Musings on the Motoring World

The Honda Insight returns in name, but will never in spirit

There is no better sign of the times that the return of Honda’s Insight hybrid generating barely any significant buzz at the New York Auto Show. This is the return of hybrid royalty, especially for the North American market where the Insight was its first commercially available hybrid. There should have been celebratory toasts of fairtrade coffee from everyone at the very least.

Maybe motor show fatigue dampened the enthusiasm as New York was riding off the coattails of Geneva’s a month earlier, or that a close-to-production prototype already made an appearance at Detroit in January.

Or it could all have to do with its conservative shape being too similar to that of a conventional sedan. After all, how are hipsters going to show off that they are saving the earth?

Then again, hipsters will sneer at it having an engine. It’s 2018, they don’t want to clatter around on antiquated lumps of the last century. They want clean and civil battery power like a slick iPhone on wheels.

What about the Insight’s original advocates, the hypermilers? Those strange nerds who catalogue and share their numbers with near autistic fervour, risking their lives to maintain engine revs below 2000rpm while overtaking the outside of a semi for the sake of not ruining their perfect sub-5L/100km run. Surely they would gush over the return of the Insight name.

Sadly they won’t be biting this time. While Honda hasn’t released any firm figures on how much the new Insight will sip, they threw out a rough estimate of “more than 50mpg”. Impressive figures for a conventional hybrid in its own right, but not exceptional.

Nowadays the US EPA’s 50mpg (4.7L/100km) hybrid club lists the Prius, the Hyundai Ioniq, and even a Kia SUV. Furthermore, hypermilers won’t fawn over conventional hybrids, not with plug-in varieties boasting figures in the 70mpg (3.4L/100km) region.

Exceptional was what the Insight made its name in. Well, the first one at least, as its successor later floundered around as a “cut-price” Prius.

The powertrain in the third-generation Insight isn’t all that outstanding either as it is Honda’s two-motor hybrid system that forgoes the use of a conventional transmission to channel drive through. Instead, the engine will play second fiddle to the electric motors at low-speeds, supplying electricity to the motors and keeping the batteries charged, whereas at higher speeds the engine is hooked up directly to the wheels.

This is a similar system that was used in the previous and current generation Accord Hybrid. And, since the Insight shares the same platform as the Civic, these shared components technically makes it a rebranded Civic Hybrid with the button gear selector from an Accord.

In that light, the third-generation is just another mediocre mainstream hybrid for the masses, no longer channelling the spirit of its efficiency-obsessed progenitor that sat atop the US EPA fuel economy rankings for 16 years. Then again, chances are, we’ll never see a true spiritual successor to the Insight ever again.

It wasn’t just its appearance that was ahead of its time, the original 1999 Insight’s engineering was just as remarkable. Although its Integrated Motor Assist system wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, Honda’s engineers sought out a different route, weight-saving, through the use of aluminium.

Building a car out of aluminium doesn’t sound like much today, but even though Honda produced the world’s first all-aluminium production car, the NSX, a decade prior to the Insight, building a car out of the lightweight metal back then still came at a great expense. Aluminium was light, but it was also less rigid and more malleable than steel.

To give you an idea of the expertise needed for such an undertaking, Ferrari only managed to get round to producing their first all-aluminium car in the same year Honda launched the first-generation Insight. That is an amazing achievement for an esoteric car that had to be built to a budget, but Honda did it. The Insight’s aluminium body and frame construction wasn’t just nearly half the weight of a Civic, its cost-effectiveness was more than double that of the NSX’s.

With a weight of 838kg, two seats, a manual transmission, and a body that could slice through the air with a drag coefficient of 0.25Cd at a time when everything else was just a slightly smoothed-over brick on wheels, the first-generation Insight scored the title of the most EPA-certified fuel-efficient petrol-powered car. A record the little hybrid held onto until the fourth-generation Toyota Prius came along. Little wonder that the 1999 original gained and maintained a cult following for so long.

But can a successor, sporting the same ethos on fuel-efficiency and using today’s powertrain technology, material construction, and aerodynamic knowledge, be produced? The answer is no.

For one, the market landscape over the past decade has changed. Hybrids have moved into the mainstream market. Where they were once the darling of early-adopters who were willing to put up with its premiums and limitations when it comes to highway travel in order to stand out from the crowd, today we have hybrids variants that are affordable, capable of blasting down the highway and even conquering the Nurburgring.

No longer riding on its unique merits, hybrids are now built to be sensible for a sensible audience. In the meantime, those early-adopters have moved onto something that doesn’t follow people’s sensibilities, which is electric and self-driving cars, or to be more exact, Tesla.

Besides changes in the market, there is also one more crucial aspect to enable such a car to be produced and to explain that we have to look at the one car that followed in its footsteps, the Volkswagen XL1.

The XL1 was everything the original Insight was, except reborn with 21st-century materials.

Cutting-edge powertrain? You bet. It had an 800cc two-cylinder diesel engine paired with a bank of lithium-ion batteries that delivered 50km of electric propulsion. Expensive lightweight materials? How’s about a carbon-fibre chassis and paint that is designed to be 50% lighter to keep its weight down to a scant 795kg? Aerodynamic oddball shape? Just look at it. The XL1 looks and goes like a ceramic knife cutting through the air with an incredible drag coefficient of 0.19Cd.

Put together, the XL1 was able to achieve a rated fuel consumption figure of 0.9L/100km, though penny-pinchers need not apply as its price tag of €111,000 placed it in Porsche territory with a planned build run of 250.

