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Going the Extra Miles


We are northbound on the Jones Falls Expressway, just past the Pepsi sign, riding hard under a dazzling blue sky, when this thought occurs to me: Redemption is a beautiful thing.

How does the old song go? I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see. Yes, that's it. That's it exactly.

Once I worshiped at the altar of the almighty SUV, those gas-guzzling behemoths of the Beltway with their leather captain's chairs and 27 cup holders and interiors roomy enough to fit the passenger list of the Queen Mary.

But those days are over, brothers and sisters.

Now, I'm Mr. Save-the-Planet in my choice of automobiles.

Mr. Sub-Compact.

Mr. Stay Alive, Drive 55.

Oh, sure, the cynics will say the OPEC cartel and the price of a gallon of unleaded regular shooting up to $1.60 had something to do with it.

Let 'em say what they want.

Friends, I have seen the light.

That's why I'm tooling up the JFX at this moment in the new Honda Insight, a gas-electric hybrid which, at a whopping 71 miles-per-gallon highway (and 61 city) is the most fuel-efficient car sold in the United States.

(The most fuel-efficient car in the world is the 3.0-liter Volkswagen Lupo diesel, sold in Europe, which gets 77 mpg. But let's not split hairs here, OK? I'm feeling too good about myself for that. If it makes you happy, next time I'm in Dusseldorf, I'll make sure my rental's a Lupo.)

The Insight -- this one is on loan from Anderson Honda on Howard Street -- is a two-seat hatchback with a 1.0-liter, 3-cylinder engine and standard transmission.

Ours is a snazzy fire-engine-red number that sells for $21,090 before taxes and tags, and right now the sleek, futuristic body, complete with rear tire skirts, is causing more than a few heads in passing cars to snap in our direction.

The Insight is the first gas-electric hybrid sold in this country. It's powered by both a gas engine and an electric motor that draws power from a nickel-metal hydride battery pack.

Charges itself

But we're not running a golf cart here; Insight owners don't have to worry about recharging the battery themselves. (Thank goodness, because a sign on the battery cover says ominously: "Warning -- High Voltage. You will be killed or hurt. Do not remove the cover." Whew! What happens if you check the oil? Does your head explode?)

Actually, the battery is regenerated by the motor during deceleration and braking. And when the 67-horsepower engine is straining -- when you're going up hills (more on this later) or passing another car on the highway -- the electric motor kicks in to keep fuel consumption low.

None of that is truly important to us right now, however.

What's truly important is that the Insight can travel more than 700 miles on a single tank of gasoline.

So as we nose the car onto the exit ramp at Northern Parkway it occurs to us that we could drive from here to Chicago without fueling up.

Or from here to Ottawa, Canada.

Or from here to Savannah, Ga.

But then the Anderson Honda people would probably report the car as missing.

And the police would get involved.

The best gas mileage in the world isn't worth a stint in the slammer.

Sierra Club endorsement

Only 4,000 Honda Insights will be sold in the United States this year, and yet the new "green" car is generating an incredible amount of buzz in the auto world.

As you might imagine, the tree-huggers were absolutely ecstatic when the new cars first appeared in showrooms earlier this year.

The Sierra Club, in fact, has actually endorsed the Insight, the first such endorsement in the club's 108-year history.

"It isn't every millennium the Sierra Club praises a car," Carl Pope, the club's executive director, was quoted as saying, and in the background, you could almost hear the popping of champagne corks and the clink of glasses at Honda headquarters.

And the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy voted the Insight No. 1 on its "Greener Choices 2000" environmental guide to cars and trucks.

This is what happens when you produce a car with an EPA rating of 20 mpg more than your closest competitor, in this case, the VW New Beetle Diesel.

It doesn't hurt Honda, of course, that gas prices have shot through the roof. Its target market for the Insight is eco-friendly folks and consumers who feel that gas stations charging $1.72 for high-test might as well announce "This is a hold-up" when customers pull up to the pumps.

On the road

So how does the Insight drive? Not too badly, all things considered.

One thing you notice right away is how much leg-room the car has, unlike most sub-compacts, which generally have all the legroom of an airline seat in coach.

And once you get the Insight up to cruising speed, it zips along pretty well and handles effortlessly. For test purposes only (wink, wink) we exceeded the speed limit on a couple of occasions, and the car didn't strain in the least.

With its responsive transmission and tight cornering, it's actually a fun little car to drive.

Now for the negatives: the acceleration, as you would imagine from a three-cylinder engine, isn't the greatest.

As you merge into highway traffic, you find yourself down-shifting quite a bit, looking for more power so that the florist van that suddenly appears in the rear-view mirror does not come through the hatchback.

And on hills, the Insight tends to, well, wheeze a little, even when the electric motor kicks in.

(On a personal note, while the teardrop-shaped Insight has a lightweight, reinforced aluminum body that meets crash standards, I would not want to be involved in a collision in this baby.

(This is a small car. They'd be picking pieces of you out of the other car's grille for the next 10 years.)

To save fuel, the engine cuts off when you sit at a traffic light with the car in neutral, which can be a bit unnerving.

But it comes back on right away when the light turns green and you pop it back in gear. And, look, if that helps me save a few bucks at the gas pump, I'd put up with the lack of engine hum, no problem.

OK, it's snug

Same thing with the cargo space, or lack thereof. Probably you could fit maybe two small overnight bags in the hatchback area, on top of that killer-battery cover.

But, again, it's something I could live with if I knew this car was saving me money.

And helping the environment by keeping pollution levels down.

As I said, I'm a changed man.

Somebody has to start thinking about this planet.

In any event, 40 minutes after starting out, we arrived back on busy Howard Street after our test-run.

Only one Insight -- this one -- has been shipped to Anderson Honda so far. But quite a few potential customers have expressed interest in it, salesman Braden Boudris informed us. And it's clear that hybrid gas-electric cars are here to stay.

Honda says it will lose money on the Insight by pricing it as low as it has. But the company says it's willing to do so to gain experience in the "green" car market and gauge buyer reaction.

Because later this year, Toyota will begin selling its own hybrid vehicle, the new Prius, which has been selling in Japan for two years and which gets 66 mpg.

As we pulled into the Anderson lot and parked, a big, gas-guzzling Land Rover rumbled by.

Tears formed in my eyes.

I couldn't help thinking: There, but for the grace of God -- OK, and the price of gas -- go I.

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