Having driven another hybrid car before (the Toyota Prius), when the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the Insight, Honda’s hybrid car, I was quick to give Asian Honda Motor (ASH) my positive reply. Actually, I almost missed the rare chance because I was scheduled to go to Calgary, Canada, to drive some Volvos in the snow. But spring came earlier than expected (I tell people it was really because of global warming) and the snow melted so the desired condition for the test-drive was lost, leading to Volvo deciding to cancel the event.
However, the Insight drive was not to be the usual sort of test-drive and in return for the chance to drive the unique car, journalists were expected to help ASH register a fuel economy record during its 2,000-km journey from Bangkok to Singapore. The effort would be monitored by officials of auto clubs from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, enabling it to be logged in the international record book maintained by the FIA. All data was based on the tripcomputer which comes as a standard fitment in the Insight instrument panel.
BANGKOK TO THE BORDER
Two Insights were used, a red one being the official ‘record car’ and a green one as a back-up which could also be driven by journalists. The Thai journalists drove the leg in Thailand up to Hatyai and put in an impressive effort, considering that their drive was on country roads and not just a jam-free highway. On their 1,082-km route, they were able to average 43.01 kms/litre (about 121 mpg) with one driver achieving an incredible 60 kms/litre (almost 170 mpg) over a 70.5-km stretch!
At Hatyai, the Insight’s 40-litre plastic fuel tank – which was only down to the halfway mark – was topped up. A group of journalists from Singapore took over and drove the car 471 kms to the designated stop at the overhead restaurant neat Sungei Buloh, on the outskirts of KL. Having heard about the Thai’s results, the Singaporeans were intent on doing better and from a member of the group, I was told that the ‘kiasu guys even took out the floormats to reduce weight’! They were really determined and went at a snail’s pace, taking some 13 hours to reach KL! One driver was said to have achieved up to 50 kms/litre (141 mpg) and if I remember correctly, the average for the leg was 43 kms/litre or so.
THE MALAYSIAN ‘EFFORT’
For Malaysian journalists, the route was 320 kms long and entirely on the N-S Plusway. As with the Singapore journalists, a police escort (a Volvo T5 stationwagon) was provided which proved very useful getting through the morning jam along Jalan Ipoh. Not being a VIP, I have never had the pleasure of a police car clearing traffic for me (actually it was for Asian Auto’s Mel Lee whom I sat with in the green Insight) but I must say it was real nice! Those journalists who were not driving had to follow in a bus.
The drivers for the red Insight had been decided earlier and someone from Fleet Auto had the first go from the Kah Motor head office to Seremban. Not being clear on the purpose of the drive, he drove at a fairly brisk pace which didn’t help fuel economy and he got 29.3 kms/litre (83 mpg). In any case, some of the members of the Malaysian group felt they preferred to drive the Insight at a reasonable pace rather than sweat it out trying to achieve a record. The diplomatic response from the Japanese was that it was up to them.
Mel, not restricted by the need to set any record, decided to assess the sporty side of the Insight and it was quite an eye-opener. From the Sg Besi toll plaza, he stepped on the accelerator and the car gained speed smoothly. Not quite electric car-like in character but very impressive for a 1-litre engine; of course, the electric motor came on to boost power so the performance capability was more like a 1.5-litre engine pushing a body that weighed less than a Proton Iswara. Cruising at 110 km/h, the car was doing around 19 kms/litre (55 mpg) which wasn’t anything to shout about but it was interesting that in the 40-km stretch from Jalan Ipoh to Seremban, the mixed driving style (high and low speeds plus some jams) returned an average of 27.4 kms/litre (77 mpg). And that included one blast up to 175 km/h which was close to the 180 km/h the car is said to be capable of.
Other cars with 3-cylinder engines I’ve driven have usually had the ‘motorboat noise’ under hard acceleration but with the Insight, the engine noise was muted and it was the special Bridgestone tyres (40% lower rolling resistance) that seemed to make the most noticeable noise. There was also some wind rustle around the door mirrors but as we cruised along, I couldn’t avoid thinking about how smoothly the airflow around the car must have been.
