In almost every aspect in life there’s an easy way to do things, and then there’s the hard way. Neither route is necessarily the right way in a given situation; it would be easy, for instance, to end a relationship by text message, but we can probably all agree here it’s not the right way. But very occasionally, the hard way turns out to be… well, surprisingly easy.
Case in point: You’re shopping for a used daily driver. It must be affordable to buy, ideally reliable, and if you’re planning on doing a lot of miles, then ideally also economical. The easy way in this situation is to pick up a used Polo or Golf TDI, which can be found on almost every street corner and meet your criteria with very little effort.
The hard way would be to hunt down a rare, weird and exotic Japanese hybrid coupe from the turn of the millennium, that shares surprisingly little with its contemporary stablemates, and makes you look like an extra from a cheesy 1980s sci-fi show.
Dear reader, I took that second route by buying a 2001 Honda Insight, Honda’s first hybrid production car, back in 2014. And yet it turned out to be one of those rare instances where doing things the hard way was actually unbelievably easy.
Firstly, the Insight didn’t actually take much tracking down. A colleague spotted the car on a classified site and posted the ad on Twitter. As a fan of the car since its 1999 launch - I’d grown up with a thing for Honda’s CRX, and the Insight was effectively its futuristic equivalent for the new millennium ahead - the ad immediately caught my eye. As did its location, only twenty miles or so from where I lived.
The seller was making all the right noises too. He was only selling the car because he’d found an example in the more iconic Citrus Yellow paintwork to replace it, and there was a useful folder of paperwork and a multitude of clean MOTs in its history. On viewing the car he turned out to be a bit of a petrolhead too - a common theme with Insight owners - and had recently purchased some wonderfully gratuitous American land yacht as a weekend toy.
The deal was done for - if I recall correctly - around four grand, and from that moment on the Honda slipped absolutely effortlessly into my life. It did everything you’d expect the Insight to do well at, a few things well that you might not expect, and had very few causes for complaint, the latter amounting mainly to a slight knocking from the rear and a habit for the seatbelt to get damp after heavy rain.
The good stuff though really was great. Firstly, it was outstandingly frugal. Some of the very latest hybrids and diesels can just about match it in everyday driving if you’re naturally light-footed, but the Insight made 70mpg absolutely effortless. Put in some effort and keep your motorway cruising speed under 70, and 80mpg was there for the taking over a tank. My highest single-journey figure, over the course of about 50 miles, was 110mpg. Despite quickly piling on the miles with semi-regular trips between North Yorkshire and the south, I could do several journeys before having to fill up. My best effort ended up at just a shade under 600 miles from a 34-litre fill, or one and a half round-trips to London.
What you might not expect was that it also felt in its element on the motorway. Around town, where hybrids normally excel, the fairly stiff ride could jostle you about, but at speed everything settled down. Wind noise was minimal (no production car was as aerodynamic as the Insight when it was new), tyre noise not especially intrusive (skinny 165-section rubber saw to that), and despite the engine turning at only around 2000rpm at 70mph, the electric assistance was always there to kick in some torque up hills. It was remarkable having this tiny 1.0-litre engine lugging you up a motorway incline in top gear with no effort, and still seeing the econometer drop no lower than 50mpg.
Other surprises? It was pretty good fun to drive too. A 12.5-second 0-62mph time will seem glacial to some of you, but it’s a good couple of seconds quicker than say, a Citroen C1, and there’s a race series for those these days. That all-aluminium chassis helped, making it around 100kg lighter than a similarly-sized first-gen MX-5, at 850kg.
There was sod-all feel through the electrically-assisted steering (and its plastic version of the steering wheel from the Honda S2000) but the ratio was quick enough that once you were familiar with the stiff suspension, modest grip and tiny dimensions, you could still really sling the thing around. And as we all know, momentum isn’t just key to making slow cars fun, but never having to slow down is also pretty good for economy.
But an underrated quality of great cars is that you can enjoy them whatever kind of driving you’re doing, and here the Insight excelled. I always got a buzz from the kooky styling, from its surprisingly sporty two-seat cockpit with those low-slung seats and minimalist digital dashboard, and from knowing I was driving what was effectively a money-no-object project for Honda. These things were £17k back in 1999 and Honda still lost money on them. It was even built in the same factory as the S2000 and NSX and in pure engineering terms, was as exotic as either.
Best of all, I really put the miles on it, something I’ve never really done with any car I’ve owned since, and that allowed me to forge a bond with the car that the MX-5s I’ve owned, or the FD Mazda RX-7 I currently own, will genuinely struggle to match.
In the end though I had to sell the Insight. After a year, a new job meant I wasn’t driving the car nearly as much as I wanted, and despite lending it to my brother for much of the following year (who rather enjoyed it too), neither of us could justify keeping it around. I sold it to a colleague for £2000, a low sum but one that sweetened the deal for him given that by now the battery light had begun to flicker. Ironically he still owns the car and hasn’t had to change the battery - he just got regular use out of it and the issue cleared itself.
Buying a Honda Insight wasn’t the easy way of getting an economical car when I needed one back in 2014. But given those brief few years were probably the best I’ve enjoyed with any car, it was definitely the right way.