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Insight Into Honda’s Hybrid Future

Posted on December 6, 2010
Filed Under Honda Insight | Leave a Comment

Honda reckons many motorists are put off hybrid cars because they view them as expensive and elitist. So it’s aiming to change that attitude with its new Insight, as Rob Maetzig reports.

It’s now been more than 10 years since Honda launched its first petrol-electric hybrid car to the world.

That car was called Insight, and it was a swoopy-looking little two-door car that achieved incredibly low fuel consumption. It never was made available for sale in this country, although Honda New Zealand did import one for evaluation and promotional purposes.

The aim behind that original Honda hybrid was clear: To avoid waste. Engineers reasoned that if energy generated from braking and deceleration could be harnessed and stored in a battery pack, it could then be used to power an electric motor that would supplement the performance of the car’s petrol engine.

That led to development of what is known as a parallel hybrid system, in which the petrol engine is the main source of power and torque, and is assisted sometimes by the electric motor.

Honda called its system Integrated Motor Assist (IMA), and it comprised a low-friction 1.3-litre engine as the primary power source, an ultra-thin electric motor, and a lightweight and compact battery pack, all mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission.
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This basic setup hasn’t changed much over the intervening 10 years, but it has been vastly improved as it been progressively introduced to other Honda vehicles, including the Civic hybrid we get in New Zealand.

Now another Honda hybrid has arrived – and appropriately it is called Insight. It’s an impressive new five-door hatchback that uses a modified version of the 1.3-litre engine from the Civic, and features a fifth-generation IMA system that is 24 per cent more compact than the fourth- generation version currently in the Civic.

Some real improvements have been made with this new IMA. The electric motor is now much thinner than before – 35.7mm compared to 61.5mm on the Civic – which helps make the entire system more compact and light.

Big improvements have also been made to the battery pack, which is 19 per cent smaller and 28 per cent lighter, which allows it to be stored under the floor of the Insight’s boot.

End result of all of this is a new hatchback that in every sense is just that – a hatchback. The compactness of the latest- generation IMA means so little storage space is required that the rear cargo room is 408 litres with all the seats in use, which is more than most other hatchbacks including the Toyota Corolla, and there is normal leg and headroom throughout.

Even the hybrid system works in a normal and unobtrusive way. On its own, the engine produces 65 kilowatts of power and 121 newton metres of torque, and when combined with the IMA this increases to 72 kW and 167 Nm.

All this is allowing Honda to market the new Insight not so much as a hybrid but as a hatchback, albeit one that has the technology to cost 40 per cent less to run than a conventional hatch.

Insight also carries a conventional price – which, Honda New Zealand claims, makes it the most affordable high-technology car on the market.

The base model S retails for $35,600 and more upmarket E for $38,800, which is not only almost lineball with conventional hatchbacks of a similar size, but way cheaper than the other hybrids currently on the market here, particularly the $42,000 Civic and the $48,500-$62,000 Toyota Prius.

This is all part of a grand plan by Honda, which discovered during recent overseas research that most motorists considered hybrids to be too expensive, and many others considered them to be elitist status symbols rather than efficient, cleaner modes of transport.

So the company set about changing that, embarking on a big effort to bring the price of the Insight down to much more acceptable levels.

It did it by using a large amount of existing componentry. For example the suspension, brakes and steering are pinched from the Honda Jazz. The engine compartment is also from the Jazz, and the engine and IMA system are modified versions of what is already aboard the Civic.

At a conference for New Zealand media in Queensland last week, special guest Yasunari Seki, the Insight’s project leader, said the aim of the development project was to reduce the size, complexity and price of components and systems in a big effort to drive the Insight’s final retail price downwards.

“Our engineers have shown great tenacity and skill in reducing the cost of the IMA system, which has allowed us to reduce the build costs of Insight,” he said.

Insight has been on the New Zealand new car scene for some weeks now, with potential customers taking the 40 demonstrators based at various dealerships for test drives. Interest has been such that as at last Thursday’s media conference 175 orders had been taken, and HNZ boss Graeme Seymour is confident things will settle to down to an average of more than 30 sales a month.

It’s an attractive car that looks more new-age than most other hatchbacks, with bodyshell lines that are reminiscent of the futuristic FX Clarity hydrogen- powered car that is now sold by Honda in some parts of the world.

But it’s pretty conventional all the same. The only real indications that the Insight is a hybrid are various features that are designed to “coach” the person behind the wheel to drive economically.

The primary such feature is a speedometer that glows green when the car is economically sipping petrol, and changes to blue when it is not.

It is a simple method of telling the driver how things are going, and far less intrusive than many of the other economy-encouraging systems aboard this car, including one that electronically grows leaves on trees during thousands of kilometres of being driven carefully, and rewards the driver by electronically presenting him or her with a trophy icon.

Research by Honda showed that different driving styles can cause variances in fuel economy by as much as 20 per cent. But the IMA aboard the Insight is capable of immediately getting back half of that via an ECON button that, when pushed, does such things as optimises gear ratios, engine revs and output by 4 per cent, controls air air conditioning and even keeps an eye on the cruise control, all in the interests of using less fuel.

Honda says the remaining half can be dealt to by subtly encouraging encouraging drivers to use more fuel-efficient driving techniques – and that’s what the coaching system is all about.

I recently drove an Insight more than 1800 kilometres during the AA Energywise Rally from Auckland to Wellington and back, and last week’s media event included a drive programme of another 250 km inland from the Gold Coast.

Both times I quickly discovered that rather than being anal about things and using every little guide to fuel economy available in this Insight, it was easier to simply hit the ECON button, keep the speedo colour green as much as possible, and take it from there.

Both times this allowed me to achieve an average fuel economy of 4.7 litres per 100 kilometres. In Aussie I also tried things out with the ECON off and the speedo coloured blue as often as possible – and the economy figure went out to 5.9 L/100 km.

And even that’s pretty good for a new Honda that to all intents and purposes is a conventional five- door hatch with excellent interior room and sound performance. The difference is that it will also reward careful driving but not severely punish the lead-footed stuff.

SOURCE: Stuff.co.nz

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