, add a cylinder, and shove it into a car that’s 40% heavier. When you’re on the road and everything works, it’s wonderful. You can still hit the mid-50’s in the highway with a light foot, and the dashboard display for the Civic is perhaps the best one ever put on a hybrid vehicle. Forget the stupid leaves and glowing green and blue of the current breed. I’m absolutely convinced that simple gauges that minimize eye darting are the way to go. The Civic unpretentiously gives you all the information you need without having to constantly ‘interact’ with the dash. Good job Honda.

Unfortunately I can’t recommend the rest of this particular model to the non-enthusiast. In order to make the transmissions last on these vehicles, you really have to do a drain and fill once a year. It’s not an option without it. The transmissions will need to be serviced as frequently as a 1990’s minivan or else they will join the long chorus line of Civic hybrids with bad trannies that are now in ‘wholesale heaven’ at the dealer auctions. If you’re the type that stomps on the gas, go with something that has nearly indestructible planetary gears (Prius) or is light enough to handle the task (Insight). Better yet, just get a diesel.

But what if you’re willing to be a diligent maintainer? Well then. Then the third thing you have to do is become a collector of certain specific parts. As a long-time brick enthusiast I’m familiar with the drill. But unlike the light bulb chewing 240’s and 940’s , a Civic Hybrid isn’t content with the little things. I’m talking about everything involving the battery along with that overmatched transmission.

Why? Because the cost of replacing all those parts borders on Rolls-Royce territory. I had the MCM (the module that lets the engine and battery work together) go south on the Honda Civic. It took months to figure it out and the cost of the part from Honda of America was $1800+. At the junkyard this part was $100.

In fact it wasn’t even listed in their database. I had to literally navigate my way through the Georgia mud and bring my toolbox to get the part out of the car. But I found it along with a treasure trove that was a battery (they usually last 120k to 150k) and a recently replaced transmission. Long story short, you have to be willing to go out of your way to make the Civic Hybrid work for you because the wonks at Honda simply put the Insight’s IMA hybrid system without giving the Civic a warranty that reflects the heavier load. In fact the Insight offers an even stronger warranty than the Civic.

My conclusion? Well, there’s two of course. As a commuter it’s virtually impossible to beat the original Honda Insight. Even a $1000 beater with 35 mpg to boot will fall short of the Insight’s penurious nature in these coming years. It consumes far less gas. Oil changes and other fluids come to about half a conventional car’s cost (2.5 quart oil capacity, with tighter engine tolerances) and virtually all the maintenance on it is cheap and easy. Plus it’s a design that lends itself to the mechanically curious. For all the complexity that a Hybrid is supposed to represent, the Insight is really a refreshingly simple design. Too bad they made fewer than 3,000 of them a year on average and will never make them again.

A 2003 – 2005 Honda Civic hybrid will work well if you

A) Seek and find the battery, transmission, and related parts that Honda won’t warranty.
B) Are willing to keep your commuter for 150,000+ miles.
C) Have no concerns about being a DIY’er or taking extra diligent measures on the tranny maintenance.

Damn me for doing it, but I’m going to keep them both. Sure the Prius or even a plain-jane Civic would likely be cheaper in the long run than my wife’s Civic. But I’m betting that all these 1st generation Civic Hybrids will become junkyard fodder in a far quicker period of time. Maybe someone out there will find a way to make the trannys more robust and the batteries less privy to failure. Heck, there’s an enthusiast site already focusing on these needs right now. Time will tell but for now, I’d rather invest in my neighboring junkyards and Honda’s R&D than the Arab dictatorships or Russian mafia. I think it will pay off.

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24 Comments on “Hammer Time: 50,000 Honda Hybrid Miles...”


  • avatar
    Disaster

    “First off you have to be a ‘keeper’ who drives a lot.”

    True with every car. Drive it till the wheels fall off and you will save wayyyy more money then replacing it every few years. One caveat. You must be reasonably mechanical and able to do most of your own maintenance (ie. visit junkyards) or have a good inexpensive mechanic you can trust. If you are the type that always takes your cars back to the dealership to have new parts put on you can eat up those car payment savings, in service calls in a hurry.

