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Honda, drivers have new Insights on hybridsThe 2010 model is zippy with an upscale interior, but lower gasoline prices might hurt sales.
My would-be passenger paused as we approached our transportation, a small, sapphire-blue hatchback that sparkled in the sunlight.
The hesitation was followed by a sneer and a snarky "What´s that?" It was as if he had just spotted a giant, mutant zit growing on my forehead.
"It´s an Insight, Honda´s newest hybrid model," I said.
"Oh," was the only reply, and it was uttered the way a wine connoisseur might react to learning that the caviar that evening was being served alongside Manischewitz rather than Dom Perignon.
That tepid reaction to Honda´s Insight was repeated several times by others during my week-long test drive. I can state unequivocally that the reaction had less to do with the Insight´s styling, price or performance than the fickleness of human sensibilities.
Had the current Insight, a surprisingly roomy and practical four-door hatchback, arrived in 2007 - the year after Honda stopped offering its funky looking, two-door, two-seat predecessor - it would have been as popular as ice cream at a third-grade picnic.
And it would have remained a big hit right up until the end of last year, when gas prices started to drop dramatically.
How many people do you know who were trying to dump their pickup trucks and SUVs when gas cost $4.25 a gallon? And how many do you know who were in the market for small econocars at that time?
But now that gas is well under $3 most places, many Americans seem to have lost their taste for small, economical vehicles - even those as nice and as practical as the second-generation Insight.
Actually, calling this Insight second-generation is misleading because it has as much in common with the first Insight as Lance Armstrong has with the guy who rides unicycles at the circus. When Honda gave America its first gas-electric hybrid around 10 years ago, it was a revelation, a vehicle that squeezed more miles from a gallon of fuel by using an electric motor to assist its small gasoline engine.
The first hybrid available to consumers, the original Insight was as much an exercise in engineering as it was practical transportation. It looked like a streamlined rodent because that shape reduced drag, and reduced drag increases mileage.
"Skirts" over its rear wheel wells enhanced the Insight´s aerodynamics but were as visually appealing as a 400-pound NFL lineman in a thong.
The skirts covered tires with much stiffer sidewalls than conventional rubber to decrease the rolling resistance. Unfortunately, the harder tires also gave the car a stiff ride.
The original Insight´s large, rechargeable battery pack also compromised its practicality. Like today´s hybrids, the car never needed to be plugged in because its motor and regenerative braking kept its batteries charged.
But the size of the battery pack forced Honda to make the original Insight a two-seater.
I mention those things only because the new Insight is such a contrast. Despite being five inches shorter than a Honda Civic, the new Insight has enough interior room to qualify as a compact (not a sub-compact). It also can accommodate five passengers, as long as one of the rear-seat occupants is a child and all three are deft enough to climb in and out through smallish rear-door openings.
The new Insight also has as much cargo room behind its rear seat as the trunk of an average midsize sedan. And it joins Toyota´s Prius as one of only two current hybrid models that have folding rear seatbacks.
Driving the Insight is pretty much like driving most small cars. It´s not a "full hybrid" in that it never really moves solely on electric power, but neither does the driver notice the electric motor kicking in to provide an extra jolt of power.
And its brakes have a more natural feel than many other hybrids.
Generally, the Insight is also fun to drive, thanks to its nimbleness and crisp, responsive steering. Even its continuously variable transmission is responsive and unobtrusive, unlike some that seem to whir and whine continuously.
The 2010 Insight also rides comfortably on decent roads. But choppy and poorly maintained surfaces such as those often found around here can give Insight passengers a rough ride because, like its predecessor, it uses tires with stiffer sidewalls than most.
There´s nothing stiff about the Insight´s pricing, however. Its starting price of under $20,000 and ability to average a better-than-EPA rating of nearly 45 mpg during my testing makes this one of the few hybrids that would pay for itself in a reasonable time if gas climbs back over $4 per gallon.
Until or unless that happens, however, I´m afraid the Insight might remain more of a curiosity than a huge sales success, despite all it has going for it.
Scott Wasser is executive editor at MaineToday Media. His auto column appears weekly in the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times Leader and the Press Herald. He can be contacted at email@example.com