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This article is to help people who are interested in buying a Honda Insight but really don't know that much about the car. You can find a lot of information in this article on the insight central interactive encyclopedia. On the left side of the opening page there are links to all sorts of information about the car and it's features etc.
Many of your questions will probably be answered at this link on the forum.
In this article I will present the common problems that you may find when looking at a car that is for sale. Please don't let all this talk of Insight problems cause you to think these cars are unreliable. Hondas in general are very reliable if proper maintenance is done. I've been driving the same 1988 Honda CRX-HF for 23+ years. And it was a used car when I bought it. In all those years the only major items I've had to change are, one drive shaft, the water pump and the timing belt. The car now has 109,000 miles on it and still runs fine.
A Honda Insight is not your normal car though. It was more or less a Honda rolling experiment to test the market for the first Hybrid car sold in the USA. The main goal of the car was achieving unheard of miles per gallon of fuel in a car that has all the safety and electrical features a modern car had at the time of manufacture. I can easily get the mileages shown on the opening page of this website which states, "How does 85 mpg at 65 mph, 90 to 105 mpg at 50 mph or 120 mpg at 30 mph grab you?" It takes practice and a steady foot on the gas but it can be done.
My car is a 2005 manual shift car so I am more knowledgeable about that transmission car. The other transmission offered was a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) which is a form of an automatic transmission with infinite gear ratios. The CVT cars can have their own set of problems concerning the transmission.
The reason I wrote this article is because while the car is very reliable if you don't do your own car maintenance etc, the dealer price for parts etc is probably going to be more than you would expect. And since the cars are fairly rare the dealers don't see many of them and tend to change parts that don't normally go bad in an attempt to fix them. Luckily the Insight has a very loyal and knowledgeable fan base at the insightcentral.net/forums.
So take this article as part of what many loyal owners of these cars do. i.e. Help other people to get straight answers and help each other in maintaining, repairing and enjoying these unusual cars.
First off, if you've never seen or ridden in an Insight
There seems to be a nice spread of Insight owners around the USA. So you might want to join the insightcentral.net/forums and ask if anyone with an Insight in your area would show you their car. In the larger cities you will probably get more than one offer. I've helped several people find their Insights.
I'd read as much as you can on the forum. That way you'll know more about the car and what to look for etc. I lurked in the forum for 6 months while looking for the car I found locally. It was worth the wait.
There are lots of Honda Insight manuals etc that you can download from this link. You'll find the owners manual, various service manuals etc. Grab all you can. There is one download in particular that has 93 pages of wiring schematics.
I recently bought the OEM Honda "2000-06 Insight Service Manual" from Helm for $63 delivered. It is massive (~1600 pages and heavy)! Really a great investment if you do your own car work. Link to Helm manual.
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OK enough of that, here are some of the special things to check
All of the checks also apply to the CVT models except of course the one about the transmission..
When you go to look at an Insight first check it out like any normal used car. Or bring someone along who is familiar with old car problems. Then do the specific checks listed below.
1. The gas engine should instantly start with the 13 hp hybrid motor when you push the clutch pedal to the floor with the key turned to the start position. If you hear the normal 12 volt starter working a few seconds after pushing the clutch down you will have an indication that there is a hybrid battery problem or the battery is turned off or disconnected. (The car can run as a gas only car though and still get great fuel mileage once you are moving along.)
Ask the owner if and when the hybrid battery was changed. If it has been changed ask to see the documentation of the change. also ask if they had to pay anything for the exchange or if it was free. This affects the length the battery warranty. If they got the battery free; the warranty is for 1 year. If they paid anything; the warranty is for 3 years for the exact same battery as the 1 year warranty. The warranty goes with the car not the owner of the car.
In many cases a weak hybrid battery can be brought back to life by grid charging. A new, better than OEM battery from several of the forum vendors will cost about $1900 but you have to install it yourself or find an electrical mechanical person to do it for you. Contact one or more of the forum battery vendors for details and prices.
2. Are all the aero panels in place under the car? There is an aluminum panel under the car right behind the front bumper running from one side of the car to the other side. Two more plastic ones are under and on either side of the engine attached to the aluminum panel and two more on either side of the car towards the rear of the car. Some owners add a small panel between the two under engine panels. It has to be removed to do oil and/or filter changes though. To check for the front panels just kneel down at the front of the car and feel around about 10" behind the bumper and if you feel metal and plastic towards the rear the panels are there.
Also look under the front fenders in front the tires for the "strakes". They are black, soft rubbery bulges that split the air as it flows under the fenders just in front of the tires. The strakes frequently get torn by snow drifts, off road excursions and when people pull right up to the concrete "tombstones" in parking lots. When the driver backs up to leave, the strake can get caught on the tombstone and get torn off the car.
3. Look under the hood on the drivers side for the main fuse box. Look below the fuse box on the forged aluminum frame. You should see two grounding cables. They can get corroded and become disconnected. That could cause some strange electrical problems and it is a good bargaining point if the owner doesn't know any better. I used AWG #4 audio amp power cable to make new ground cables for my car.
