Friday, February 18, 2011

A new wonder: Why is the Honda Insight so affordable?

Dubbed as the next era transportation by Honda, what really is the deal behind the Insight other than being known as a cheap global hybrid car? Today we will delve deep into the insight behind this globe trotting, earth conscious vehicle.

The Honda Insight uses a parallel hybrid system which means the primary power source still comes from the engine, assisted by a motor. There are also the series and parallel-series systems, the latter is the platform designed by Toyota for the Prius, which utilizes two different power sources from the engine and the motor. Of course, every system has its universal pros and cons, but what I feel different between the Insight and Prius is the 'driver's experience' that comes from the distinctive value resulted by different engineering heritage. If you are a driver-driver, looking for sporty handling and the i-VTEC drive-enhancing rev sonic is music to your ears, then your clear choice is the Insight. But if you are a passenger-driver, looking to escape everyday traffic and seek sanctuary in cabin comfort, then the Prius may be more apt for you. However, having said that, both the Insight and Prius are not meant to compete head-to-head because of different values and pricing strategies. It's hard for the public to not misunderstand especially when they carry a similar tear-drop design.

Globally, the Prius is priced higher which is fair due to the complication of their parallel-series build. The Honda IMA parallel hybrid system is a lot less complicated, without needing an additional 'generator' in the car. This allows Honda to really save on production cost. If at all, Insight's pricing has managed to bring down the overall average price of hybrid vehicles thus making them more accessible to all. In the more noble point-of-view, it is important to note that ONE manufacturer is not enough to battle global warming. Every effort makes a difference and remember? We don't have all the time in the world.

Cost-saving Insight - Why is it so cheap?!

Affordable is the better word. There are a lot of negativity which tags along with the word 'cheap'. Exactly, why is the Insight priced at such an affordable price, considering it's a CBU from Japan? Is it an inferior product? Here are some answers to uncloud the haze:

1) The Insight uses a new and improved Intelligent Power Unit (IPU) which basically consists of a battery pack (7 modules of the nickel-metal-hydride batteries down 4 from previous generation IPU), a power control unit (that determines power usage from the engine and/or motor) and a cooling system (that regulates cabin air). It is now more compact, located under the rear cargo floor that increases overall space as well as output and durability by 30%. Lesser battery modules equals to lesser production cost equals to lesser cost to consumer.

2) In order to anticipate global market demand, Honda has also increased production efficiency via a new and highly automated assembly line in Suzuka factory in Japan. The automation has resulted to maximization of resources and cost reduction as well.

3) The convergence of mechanical components in the IMA system has also managed to provide higher value to user at a lower cost. We're not unfamiliar with convergence if you really think about it - the latest Playstation Phone is a good example. Mobile internet, MP3 phones, projector cameras, etc. The value of this technical convergence may not be immediately apparent to users, but has definitely helped price the Insight attractively.

The cost up front may be cheap, but long term savings?

Wake up. At the rate this country is going in helping local manufacturers, we will never have a hybrid that can 'return' our investment. However, the Insight gives astonishing numbers in fuel-efficiency. Travelling 150km from KL to Melaka via a stopover in PD, Insight's fuel-efficiency ranges between an average of 19 to 25 km/l at different driving speed. Honda's official claim is 4.6l/100km which is an average of 21.7km/l. One of the most common misunderstanding is low speed = low fuel usage, therefore high speed = high fuel usage. Well of course, higher speed requires more power therefore burning more fuel, but just to correct the perception, the equation is not directly proportionate to one another. In short, you don't have to drive like a 75 year-old grandfather to achieve above 20km/l. What is more important is your throttle control, the foot pressure during both acceleration and braking. Sudden and often switches between the two will cost you more fuel. Period. During our test drive on the highway, revving the engine and climbing up to a steady speed of 140km/h still resulted in a very confident 23km/l! Then again, I could be bias. Try it for yourself.

Ways to improve fuel efficiency:

1) Do more foot-related exercise so that you can control throttling better. Driving at a constant speed (which is rare but not undoable) below 50km/h will switch off the engine automatically, running on motor alone. In case you want to know, the power that comes from the motor is stored in the IPU via regenerative braking (every time you brake and/or decelerate, power will be stored in the IPU). In such event, you use zero fuel. However, like I mentioned, if you have great right foot control while driving, even at high speed your fuel consumption should be optimistic. Just avoid driving like a cow.

2) The Econ mode is like your personal eco coach and consists of an Eco driving guide and an ECON button. The Eco driving guide is a 'passive interactive' system where the vehicle 'encourages' you to drive better by giving you real-time feedback. The speedometer changes colour from green which is ideal (very eco-friendly) to the less ideal blue (Insight recognises that you're on performance mode). Like I mentioned, sudden and quick shifts between the brake pedal and accelerator are more likely to turn your speedometer blue than purely judging from speed level.

3) A more fun way to drive is to try scoring for the 'eco leaves'. You will be rewarded one leaf (or more, depending) after every drive which you can also accumulate over a lifetime journey between you and your Insight if you've been good. The best score gets you a trophy of which it can be reset only by your dealer. See if you can challenge yourself to be a green champion.

4) Pressing the ECON button automatically regulates the engine, CVT, IMA, air conditioner and cruise control to give you even better mileage. This is automated, which means in the event you are fed up with points 2 and 3, consider just letting the Insight do the green job for you. Some people may worry about a faulty A/C during standing start-stop (aka traffic lights) because the air vents seem to be blowing 'wind' only. This is because the engine has in a way, stopped with only the motor running therefore the cooling system also shuts down for approximately 90s before cool air comes on again (in gas engine vehicles, it is the engine that powers the A/C and/or heater which is why you burn more fuel than you think you do).

Well, there you go. The affordability story behind the Insight is really due to higher efficiency in producing and designing the car which brings us to its core value of Simplicity. Simple to build, simple to drive, simple to maintain, simple to do your part for Earth. Following a great commercial line - isn't it great when everything just works?

But of course, the most important point is the excise duty that was imposed by the government (up to 75% of the total cost!) has been removed, at least for this year. I'm pretty sure Honda won't be relying on Insight to increase overall shares in this market because it's simply too volatile. What if the government loses the next election? No, actually, if they did then I'll be pretty confident that we'll get a whole lot more competitive hybrid market. I mean, what if they win the next election? What if they remove the incentive? Then go on, you can add back that 75%. So if I were you. And you kinda like the Insight, you should get it now. Because like I mentioned, a strategically sound corporation will not plan its foundation on uncertain grounds. And Honda, I'm sure is one of them.

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