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      Absolutely true. I feel comfortable buying used cause I know a mechanic and a transmission guy I can trust that won’t charge me “stealer-ship” prices, but having said that I don’t want to have it in for service all the time. The challenge then becomes picking something well built, in your price range, and that meets your needs passenger/cargo wise.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    I always thought/wished the original Insight had a poor twin cousin.

    If I recall, the inline triple had about 67 hp on it’s own. If they had eliminated the battery pack and the electric motor, the weight would have dropped a few hundred pounds. 67 horses would stand on their own, and the resulting car would have likely gotten similar fuel economy to the hybrid. Then, think of the four-cylinder Si model!

    I think the original hybrid was intended to lose money, working as a proof-of-concept car for future hybrid drivetrains.

  • avatar

    I kicked myself a little for passing up one of the last, new, real Insights around here. I bought my Civic Si instead, so I got over the Insight rather quickly. Too bad Honda couldn’t find a way to make the economics work on that model, as it’s a far better car than anything else I can think of in its class. I drove an HCH and couldn’t stand it. Too heavy, loud, and slow for me.

    Steven, drive that baby ’til the battery cries.

  • avatar
    FleetofWheel

    Good review but I was confused by your statement “Cars to me have always been an investment asset, like stocks, bonds, and a good accountant are for most other folks. My daily drivers are supposed to make me money”.

    How could it make you money? Unless you use your car as a taxi or delivery vehicle.
    A daily driver is a depreciating asset. You give up money in exchange for it taking you places.

    • 0 avatar
      eggsalad

      Not since we’re talking about a used-car dealer. Buy wholesale, drive daily for a few months, sell retail. Basically a profitable way to get around.

    • 0 avatar
      toxicroach

      I believe he means that the cars are supposed to produce savings, and in that sense act as an investment, but sort of in reverse. It’s the savings generated that are the return on the investment, rather than appreciation of the property itself.

      Or maybe he thinks the hybrids will be collector’s items.

  • avatar
    vvk

    Wow, 2.5 quarts of motor oil. I would be checking oil level every day in that thing.

    I have heard that Insight with a stick is a lot of fun to drive…

    • 0 avatar
      Morea

      You heard wrong. It’s only fun if you are into hypermiling.

      About the main article I remain unconvinced: buy a regular Civic or Fit and be done with all the worry about hybrid complexity. One big repair bill and any hybrid fuel savings is up in smoke. And who of us has the time, tools, and patience to be changing transmissions in our garage? Doing it for your collector car is a labor of love, doing it for your daily driver is just work.

  • avatar
    Robstar

    Before I decided on a sports car, I wanted to get an insight. I thought they just looked so cool. Unfortunately I couldn’t find one locally & the dealership I talked to told me they had issues in deep snow (Chicago). Side streets in Chicago don’t get plowed, so….

    I still occasionally have days where I wish I had one for summer driving. I’m guessing my 42 mpg/mixed motorcycle will have to do.

    • 0 avatar
      afuller

      Interestingly enough I flew out to Chicago to purchase my 2000 Insight last summer. With 60k miles on it the lifetime economy is 65mpg, I drive it like a normal, if underpowered, car.

      There’s alot of tweaking that can be done to the car, simple toggle switches can be installed to give more control over the charge/assist of the battery pack along with the more expensive option of going with full blown manual control of the hybrid system (http://99mpg.com/mima/).

      This car is a keeper for me, a 35 mile commute each way almost guarantees it. Sure I’d like to live closer to work and ride my bicycle but that’s not in the cards.

      Having a car that gets this kind of mileage allows me carefree choice when purchasing a motorcycle as my “fun” vehicle; no longer do I need to worry about having a motorcycle that gets better mileage than my car as quite honestly it’s not easy to find a 2-wheeled conveyance that tops the mileage of the Insight without resorting to scooters or 250s.

