Going green: MK1 Honda Insight review

It all started, as many things do these days, with a Tweet. This one in fact.

I’ve been known to express desire for used cars posted on Twitter before, but ordinarily common sense gets the better of me, or laziness sets in and I decide that travelling hundreds of miles down the country is too much work even for a particularly lovely Renault 11.

Unfortunately, the MK1 Honda Insight posted by this very website wasn’t hundreds of miles away. It was about thirteen miles away, which is far from an unlucky number when it refers to the minuscule distance between yourself and a car you quite like.

The ad didn’t have a price, so I sent a casual email expecting the resulting number to put me off. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen either and I completely failed to not send a return email asking if I could come and view the car.

I then completely failed to not go around to the seller’s house, failed to not spend a couple of hours chatting with him about cars, and failed spectacularly to not buy the car there and then.

The net result is that in the space of a couple of weeks I’d gone from vaguely considering buying a cheap banger for about a grand, to paying rather more than that for a used example of one of the most advanced vehicles one of the world’s most interesting carmakers ever produced.

Original MK1 Honda Insight

The Honda Insight is very much a numbers car, so here are the important ones: 995cc. 3 cylinders. 73 horsepower. 83lb ft. 12 seconds to 62 mph. 112 mph flat-out. 835 kilograms. And brand new, £17,000.

Here are some even more important numbers: 68.9mpg urban, 94.2 mpg extra-urban, and 83.1mpg combined. To that we can add 73.4mpg – the actual number I’ve achieved in just under 6,000 miles of driving. And “less than forty quid” – the price I pay to get 500 miles or so of driving from each tank.

The upshot is that I’m spending less on fuel, over a set distance at least, than I was back in 2003 when I started driving and petrol hadn’t yet crested 80p a litre – simply because my car is doing around 30 miles extra for every gallon I’m putting in the tank.

There’s far more to the Insight than fuel economy, of course. If I wanted economy alone I’d have sold my soul and bought a diesel Golf or something instead. Equally important is the styling, which draws more glances than any car I’ve driven short of a DeLorean. And the aluminium body – contributory to the car’s low weight, but also contributory to a lack of rust. There are a few bubbles here and there – aluminium does oxidise, after all – but they will not degenerate at anything like the rate of its contemporary steel compatriots.

All the electric gubbins interest me to, both professionally and from an engineering perspective. Some components used by the Insight are no longer headline-grabbing – plenty of cars now use plastic intake manifolds to save weight, for example – but at the time, they were rather out of the ordinary. The use of a magnesium sump and a plastic cylinder head cover still is.

MK1 Honda Insight interior

Perhaps my favourite part of the car is the interior, which is just as well given the amount of time I’ve spent in it. Firstly, it’s built as well as any Honda. There are rattles, but remarkably few, and one or two simply relate to bits of removable tat I haven’t yet removed. But it’s light and airy, has (in my opinion) one of the best dashboard designs Honda has ever put in a car, and the driving position fits me like a glove. The wheel, offset a few inches to the left, is non-adjustable in any direction and the seat only moves fore and aft. But the seat is also soft and squashy like car seats used to be, with lumbar support that actually supports your lower back rather than ramming an adjustable steel bar into it, and an expansive footwell that lets you stretch on longer journeys.

Then there are the digital dials, which glow back at you at night in a way that only LCD dials can do. Their clarity is excellent, which is just as well considering how much time I seem to spend looking at them and refining my economical driving techniques.

MK1 Honda Insight dashboard display

The most important dial isn’t the digital speedometer or the sectional tachometer, but the little green bar that moves left and right depending on how profligate you’re being with fossil fuels. Right at the centre of this is the 75mpg mark. Tank-to-tank measurements suggest the on-board computer is pretty accurate, so 75mpg is the mark I always aim for. If I’m below it, I have failed as a human being. If I’m above – and the slider moves beyond 100mpg with gleeful regularity – then humanity once again loves me.

All that, and I haven’t yet described how the Insight drives.

You know what? It’s nice. Not amazing, just nice. Long gearing hampers what might be quite sprightly acceleration (though left in second, which goes to almost 70 mph, the Honda moves quite smartly) and suspension that’s somehow soft in the corners and punishing on bumpy roads means the Insight is never quite as nimble as its weight suggests.

