How I Started to Love Hybrids: my Honda Insight ZE1

After driving my Nissan Sunny B12 Coupés for many years, I felt I needed something more environment-friendly and a bit safer. Due to my work, I had the opportunity to drive a fourth-gen Toyota Prius as a test vehicle. Most car enthusiasts would consider it boring. I, however, loved how it was optimized in any aspect to achieve a maximum fuel economy. Driven properly, you could easily reduce your fuel consumption to 3.3l/100km. An impressive value for a sedan!

Researching the Most Fuel Efficient Vehicle on the Market

Hence, I decided I need a similar fuel efficient vehicle myself. The Prius was no option for me, as it was 1) too expensive, 2) not “special”, 3) looks ugly (at least the fourth generation). My search started right at, a German platform where users document their fuel consumption records. The website allows filtering the fuel consumption records by the most fuel efficient vehicles, and the first entry in the list surprised me. It was not the Toyota Prius I expected. It was a car that so far has completely evaded my attention: a quirky looking Honda Insight.

The Highscore of the most fuel-efficient Insights.

The lowest recorded fuel consumption was less than 3L/100km, or about 80 miles per gallon. This was a value considered impossible to achieve without a plug-in possibility. Even stranger, it was a car built in 2000! How could such an old car achieve such impressive numbers? Read on.

The first-generation Honda Insight is an Engineering Marvel

Doing my research, I learned that in the early 2000, under pressure from threatening US environmental laws, Honda built a car with the goal of reducing emissions as much as possible. That car was not designed by the marketing department. It was a product made by engineers, without compromises or cutting corners. Just looking at it in detail, you could feel how the hard-working Japanese engineers in the late 90ies did everything possible to build a revolutionary car. Below is a list of features that the little Insight has to offer:

  • full aluminum monocoque, total weight of the complete car of just about 850kg
  • 3cylinder 1L engine
  • lean-burn operation
  • NOX-trap type catalyst
  • super-lightweight aluminum wheels with low-resistance tires
  • Low-friction bearings
  • 144V Nickel Metal Hydride battery pack with battery management system, thermal monitoring, over/undercharge protection
  • A ultraslim 10kW brushless DC motor, mounted on the crankshaft

You really have to give Honda credit for investing so much R&D effort into building this car. I mean, how was this possible back in the late 90ies? People were still struggling with Windows 95 every day, and, unlike today, electric drivetrains, battery systems, BMS were not popular, and cutting-edge technology.

Getting an Insight in Germany

These technical details fully convinced me, and I had to get one of these fascinating two-seaters. Unfortunately, Honda did not sell many of these in the Germany. Back in the early 2000s, Europeans regarded clean Diesel engines as the future of Automotive. Only about 100 of these little Insight cars made their way to customers here, in an attempt of Honda to test the market, before giving up.

Now, I have to say that an ecological lifestyle is very important for me. I prefer fixing things to buying new. It makes me happy when things are well maintained, repaired, and keep getting used. I apply the same ideas to cars and tend to buy cars others would simply scrap, and then invest lots of effort to bring them to life again.

This Insight was in an Accident, and Sold for Spares

That’s what happened here as well. I looked for a while on the used car market, but the Insights available for sale were either overpriced, in too perfect condition, or overpriced and in terrible condition. However, one day, I found an Insight offered up for parts, and decided to risk making a three-hours trip to Siegen to take a closer look at it. It looked bad.

My Insight at the seller’s location.

Really bad. It’s hard to see, but that car was in a front end collision. The bonnet, bumpers and radiator and support are bent. The headlight was cracked. It was leaking coolant. The IMA batter was dead, and it barely managed to start with the 12V starter motor.

The interior shows signs of 340,000 km driven.

The ODO meter showed more than 340,000 km. The carpet and seats were worn. The driver seat had a 20cm diameter hole in the fabric. On top of that, the car was disgustingly dirty, smelled badly like old tobacco. On top of that, the car was missing the registration papers. No one with a clear mind would have brought that car back to life.

The Insight being prepared to be delivered to my home.

On the other hand, I checked that the main body was straight. The paint was still in acceptable condition, and the airbags were not deployed. I deemed that the accident can be provisional repaired. The engine didn’t fall apart in the 30 seconds I had it running without cooling, so what could possibly go wrong? I signed the contract, and organized the transport to my place.

The Restoration Begins

After my new Insight arrived at home, I immediately started disassembly and damage assessment. The radiator support was bend significantly, but it could be replaced without having to weld aluminum. The bumper bean also still available at Honda, and I fixed the bend bonnet with a hammer.

Only much later I learned that bending aluminum parts works much better if you heat them up. By the way, I am still looking for a replacement bonnet. Let me know if you have one.

The hood lock, new bumper beam, both air conditioner cooler and water cooler were still available, and were replaced with new parts.

The interior was a bit harder to get into acceptable condition. A pot of coffee grain left for several months was surprisingly effective to remove the tobacco smell. The interior was cleaned using a Tornador cleaning gun.

When buying the car, I was hoping that the IMA battery could be revitalized by grid charging, so I bought some LED drivers and electrical components, and DIY-built a battery grid charger. However, the effort was futile. The battery was beyond saving, and a full set of new battery sticks was necessary.

Beyond that, my Insight required the “usual” old car maintenance: new oil, brake and clutch fluid, new brake components front and rear, transmission oil change and new radiator fluid. A bit annoying was the oil pan, whose oil drain plug threads were stripped. The oil pan was sealed with 2K metal glue. I removed the glue with a heat gun and fixed the oil pan with a helicoil thread repair, and put a magnetic drain screw in it.

Eventually, after many weeks of work, all major issues were resolved, and I drove the car to the vehicle inspection – and didn’t pass! I will share the problems found during the inspection in my next blog post.

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