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Honda's Hybrid Car Targets High Gas Prices - 2001-08-06


In December of 1999, the Japanese automaker Honda was first to the U.S. market with a hybrid car, a vehicle using both a small gasoline engine and an electric motor working together to achieve greater fuel economy and reduced pollution emissions.

The small, streamlined two-seater coupe is becoming a more familiar sight on America's streets and highways. And when a surge in gasoline prices hit earlier this year, says American Honda's Kevin Bynoe, it was accompanied by a surge in sales. "In May, when there was a spike in gas prices, our sales rose about 130-percent," he explains. "That was the all-time high for Insight."

Compared with many other cars, sales of the Insight are tiny. As of June, fewer than 7,000 units had been sold. But, for a specialized coupe with limited interior space, using new technology, that is not bad.

Who is attracted to the car? Kevin Bynoe says some like the modern styling. "The second group is interested first in the technology. We get a lot of engineers, a lot of technical individuals who are interested in the hybrid system and how it works," he says. " And thirdly, people who are concerned about the environment. You know, they want to drive a socially responsible vehicle." How does a hybrid work? Depending on engine load, a computer chooses the power source gasoline engine, electric motor or both whichever is most efficient. The electric motor also acts as a generator during deceleration and braking. Hybrids never need to be plugged in, to recharge the batteries.

With fuel economy rated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at more than 100-kilometers per U.S. gallon, the Insight is certainly efficient, but we asked the managing editor of AutoWeek magazine, Roger Hart, how it performs. "You have 67-horsepower from the gas engine and 73-horsepower when the electric motor kicks in," says Mr. Hart. " And, with the manual transmission, there was never any trouble getting up to freeway speed."

What is the Insight like to live with every day? AutoWeek magazine's staff drove one for a year and Roger Hart sums up the experience. "It was an enjoyable year, driving the Insight especially because it is really leading-edge technology," he says. " As a daily driver, it was fine and I think that is one of the aspects that really surprised a lot of us on the staff. We thought it was going to be more of a novelty idea... sort of a novelty vehicle. But, if you did not have to haul around a lot of people or a lot of stuff, it was a great car."

Honda sells Insights for $20,000. Air conditioning and a new automatic transmission are the only options. Reportedly, the company loses money on every one it sells, but believes it is important to get the technology into the hands of consumers.

Honda has announced plans to expand its hybrid technology to a model in the popular and more practical Civic lineup in the spring of 2002.

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