From the Seremban rest stop to Ayer Keroh (64 kms), B.H. Chan of the Chinese magazine, Motorcar drove and he gave the economy run effort his best shot, sweating till his shirt was drenched. His hard work got the consumption up to 35.9 kms/litre (a tad past 100 mpg).
For the next sector of 75 kms to Pagoh, Kevin Yap (no relation of mine!) of Torque took over. He had skipped classes at Taylor’s college to participate and was very enthusiastic about trying to set a record. Given the ‘sauna room environment’ inside the Insight, no one wanted to accompany him and he also felt it would help as it would mean less weight in the car. Kevin’s stretch was actually quite challenging as it was along a gentle incline. Applying various strategies he had thought about and remembering some tips given by an Insight project engineer, Kevin was able to take the consumption up to 53 kms/litre (150 mpg). The Honda people were delighted as the average consumption improved to 38.7 kms/litre.
Leeps of Autocar ASEAN did the 65-km drive from Pagoh to Machap and made some effort to get a good consumption figure, running the first 2 kms without the a.c. When he found the consumption seemed to be stable at around 36 kms/litre, he decided to get more comfortable and switched on the a.c. Steady cruising, which was a key to good economy, maintained the figure and when he stopped the car, the meter showed that he had averaged 36.1 kms/litre (101 mpg). Not bad… and his shirt only had spots of sweat.
SWEATING IT OUT
I had the last leg from Machap to Skudai, a distance of 49 kms. Having been a participant of economy runs in the 1980s (see separate story),Douglas Choong, one of the officials whom I knew from those days, expected me to set a record. I had talked about it at length with the Insight engineer and Mel had also suggested that the trick was to make the electric motor come on frequently so as to reduce usage of the engine. I tried that but it didn’t work because you have to accelerate to induce the electric motor to assist and as you accelerate, even slightly, it means burning more fuel.
Getting into the driver’s seat, I quickly found a comfortable position. For all its pseudo-futuristic image, the Insight feels pretty much like any Honda inside. The only thing is that the instrument panel is ‘space age’ with graphic and digital displays. The tachometer is presented as a semi-circle and as the rpm increases, bars illuminate on the circle. In the upper middle section is the large digital speedometer and below it is the Fuel Consumption Display (FCD). This is the trip computer and shows real-time consumption as well as average consumption, as well as the distance travelled. A dual read-out makes it possible to determine the average consumption over a given section or for an entire trip. Computations for the FCD are based on fuel flow in the PGM-FI system and road speed, which gives fairly accurate data and owners in America have found it to be within 1% accuracy.
To the right of the instrument panel is the IMA System Indicator and the fuel gauge. The indicator shows the battery condition, recharging status and amount of assistance provided by the electric motor. There is also a shift indicator with arrows that light up to warn you to shift up or down if you want to get good fuel consumption.
The inside of the Insight feels like any other car but when you want to start driving, a major difference becomes apparent. Turn the ignition key and… nothing happens. Actually, the electrical circuits are energised and the engine is ready to run but because of the auto-stop feature, the engine does not start running when the gearbox is in neutral. To fire it up, you need to step on the clutch and get into first gear. Only then does the engine hum to life and the car moves.
Keen to get a good figure as well, I chose to sweat it out and ran without the a.c and shut the windows tight. It was about 4 pm in the afternoon and the cabin temperature rose quickly. The FCD told me that I was doing around 40 kms/litre (113 mpg) and I tried various ways of driving to see if I could improve it. The horizontal bar graph display which showed real-time consumption shortened and lengthened as I drove, telling me how economically I was driving. Ease off and it lengthened to the right side all the way to 60 kms/litre but the moment I applied pressure on the accelerator pedal, it would shorten as fuel flow increased. Slowly the average consumption got better and after about 30 kms, I had gotten up to 47.2 kms/litre. The best way of driving, I eventually decided, was to maintain a steady speed which was around 40 km/h.
