words: Eddie Alterman

Being a few years ahead of its time (and a couple of doors short), the first Honda Insight turned out to be mostly a futuristic curiosity for everyone but crazed hypermilers. By contrast, the 2010 Insight seems to be perfectly scheduled, and expertly aimed at the largest possible number of buyers. This mainstreaming of the hybrid has been happening for some time, but up to this point no one has been able to make a hybrid as economically accessible or as easy to exploit, mileage-wise, as this new Insight.

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Three important things separate the Insight from the growing hybrid herd. First, the car pencils out: The consumer costs for its hybrid system have been essentially nullified, and the Insight will be no more expensive than a comparably equipped Fit. Though final pricing hasn't been announced, its MSRP will vastly undercut that of the Civic Hybrid and the Prius when it goes on sale on Earth Day, 2009.

Second, the Insight instructs its driver in the mysteries of its operation, and takes the guesswork out of elevated mileage numbers. A system of lights, icons, and bars tells you how to keep the car at peak efficiency, and makes the saving of gas as rewarding as the wasting of it.

Third and finally, the Insight actually drives well. To say that it gives every other hybrid a drubbing in the dynamics department is to damn it with faint praise. But the Insight is chuckable, fun, and stable.

The Insight is classified by the EPA as a compact car, so it's smaller than the midsize Prius. It uses the Fit's architecture from the A-pillar forward; it's new from there back. A MacPherson-strut front and torsion-bar rear describe the chassis, which is guided by Honda's electronic power steering. Its hatchback — with a horizontal transom window, à la CRX — opens onto almost 16 cubic feet of volume with the rear seats up, and 31.5 cubic feet with the 60/40 split rear seat folded.

That's right, the rear seats fold, unlike in most other hybrids. For this fifth iteration of its parallel hybrid system, Honda shrunk down the so-called Intelligent Power Unit (the IPU comprises the battery pack, the power control unit, the ECU, and two cooling fans) from the one in the Civic. Because the power output of the Nickel-Metal Hydrides is now 30 percent higher than the Civic Hybrid's, Honda was able to use seven rather than 11 battery modules in the pack, thereby reducing overall IPU size by 19 percent and weight by 28 percent. It was then able to move the unit under the rear floor from its previous position behind the rear seats. That's why the rear seats fold.

The IPU serves a 13-hp brushless DC motor that assists the Insight's 88-hp 1.3-liter i-VTEC inline four in acceleration and certain steady-state cruising situations. Power and torque, rated at 98 hp and 123 lb-ft, respectively, flow through a seven-step CVT transmission. Unlike the full series-hybrid systems found in Toyotas, Fords, and GM's SUVs, here the engine never stops turning, but the valves do snap shut, and the pistons almost completely stop pumping during deceleration.

Honda's IMA hybrid system has always been the cheaper, more modular solution to gas-electric power. Instead of completely overhauling the powertrain, as in series hybrids, Honda inserts the DC motor/alternator between the engine and the transmission and tosses the IPU in the back (perhaps Honda's engineers would say it's a bit more complicated than I'm making it out). The point is that all Hondas, in theory, can become parallel hybrids. The only problem is that series hybrids post bigger numbers, the first Insight notwithstanding. The Prius is now rated by the EPA at a combined 46 mpg, whereas the EPA says this Insight will only deliver 40 mpg in the city and 43 on the highway.

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So how come I got 56 mpg? Two words: Eco Assist. This suite of technologies and interfaces helps the operator maintain a fuel-efficient driving style. But it's more video game than nanny. There are even prizes at the end.

The speedometer is one element of Eco Assist, and works like a mood ring: When the car thinks you're driving like a member of the Saudi Royal Family, it will glow blue. Ease back on the throttle a bit, and it will turn bluish-green. Pay close attention to keeping your inputs gradual, and the backlighting shines bright green.

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There is also a bar graph to help you gauge how aggressive your braking and throttle applications appear to the ECU, as well as a readout called Eco Guide, in which little leaves accumulate on plant stems if you've been a responsible boy or girl. Drive well enough for long enough, and you'll even get a trophy, Mario Kart–style.

I found that the green Econ-mode button to the left of the steering wheel aided enormously in my efforts to keep the mileage up. It dulls throttle response and engages the idle-stop function sooner, and also cuts back on the air conditioning.

This was rewarding, albeit in a totally different way than sporting driving is rewarding. After a while, I needed some red meat. I took the Insight down a tight, vertiginous mountain pass to see how it held together on back roads, an arena in which most hybrids — again, first Insight notwithstanding — lose their footing.

Yes, the steering is a bit rubbery off-center in that typical Honda way, and yes, the car's torsion-bar rear communicates wheel impacts with a skosh more harshness and tire slap than do the front struts. But this car understeers way later than you'd expect it to, and flows naturally over twisting roads. It feels so grippy and light that you almost forget you're in a hybrid. The only reminder was the multi-function display. Even after an hour's thrashing, I was still getting 39 mpg.

So this is a car that delivers two kinds of performance, and can be driven two totally different ways. Both, however, deliver unexpectedly great mileage. It's clear from my experience that the EPA testers weren't paying too much attention to Eco Assist.

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All this — the cost, the flexibility, the mileage, the fun — combines to make the car especially appealing to the kind of buyers for whom hybrids have traditionally been a bit out of reach, but whose requirements are met perfectly by the Insight. Folk in their late 20s who may be just as green-minded and eco-nutty as their Boomer parents — but considerably more broke — no longer have to pay extra to save the Earth. The Insight's affordability makes it an inescapable consideration when shopping for something sub-$20,000.

And because those buyers typically have less of their egos invested in the way they drive, they probably won't mind getting a little guidance from the car itself.