      As the weather warms up I see my mileage begin to increase; winter temps kept me at around 60mpg for my commute with the springtime temps bringing mileage in the 70’s.

  • avatar
    Accazdatch

    Man…

    WOW.

    I smelled the Hybrid glorytrain stopping in mid step.. before these things got hot.

    Ya have to be a certain kind of customer, who drives a certain kind of way (i.e, not in the fast lane doing 50.) And you must understand that the price is compensation for the time / mileage one would drive this.

    The smaller ones are decent as capable commuters, who know the vehicle.. inside and out., but take it to the mainstream..and it will get lost in the shuffle.

    Steven:
    Whats your opinion of the Accord hybrid.

    I believe:
    It goes completely against Honda’s core. Its a decent car with a 4 or a 6, but pair the 6 with the hybrid, and it becomes pointless. ya dont buy the Accord hybrid for its power.. or its economy. — So why do ya buy it.?

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      Wait, wait, wait. I thought the hybrid Accord was pushed as being a “power adder” you know like the fastest version of the Accord? Performance was the point is what I was always told in magazine reviews. Weren’t all hybrid Accords fully loaded? I sort of saw it as a smaller cut rate competitor to the Lexus LS hybrid.

    • 0 avatar
      Accazdatch

      No no no,

      One, Forget the magazines.

      Two, the car was stickering in the high 20s (27), low 30s, saddled with the leather interior, nav, heated seats etc etc. The people who buy these.. buy them for their economy. Hence the fact that 4cycls are dominant in every midsizer (the reason why the Sonata now has no 6.)

      Now,
      The THIS Accord was a failure, because it was the most expensive, and it was a 6.

      The fact that Toyota got it right when they priced their hybrid Camry as a 4cycl and much lower to the price spectrum.. is how it should have been.

      As far as a cut rate competitor against the LS hybrid…
      I dont see the competition in concept or in execution, AT ALL.

      THE LS is a stupid car, for a STUPID price, aimed at S T U P I D people, who dont have a clue about how heavy the car is, their personal driving ability (remember, this is the one that debuted the parking assistant). Not to mention, this is a V8, with a mother of an engine. A hybrid strapped to this is as smart as the Tahoe badged Escalade with the same hybrid system. Its a no win all the way around.

      The hybrid system, simply DOES NOTHING for power, for efficiency or for any other purpose, but to fatten the already thick price of a LS or similarly marketed Escalade.

      In the end.. Its a farce.

      Accord.. simply fell into the wrong pricing field, wrong combination of 4cycl takes, with a hybrid system paired with a 6. That’s like taking the current Accord = Chrysler 300 and strapping a 4cycl to it. There is no economy there, car is already too damn big.

      But.
      And this is a HUGE BUTT..

      The hybrid system is expensive. I know this.. and anyone who actually pays attention to these things.. should also. Its expensive for Honda, and their suppliers. It takes a while to make money.. by simple word of mouth or mass appeal.

      Now.
      The hybrid system is also heavy.

      At my most optimistic:
      Pair a nice 7th gen, 3100 – 3200lb 4cycl tossable Accord for about 21g, with a battery system (3-5g) and it gets to be pointless. Ya lugging around weight, along with the 4cycl. simply makes the engine work harder. Ya need to carry the battery for at least 10yrs 100-200k mi (with fuel at about $3.50 – $4) for the price to make sense. – I.e Steve Lang.

      But the way Honda did it.
      No.

    • 0 avatar

      “ya dont buy the Accord hybrid for its power.. or its economy. — So why do ya buy it.?: – Accazdatch

      Hmmmmm, something familiar with that sentiment. Ah HA! I’ve got it.

      You don’t buy a CR-Z for its power…or its economy…so why do you buy one?

      Other than the RealDeal Insight, Honda hasn’t fielded a compelling hybrid, and even it failed as a profitable product. It’s all the more aggravating when the Insight proved they can probably do it.

