THIS isn’t the first hybrid Honda road test to appear in CAR, and it certainly won’t be the last. Late last year the Japanese firm launched its sports hybrid in South Africa — the little CR-Z hatch — and in the not too distant future you can expect a hybrid version of the Jazz to appear on showroom floors. And in all likelihood you can expect an eco-friendly version of the next generation Civic, too.

As a company, Honda conveys a strong sense of social responsibility and has duly set its sights on the future of motoring and that eco-friendliest of cars; the zero-emissions kind. Honda already produces the hydrogen fuel-cell FCX Clarity, which is currently undergoing customer trials in certain parts of the world. But until the requisite network of hydrogen filling stations is in place, models such as the Clarity will remain impractical, expensive responses to the world’s energy and pollution crisis. Hybrids, however, are here now and gaining popularity. We have no fewer than half a dozen hybrids on sale in SA today.

The Insight is a mid-size hatchback available solely as a hybrid. A clear indication of this car’s single powertrain and eco credentials can be found in its shape. A low-slung body, elongated roofline and truncated rear end serve to reduce aerodynamic drag – because a smooth shape needs less power – and thereby uses less fuel to slip through the air. The result of this somewhat ungainly profile is a drag coefficient of a slightly better than average 0,28.

The Insight’s front end has a familiar Honda look about it with angular headlamps and a distinctive grille treatment. The rear bears more than a passing resemblance to the CR-Z. The overall shape is eye-catching – but not exactly pretty – with an enlarged rump and tyres that seem lost in proportion to the bodywork.

Apart from the discreet “Hybrid” badge on the rear there is very little to tell that this car is not your usual family hatchback. Even a close inspection of the tyres reveals that they are not low-rolling-resistance items.

The low-slung feel continues in the cabin with a flat, wide facia and low window line. The layout of the facia is pretty basic and avoids the high-tech look of, for example, a Toyota Prius. In typical Honda fashion, there’s a driver-centric feel to the controls.

A large rev-counter takes centrestage – racecar-style, ironically – in the main instrument cluster. A digital speed readout is located high up on the facia, which our test team found obscured by the rim of the steering wheel when set to their preferred individual driving positions. When the steering column was adjusted to a position where the speed could be read, most of us weren’t comfortable.

Trim material in the cabin, such as for the door pockets, upper facia, etc are mostly of the hard plastic variety. Areas closer to the occupants are more tactile in nature, though. Rear accommodation is up to class average, but the seats are set bolt upright, which could make longer journeys slightly uncomfortable. Headroom is quite tight and anyone taller than 1,8 metres will feel wary of bumping their head on the sloping roofline.

Even with a battery pack stored between the rear wheels there is a decent 264 dm3 of boot space. This can be extended to 896 dm3 with the split rear seat folded flat. Unlike its Prius rival, the Insight doesn’t require too much familiarisation to drive. There is a traditional key and even a regular automatic-style gear shifter to engage the continuously variable transmission (CVT). Slide the lever into “D” and you’re off. The first thing you are likely to notice is that the CVT is keen to keep engine speed at an optimal level. Suffice to say there are no perceptable “ratio changes”.

Powering the Insight is a fuelsipping 1,4-litre engine. Attached to this is Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA). This 10 kW electric motor supplements the four-pot petrol engine for total outputs of 73 kW and 167 N.m of torque. Torque delivery characteristics of the electric motor mean that the peak torque is available from a lowly 1 000 r/min.

The brushless electric motor is powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery, which, once depleted of charge or under conditions where it isn’t in operation, is charged by the petrol engine and a regenerative braking system. A simple schematic can be brought up on the facia’s main display to illustrate the power contribution and charging state of the battery.

Stop/start functionality is part of the Insight’s fuel saving package, and clicking the ECON button mounted to the right of the steering wheel activates a further set of electrickery to help save petrol. In this mode the power delivery is flattened out and the air-conditioner shuts down when not needed or when the vehicle has come to a halt. At low speeds there is no electric-only operation as is the case with the Prius, for example.

Drive like an environmentalist and, Honda claims, you will use just 4,6 litres/100 km on average. We find that figure a little optimistic. Even our CAR index of 5,52 is probably going to be difficult to match. The on-board fuel consumption meter registered roughly 7,5 litres/100 km during the test period. But the figure that will matter most to many buyers is the tax-dodging 108 g/km emissions rating.

At part throttle openings the engine and transmission work well together. Floor it, when overtaking, for example and the engine feels overworked as the transmission engages the peak power value at 5 800 r/min. Speed rises, slowly, but the engine noise and revolutions do not abate. There are paddles mounted on the steering rim to engage one of seven pre-set steps. We cannot really see the point of the paddles as the ECU will override the pre-selected “gear” if you depress the accelerator further. Of course, full throttle situations will be few and far between for most Insight owners.

Drive sedately and the lighting behind the speedo (if you can see it) turns to a friendly shade of green. Use wider throttle openings and the backlighting turns to blue. Another eco-driving tutor is the growth of electronic flora on the display. Drive in a fuel efficient manner and your “nursery” flourishes. Drive like a cowboy and the plants fade away.

An area of concern is the ride… Considering the relaxed “just cruising” driving style the car’s on-board systems hope to cultivate, the ride is perhaps a bit too harsh, as if Honda half heartedly attempted to give the Insight sporty dynamics. The ride quality is certainly not cosetting, and not only does the Insight bump and crash over sharp ridges, but the associated noises intrude the cabin as well.

The Insight employs a familiar MacPherson strut set-up for the front wheels and a torsion beam axle to suspend the rear. This may save space for the inclusion of a battery and more luggage room, but passenger comfort is the trade off. Similarly, the steering action is precise but devoid of any real feeling, not that most Insight owners will notice or care.

Honda understands that hybrids are only a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of zero-emissions vehicles. Therefore it has chosen to go the less complex route in terms of its hybrid concept and, as a result, the company is able to offer the cheapest hybrid available today. For that we applaud them.

However, the Insight is far from perfect – the ride refinement doesn’t fit with the car’s otherwise relaxed nature, and the realworld fuel economy, as with most hybrids we’ve tested, doesn’t live up to expectations, and there are a few packaging issues as well.

That said, many of those criticisms apply to other hybrids, and considering the Insight’s more affordable price, it is a solid proposition if you MUST have a hybrid. The test team, however, still feels that there are more traditional rivals that offer similar benefits but less complexity and better refinement.