Drivers are offered a two-seat, low-slung radical design which seems to be aimed at a niche market even before the new engine is added. The 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit, a development of the current VTEC range, is permanently assisted by an electric motor, which mainly supplements demand for power when the driver is accelerating, using batteries stored in the boot. When stationary, the petrol engine automatically switches off, and only turns on again when the accelerator is pressed.
Power is raised from 67bhp for the engine alone to 75bhp with battery assist, offering an equivalent to a 1.5-litre Honda Civic. Unofficial tests suggest the car will reach 0-62mph in 10.2 seconds and a top speed of 112mph through its five-speed manual gearbox. The car will cover more than 730 miles on its 40-litre tank if driven with economy in mind. When it arrives in the UK in early 2000, Insight should cost between £13,000 and £17,000. It will offer the lowest CO2-producing mass production engine in the world, achieving 80grammes per kilometre, a great selling point for company car drivers wanting to limit their tax liability under the 2002 CO2-based company car tax regime.
Furthermore, the car will have a three-year/90,000-mile warranty and 9,000-mile service intervals to quell any doubts among fleet drivers. The battery should last the life of the car, Honda says, and standard equipment should include twin airbags, electric windows, power steering, remote central locking and electric mirrors. Such an impressive package makes the decision to offer a two-seater quite odd - surely appealing to a larger market would help recoup the massive investment in the new technology quicker? This is particularly true as initial estimates say Honda will be losing money on each car produced, with sales expected to be just 250 a year in the UK, rising to 500 a year in four years' time.
Honda insists the idea behind this car is to 'dip a toe in the water' and provide a showcase to tell people the potential of technology which could appear throughout the Honda range in coming years. Hisao Suzuki, president of Honda Research and Development Europe, said: 'The main objective was to produce an environmentally-friendly vehicle that could be driven in every region in the world.'
During a preview of the car at Honda's research and development centre in Germany, Koichi Fukuo, development project leader for Insight, said the aim was to create a car with a very low drag coefficient of Cd 0.25 and excellent fuel consumption, rather than start with a particular body style. For example, the body was made using aluminium, which is 40% lighter than an equivalent steel body, and a new NoX catalyst was added.
The first two Insights in Europe were available to test. On the road, once you get used to sitting very low down - there is no seat height adjustment - driving the car is little different to a 'normal' one. The three-cylinder engine sounds like a gruff V6 and accelerates swiftly in traffic, to the point of wheelspin, as a colleague found out. The electronic dashboard instruments include a fuel consumption gauge to keep your right foot off the accelerator.
When stopped at traffic lights, the engine dies away, unless you jiggle the gearlever or press the accelerator, and although there is an eery quiet, at least you know you are helping the environment. By the time the car is in gear and the handbrake down, the engine is up and running again and can pull you away from the lights quickly, helped by a light clutch, slick gearchange and impressive low down torque from the electric motor. Visibility is poor through the rear and luggage space limited, particularly for hiding things from the prying eyes of thieves.
But in a quick run from cold, the car achieved 63mpg and should easily be capable of more. Even though there was little time to drive the car, it was difficult not to be impressed by its build quality, driving and economy, but I don't think it will be replacing the Ford Mondeo in the company car park just yet.