Once you get more confident, it improves – the steering isn’t that quick by modern standards (3.3 turns lock-to-lock) but it has better feel than many despite electric-only assistance, and the light weight and relatively low stance means even with 165-section tyres there’s surprising grip available.

I’d be lying if I said that to drive, I didn’t prefer the Insight’s spiritual successor, the CR-Z – but then I’m quite prepared to accept the Insight’s fun-factor shortcomings for the economy it offers. When testing the CR-Z, I struggled to better 50mpg over a week. The newer Insight managed around 60mpg. Progress, eh?

MK1 Honda Insight rear

And as I said at the top, common sense often gets the better of me. I could have taken out a loan to buy a CR-Z, and be paying £150 a month for the privilege. It’s quicker and has more toys, and on the right road I’d enjoy it a lot more.

But realistically, I’m not often on the right road. Usually, I’m on the wrong one – the M1, or M25. I’m sitting in traffic or cruising along in an endless pocket of cars doing little more than 55mph. And when I’m doing those things, the Insight is in its element. In stop-start traffic, the engine is mostly off, not using fuel. And when I’m stuck in a 50mph contraflow, the thrift-o-meter hangs around the 125mpg mark. I can sit, in my comfortable seat, and watch the average mpg inexorably rise. On a recent tank, those kind of dreary, crappy journeys I seem to do with depressing frequency resulted in over 81mpg.

And then I remember my car looks a bit like a spaceship, it has a digital dashboard and it isn’t rusting around me. And that, because of its economy, I could feasibly sell it a few years down the line and actually make money on the thing.

Ordinarily, I’d reprimand PetrolBlog for making me buy a car. But on this occasion, I think you’re forgiven…

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Antony Ingram
Car geek | Writes for @motorauthority @GreenCarReports | Associate ed @carwowuk | MX-5 book out now! | Takes photos | Dispenses opinions

5 comments

  1. August 15, 2014
    Ben

    I really want one of these before they start commanding silly money. And at about £3k now I really would. But – just not practical for carrying a bass guitar and a 3 year old in the back :-(. I even hatch crazy plans like buying one and then renting a car for when I need the space even though that would be economic lunacy!

    Reply
    • August 15, 2014
      Ant

      The bass guitar would certainly go in but the 3-year old might be a problem.

      Funnily enough, I bought mine as I found I was renting cars too often, and the cost of both renting and fueling those cars up was really stacking up. I could spend £150 or so each rental period – whereas in this I can do the same kind of distance for £40 or so and not be constrained by a one-day time limit either…

      Reply
  2. August 15, 2014
    EndlessWaves

    I think I’m going off the looks of the Insight. Five or ten years ago I found it appealing but it hasn’t aged well for me. Which is interesting because it’s contemporaries and near contemporaries are some of my favourite Honda designs. The HR-V, the Accord Tourer, the Odyssey.

    The interior don’t suffer anywhere near as much though, the dials in particular could be straight out of a brand new C4 Cactus (and would probably suit it better than the sombre red and black affair it looks to have been given).

    Reply
  3. August 20, 2016
    Adrian Miller

    I’ve driven my insight since I bought it in 2002. I agree with all that Tony says except the bit about going for a golf or something if he wanted more economy. It was by miles (literally) the most mpg car in 2002 and has not been beat since. I drove from Gatwick to Derby on one occasion, with full load, with the thrift-o-meter showing 100.25 mpg when I pulled up on the drive.
    Although I now have a plug in hybrid which burns virtually no petrol with my daily driving distance, I still have my insight. I just can’t bear to part with it.

    Reply
    • August 23, 2016
      Ant

      You misunderstand my comment slightly Adrian. I’m under no illusions that a Golf would be more economical (I’ve driven enough to know that no Golf will match the Insight day-to-day for economy). While I’ve now sold the Insight above, my personal lifetime average in the car was around the 73mpg mark, and I believe the current owner (also a journalist) is getting slightly more.

      What I meant was that if economy was my *only* goal, I could have spent a lot less money on the purchase of something economical but dull, like a Golf TDI. As evidenced by me buying the Honda, I wanted economy *and* several other things, including the car’s styling, the clever engineering, the way it drives etc.

      Reply

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