But the XL1 was never meant to be a hybrid for the people in the same vein as the Insight and all its ilk were. It was to be a technical masterpiece, an ode to the master of his realm, Volkswagen’s then head-honcho, Ferdinand Piëch. The XL1 was the culmination of Piëch’s decade-long pet project to achieve a seemingly impossible engineering goal of building a road-legal car that could achieve less than 1L/100km. It was a project that possibly nobody at Volkswagen thought Piëch would turn into a production car even if he managed to achieve it. But like many things in his career, he did it anyway.

With his name credited to the creation of the Le Mans-conquering Porsche 917 and the game-changing Audi Quattro rally car, Piëch’s engineering genius was legendary as was his knack for the automotive business. He not only turned Volkswagen’s fortunes around, he had revived loss-making luxury brands like Lamborghini and Bentley, bringing them to even greater heights of glory.

However, for all his technical brilliance and business acumen Piëch’s reputation is often shaded by the infamy of his sheer ruthlessness. Something which he seems to take in his stride. Known to be a demanding boss – Piëch once coldly said that he doesn’t tolerate the same failure of his employees twice – Piëch often sets unrealistic engineering goals for his engineers, goals which were achieved thanks to the enormous resources Volkswagen had accumulated with him at its helm.

Even though Piëch was instrumental in Volkswagen’s rise into becoming one of the biggest car companies in the world, he was also responsible for a whole host of money-burning projects that would have otherwise spelt the immediate end for any other industry head in his shoes.

Piëch’s all-aluminium Audi A2 was a small, technically ahead-of-its-time hatchback that tanked. Then there was his audacious plan to show that Volkswagen could match the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class with the over-engineered Phaeton which, it not only over-delivered on its promise, it ultimately failed to sell well enough to make back a fraction of its costs. And lastly, there were the billions of Euros poured into the development of the Bugatti Veyron, whose groundbreaking performance figures and shape were dictated by Piëch before his engineers could even set to work on it.

All things considered, for a limited build quality and a stratospheric price tag for a catastrophically slow car, it wouldn’t be surprising if Volkswagen’s accountants just didn’t bother calculating how much this whole XL1 endeavour had cost them just to stave off their eventual descent into alcoholism.

Celebrate his achievements or loathe his reputation, Piëch was a man who seemingly got what he wanted, never what was coming to him. He had rebuilt Volkswagen around him and despite his pet project shenanigans, his power made him indispensable to the company. And beyond his engineering prowess, it was his influence that had made the XL1 possible.

Observers would always cite the Bugatti Veyron as the defining achievement of Piëch’s career, but it simply isn’t. Selling a million-euro luxury super sports car is easy with plenty of the idle rich looking for the next thrill and trinket. But to sell something esoteric like the XL1 or the Insight, something that only the cerebral curios would appreciate in achieving something so difficult but yet so banal – that takes balls, brains, and boardroom brawn.

You need a visionary leader with the golden keys to a near-limitless pool of talent, technology, and money to burn. Someone who is obsessed with numbers and pushing engineering boundaries, and to hell with the bottom line. Someone in an unquestionable position of leadership, who is able to cajole board members and investors onto their side. You need someone like Herr Piëch in a place like Volkswagen. And as for Honda, they had someone similar in the 1990s. A man named Nobuhiko Kawamoto.

In almost a mirror of Piëch’s rise, Kawamoto joined Honda as an engineer and worked his way into Honda’s R&D division early in his career, cutting his teeth in developing racing engines. His exploits, including delivering McLaren the engines that powered Senna and Prost to their respective championship titles, later earned him the top job at Honda in 1990, landing him on the hot seat of a potential takeover by Mitsubishi Motors.

Kawamoto greatly admired the brash and maverick nature of Honda’s founder, Soichiro Honda, and part of Honda’s boldness must have rubbed off on the impressionable new CEO, not least when it came to his management style.

Shortly before Soichiro’s death in 1991, Kawamoto famously paid Honda’s venerated figurehead a visit to tell him that his company was too focused on its engineers and he was going to change all of it if Honda were to survive as an independent company. Plums checked and verified.

Surely enough Kawamoto then proceeded to shake up the staid engineering-obsessed corporate culture, promoted people based on merit instead of seniority, listened to their customers and rushed out a whole line of family and recreational vehicles instead of letting engineers take their sweet time developing them. He was known to be abrasive manager, even a bit of a dictator, but his boldness to upend Honda’s culture and management that was built around its late founder’s obsession with engineering solutions at all cost had cemented Honda’s independence and not only helped the company weather Japan’s economic stagnation but tripled its profitability during his tenure.

Kawamoto stepped down in 1998, a year before the Insight’s debut, but it’s highly likely that he gave the audacious Insight project to leapfrog the Toyota Prius – and future low emission vehicle regulations – in the crucial North American market his approval and blessing. After all, Kawamoto was part of the team which designed the first engine by a car maker to meet the Federal clean air regulations in the United States without needing a catalytic converter in 1973. So he has had a prior experience with dealing with the crucial North American market and tightening environmental regulations.

As mentioned before in our tribute to Kenichi Yamamoto, the automotive business is just about the cars that are built, sold, or raced. It is very much about the people that made it happen, and not just those who are obsessed with speed and racing prestige.

Talent and technology can create something like the Insight and XL1, but those alone won’t move the wheels of industry, not unless there is someone with the ambition to push engineering boundaries and the influence to make it happen, even if they know that many won’t appreciate and buy into that said vision.

There are only a handful of “Randian heroes” with this sort of ambition, determination, and power left in the industry. Akio Toyoda and Tobias Moers are a few such people, but with the absence of both Kawamoto and Piëch, the industry is steadily losing that inspiring and challenging spirit to bean counters and boardroom puppets.

In that regard, building such a revolutionary car might be the easiest part.

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