Hybrids appear good on paper, but how are they on the open road?

The 2013 Honda Insight, pictured above, looks like

The 2013 Honda Insight, pictured above, looks like a normal compact car, because it is a normal car. It just adds an electric helper motor to assist accelerating the vehicle. (Credit: Honda )

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It's widely known that hybrid vehicles shine brightest in high-density stop-and-go traffic, achieving in the process low fuel consumption and ultra-low greenhouse-gas emissions. That's because the built-in electric motor helps the gas engine get the car rolling.

But how are they on the open road? More to the point, how do they fare in wide-ranging road traffic? Can they cover great distances in comfort yet deliver a decent ride without working their little hybrid hearts into a state of mechanical coronary?

In an attempt to answer the bigger questions of the universe, Honda surrendered a new-generation Insight hybrid for an outing through the rugged Precambrian shield running alongside Lake Superior, which borders Michigan. The average speed was about 60 mph over 10 hours with frequent scenic stops along the way; the road climbs and drops majestically, all the while snaking along Superior's craggy shores.
Spirited driving isn't the point of the Insight and so, responsibly, we steadfastly minded speed limits and drove in as smooth a manner as possible with lightly applied throttle inputs to probe its higher-speed fuel economy. The gasoline/electric drive system, though able to deliver near-brisk performance if required, is in its element when the driver strives for economy and smoothness.

The Insight actually assists in this effort through in-dash displays that show: fuel consumption; when it's running on gas, electric or both; and when the on-board batteries are being re-charged, capturing the Insight's rolling (kinetic) energy through "regenerative" braking, and when decelerating.
Another readout displays a five-branch tree that rates the green-ness of the drive: the branches disappear or come back based on how aggressively the throttle is used. Push a little harder and the light that bathes the instrument panel blends to blue from green, returning to green when pressure eases. It's subtle and quietly keeps one mindful.

The 1.3-liter (that's just 79.3 cubic inches) four-cylinder gas engine has a single overhead camshaft, two valves per cylinder and variable valve timing. Driving the front wheels, it's small by conventional reckoning, but mated to Honda's fifth-generation Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system, it carries the freight, operating quietly, seamlessly and effortlessly.

Burning regular gas, the engine rates at 88 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, with torque at 123 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. When engaged, the IMA adds up to 13 more horses at 1,500 rpm and a further 58 pound-feet of torque to the mix. Unlike the Toyota Prius - the Insight's primary cross-shopping nemesis - the Insight cannot run on electric power alone. When accelerating, the gas engine is always running, given a boost by the IMA.

Sitting silently at the stoplights with the gas engine automatically shut down, you wouldn't think the Insight would win any drag races, but it does acquit itself well against other vehicles in its class. Acceleration can approach brisk when the throttle is pressed deep into the pile carpet mats, useful for passing maneuvers and when accelerating onto fast-moving freeways, but not so much for extending fuel economy.

Weight is typically the enemy of fuel economy, so it's with some irony that the IMA adds almost 50 pounds over a comparably equipped Civic, yet gives superior fuel economy, which speaks well of the system's efficiency. Throughout the drive, fuel economy hovered mostly around the 48-mpg mark. After a while, it becomes almost obsessive to see how low you can drive the consumption, and for how long at a time.

The interior accommodates four average-sized adults. The front bucket seats are firm and began to feel that way after several hours. The dash and controls are well placed and functional though overhead glare on the spade-shaped cover at the top of the instrument panel was visible several times throughout the drive. The thick rear pillars that taper back to the tidy aerodynamic rear end make backing up an exercise in neck-craning, and the view through the rear-view mirror is restricted.

With the back seats folded flat, the seemingly small hatchback swallows a surprising amount of cargo, an essential quality for out-of-city driving. With the rear doors open and the hatch lid raised, loading large and bulky items is easy.

When the first-generation Insight beat all other hybrid-powered vehicles to market more than a decade ago, it launched a terrific idea, but in a body style that while looking sleek and futuristic, didn't exactly set the world ablaze. As two-seater coupe, it had limited cargo space and didn't fit many lifestyles.

Starting at $19,300, the 2013 Insight offers all the functionality and then some of a compact sedan and depending on the view, in a somewhat futuristic design. The front disc/rear drum brakes are also unlike the original Insight's in that they have excellent pedal feel and are very easily modulated.

And to answer the obvious question many will ask: over the entire 500 miles, not once did a string of cars pile up behind us waiting to pass.

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