- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2002

Honda first used a gas-electric hybrid engine in its two-seater Insight. Then, in 2001 Toyota brought out its hybrid, a five-passenger Prius which it had been selling in Japan.
But gas-electric hybrid engines went mainstream this spring when Honda introduced its 2003 Civic Hybrid, representing the second generation of Honda's hybrid engine technology. Domestic automakers have yet to introduce a hybrid-engine production vehicle.
What makes the five-passenger Civic Hybrid significant is that Honda has put a hybrid engine in an existing vehicle. This is a Civic that just happens to get much better fuel economy.
These are not electric vehicles which must be plugged in and recharged. Gas-electric hybrid technology combines a gas engine with an electric motor that provides a boost when more power is needed.
When cruising, only the gas engine is working. When braking or coasting, that energy is captured by the electric motor and stored in the battery pack behind the rear seat until needed.
When more power is needed to merge onto highway traffic, to climb a steep grade, or to accelerate from a stop the electric motor kicks in, increasing the horsepower and torque.
I had driven both the Insight and Civic Hybrid on long-distance trips and thought it would be interesting to compare the three hybrid vehicles around-town. I picked a 27.9-mile loop around potholed Cleveland, a route that included five miles of highway driving at speeds of 50 and 60 mph. The rest was in-town, stop-and-go from 25 to 35 mph to the drug store, ATM and library drive-through.
The EPA fuel economy ratings for the Insight are 57 miles per gallon city and 56 highway. The Civic Hybrid is rated at 48 city and 47 highway. The Prius is rated at 52 city and 45 highway. Toyota officials say it gets better fuel economy in the city than on the highway because it depends more heavily on the gas engine on the highway than around town where the electric motor helps a lot. This is how the vehicles ranked on my 27.9-mile loop:
Honda Insight: 59.2 miles per gallon
Toyota Prius: 53.5 miles per gallon
Honda Civic Hybrid: 45 miles per gallon
Driving experience and flexibility are separate issues. While neither the Civic Hybrid nor the Prius can match the Insight's fuel economy, the two-passenger Insight is not as practical.
You'd have a tough time picking up a couple of kids at school.
The Insight is not as comfortable either. It has a much harsher ride than the other two, mainly because of its low-rolling-resistance tires. These tires are hard so that they can help the Insight get better fuel economy, instead of helping passengers get a cushy ride.
The Insight, with its 1-liter three-cylinder engine, is also power-deprived when it comes to acceleration. However, push hard on the gas pedal in the Civic Hybrid with its 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, and in the Prius with its 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and they scoot ahead in a way that the Insight cannot.
Cargo space figures are misleading. At 16.5 cubic feet, the Insight with its hatchback design would appear to trounce the Prius with an 11.8-cubic-foot trunk and the 10-cubic-foot capacity in the Civic Hybrid. But that figure in the Insight is achieved only if cargo is stacked to the roof, blocking visibility.
The problem is that in the Insight the cargo floor is practically even with the head restraints because the battery is underneath the cargo floor.
The Prius and Civic Hybrid both have pretty much the same amount of interior room for passengers in the front and rear. Neither dominates in head- or legroom. Only a little interior flexibility is lost in the Civic and Prius. The rear seats will not fold down because the batteries that power the electric motor are located behind the rear seats in both vehicles.
The Civic Hybrid feels more structurally solid, is more stable and leans less when cornering than the Toyota Prius, which is getting a little old in model years.
The verdict? The Insight wins when it comes to fuel economy, but not utility or comfort. The Prius and Civic have all the room and practicality of your basic smaller four-or-five-passenger sedans; however, the Civic Hybrid has a slight edge because of its refinement.


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