  • avatar
    michaelfrankie

    Great article. I could read your stuff all day long.

  • avatar
    nikita

    That horrid CVT in the Civic was also foisted upon Civic GX (CNG) buyers. There was no valid need for it in that application except maybe to build sales volume in what was considered by Honda to be a fleet vehicle. We went through a tranny every 20,000 miles under the HondaCare extended warranty. The car was unloaded when the warranty was up. The current GX has a much better conventional automatic. Your vintage of Civic and Insight hybrids were available with manual transmissions, but they are very rare on the used market.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The problem with the Insight is pretty much the same problem the Smart car has: unless you fit into the very narrow demographic that makes the car work, it offers too many compromises.

    The first Prius got this mostly right: it was more or less a more refined Echo with better mileage and no folding seat, and the Echo was already a decent car in terms of basic transportation, if a bit small. The second Prius was out-of-the-ballpark largely because it offered a complete, no-compromise package. You could own it and it didn’t require you to do anything different. It was even priced—feature-comparable—more or less on top of the Camry and not a whole lot more than the Matrix, and had about as much useful space as former and a little more than the latter.

    Meanwhile, the Insight is just now hitting the no-compromise curve the Prius topped in 1998. The Civic hybrid is ridiculously expensive and has no trunk space. The Accord hybrid, cool as it was, was only slightly more relevant the the hybrid Tahoe.

    • 0 avatar
      protomech

      The Insight is basically non-workable as an only car for 95% of americans. Two seats and a GVWR that would be exceeded by sitting two typical americans in them doesn’t exactly scream practical.

      As a dedicated commuter car, the 1G Insight is fantastic. It has “enough” room, power, and utility for driving to work and running most errands. No, it won’t haul your kid’s soccer team or tow a boat. For a large number of people, the Insight meets their actual rather than perceived needs: a pair of seats or a single seat and some cargo room.

      For others, it’s completely out of the question. And that’s fine.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    So Honda builds a car that has overpriced parts that are proned to failure and a drivetrain underengineered for the car which eats transmissions, yet somehow it “makes sense” to the right kind of buyer.

    So did the early 80’s Pontiac Boneville from the GM’s deadly sins section last night make sense for someone too? They sound fairly similar to me.

    Not dissing Hybrids, but this thing sounds like an old fashioned POS to me.

  • avatar
    T2

    Re the HCH, I would attribute the hybrid ‘gain’ to be mostly due to the presence of the 1.3L engine in that vehicle.

    What’s the betting that Honda doesn’t offer that engine in the standard Civic in order to prevent the embarrassment of comparisons and the ensuing lawsuits that would arise ?

    The CVT durability debacle is another well kept secret. Honda relies on these hybrids being snapped up by low mileage owners. The person who buys one and then puts on high mileage (25k/yr) usually winds up on the blogs complaining about it. It doesn’t help that Honda requires the correct transmission oil, which differs depending on the model year. Not all dealer garages are up to speed on this. That explains away those failures which occur despite the performance of regular maintenance.

  • avatar
    Joe_Gamer

    Seriously, someone explain to me why they stopped making the original insight? I would love to be able to buy something like that, a pure commuter car for the daily slog into the city. I just don’t get it, it got better MPG than any other mass produced hybrid, did they not want that feather in their cap? Did they just want to prove that they could and then tell us to fuck off? Did it just work too well, was the mechanics union crying about not having enough expensive hybrid repairs? Maybe it lasted too long, The dealers were pitching a fit because there was not enough “planned obsolescence”? The new insight is crap, the civic hybrid is crap, the accord hybrid was awesome for spinning tires but not in the MPG realm. God help us, they think the CR-Z is what we want *facepalm

  • avatar
    Demetri

    You’ve got me really wanting to buy a 1st gen Insight. It does make a lot of sense for me. They’re not too expensive now, the battery has a long warranty, and I could save hundreds on fuel. Put some nice summer tires on that thing and I bet it could handle. It’s lightweight enough. I think that I could get used to the lack of power.

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