As I crawled along, I had time to examine some of the other aspects of the car. The rear section has no seat and is entirely for luggage, with some extra space available in a stowage box. The large rear door makes the inside feel airy but I can’t understand why the designers also wanted to include the vertical glass panel in the tail (like the old CR-X and Ford TX3). It may help reversing a bit but I would have thought that the extra weight of the glass was something that could have been left out. In any case, I didn’t like it because it only made the closeness of the huge lorries that roared up behind me more scary! Towards the end, the police guys decided to get behind me (they were in front most of the time) so as to prevent lorries from tailgating me. I really appreciated their patience, especially having to drive the T5 at the same low speed as what I was doing.
Ride comfort was quite good although the smooth surface of the highway did not present any challenges to the suspension. From the outside, the Insight looked like it had very soft springing but inside, there was no discomfort. The steering felt heavy, perhaps due to the use of an electric power steering system instead of the conventional engine-driven pump.
The going was really tough and my sweat was coming off me in rivers and soaking not just my shirt but even the seat! The material used for the upholstery is described as a ‘space fabric’ which is light and offers increased ventilation but it didn’t help me and when Mel took over driving later, he complained about the wet seat and sticky steering wheel! The air got so stale that I was forced to open the window briefly and switch on the a.c. for a few seconds – the action being immediately apparent from the worsening of consumption.
About 9 kms from the finish, something happened. The two arrows of the shift indicator lit up at the same time and the display blacked out. At the same time, I felt the car slowing down and even when I gently pressed on the accelerator, there seemed to be no power. It seemed like the equivalent of an engine stalling and turning the key did not revive it. But with the police car right on my tail, I could not hit the brakes suddenly. I was unable to let them know I was out of power and I was terrified that when I stopped without warning, they would ram into me. In fact, they almost did and when the car stopped moving, I quickly got the bonnet up to see if I could find any fault.
Not finding anything, I decided to phone the engineer and the only suggestion they could give me was to keep trying and to be sure to get the gear engaged. I tried a few times and the engine returned to life. Relieved, I set off again but when I looked at the FCD, it appeared that my 47.2 kms/litre was gone and the tripmeter had also returned to zero!! I was getting a reading of 39 kms/litre and only had 9 kms left. Furious at the incident, I was determined to get the best I could in the remaining distance and was forced to drive slower.
By the time I reached the Skudai toll plaza, my driving time had been just under two hours and because of the drastic drop in speed in the last 9 kms, my average speed had fallen to 36 km/h. But I managed to get my consumption up to 41.7 kms/litre (118 mpg) which wasn’t too bad but personally, I was disappointed at the wasted effort. The engineer couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong and my guess is that there was some sort of power surge or something which momentarily zapped the circuits. Maybe future drivers will just have to learn to live with such occurrences if they run electric motors, just as we have to live with the occasional engine stalling.
With my consumption included, the average for the Malaysian team was 35.15 kms/litre (100 mpg) and for the entire Bangkok-Singapore run, the average consumption was 40.87 kms/litre (115 mpg).
The sweating aside, I found the Insight a nice car to drive and the wonderful thing was that fantastic fuel economy was possible even with normal driving. Assuming that it can easily average 35 kms/litre in daily driving, I could save some RM200 a month on petrol and do the environment a favour at the same time. However, for me personally, the Insight is not suitable simple because it’s a two-seater and I do have a family. But since the technology exists, it can easily be used for other types of cars, my favourite being the SUV.
The only problem for Malaysians is that the high import duties make the Insight way too expensive – at least RM200,000 – and if anyone does buy it, he or she would not really be the type of person needing super fuel economy. In Japan, it costs the equivalent of RM73,500 which is more reasonable so it is up to the Malaysian government to decide if it wants to offer some concessions (like what the governments of Singapore and Japan have done for eco-friendly cars) to encourage the public to buy such cars and in so doing, reduce air pollution.