4. If you test drive a car try to make the electric motor (the IMA) assist a good bit to see if the right most meter; the battery "State Of Charge" (SOC) meter, goes up and down like a yo-yo. If it does, the battery needs help or could be really shot. A grid charger might get it to behave if the battery is out of balance. And most older batteries will be out of balance if the owner doesn't own a grid charger (basically a 174 volt, low current trickle charger).
Ask the owner if he has a grid charger (which you'd want with the car). You can build your own charger for under $100 using a bad computer power supply as the case. See my article, "Grid charger-discharger" for details of building your own charger and discharger. The article also explains what grid charging is and how to rejuvenate the IMA battery.
With a good or new battery the SOC gage will change perhaps one bar in normal driving. The SOC gage is like many older gas gages in that it is quite non linear near the top of the gage. Normally the number of bars doesn't change very much if the SOC is near the top of its range and the battery is in good condition. (Surprisingly the gas gage on the Insight is quite linear and each bar represents about 1/2 gallon of gas.)
5. Check if the car has Bridgestone Potenza RE-92 165/65R14 low rolling resistance tires on the car.
NO OTHER MAKE OR SIZE TIRE WILL GIVE YOU THE MAXIMUM MPG THAT THE CAR IS CAPABLE OF GIVING.
Once they are broken in the Bridgestone Potzensa tires will give 5 to 10% more mpg than other (ordinary) tires. Stock rims are unique and give the car a special look. They are also very light and don't cause a lot of air turbulence when driving.
6. Some of the auto part places will read the OBDII error codes for free. If you found a new friend that showed you his car they might have a OBDIIc&c gage that was designed and is sold by one of the forum members that can also read out the codes and many other data points of the car.
If you find a car that you are really interested in I would strongly recommend that either the owner or you take the car to an auto parts store to see if the car has any error codes. A clever owner might have reset the codes by disconnecting the 12 volt battery for a bit. I have checked out several cars with known battery problems that showed no codes because of being reset before I arrived. But a really weak battery will usually set the error codes again with a spirited test drive.
Don't go to a dealer to have them read the codes because they know very little about these cars other than what their computer says to do. And the dealer will generally charge you to read the codes.
If the car is out of town you should try to get someone who is familiar with the G1 Insight to inspect the car for you.
If the car has error codes start a thread on insightcentral.net/forums giving the code number(s) so people on the forum can tell you what problems they represent. More importantly you will probably get good advice how to fix the problem if you end up buying the car.
7. Low mileage cars (under 150k) are preferable if properly maintained. Since the cars are very reliable even much higher mileage cars should be good for many years of trouble free service. Consider this, the first tune up is scheduled at 105,000 miles!
Personally I wouldn't go for a car with 300+ K miles unless it was an exceptional car and well taken care of. Ask the owner if they have any of the dealer invoices for work or maintenance done on the car. This paperwork can give you an indication of how well the car was maintained and what problems have been fixed. The cars originally sold for a premium price so most original owners kept them in good condition.
8. If the car judders when you let the clutch out; especially in reverse, the rear motor mount is probably shot. This is a common problem. Luckily it isn't too hard to change and new ones (maybe NOS) are available.
By the way parts from the Honda Dealers are outrageously expensive. Very few parts from other Honda cars will fit. There are quite a few people selling used parts on the forum though. And there are several sources on the web for new parts.
9. There isn't much to rust on an Insight because of the aluminum body and chassis, but check for road salt damage. One place to look to get an idea if the car lived in a salted road area is under the hood at the cast iron engine parts and the center nut on the top of each front suspension strut. They usually aren't plated and can rust. Also the shield covering the emissions converter at the back of the engine will probably have surface rust on it but it shouldn't have holes rust right through the metal. If you see badly rusted parts examine the undercarriage etc for salt damage.
10. The clutch input shaft bearing [ISB] on the MT cars seems to be the weak area in the transmission. When you drive the car notice if you hear a whirring high pitched bearing like noise when taking off in 1st and/or 2nd gear. You don't have to take off real hard, just normal acceleration. The fix for a really noisy bearing is to remove the transmission and change the bearing before it comes apart and ruin$ other $tuff.
My Insight had a very slight bearing like noise when I first got it but after about three weeks of normal driving the noise went away. So I don't really know what caused that noise. I attribute it to the fact that the car sat unused for 1/2 a year or more. By comparison my 1988 Honda CRX made a very slight gear noise in 5th gear for about 80,000 miles until it got broken in. The CVT cars can have hesitation to start moving or juddering etc. I've read on the forum that just changing the OEM Honda CVT oil will sometimes cure minor problems.
11. A more frequent manual transmission problem is that many previous owners didn't know how to double clutch when down shifting and the 1st and 2nd gear synchronizers can go bad. The Insight uses a double synchronizer and after years of not double clutching they can be worn down. The fix is to open the transmission up and replace them. The fix isn't cheap or easy to do though.
If you do a test drive on a MT car, just do a normal down shift at a reasonable slow speed for the gear without double clutching and see if the transmission shifts without grinding. If it makes a grinding gear noise that is a good bargaining point and the cure is to just double clutch when down shifting if you buy the car. My transmission is fine but I always double clutch on a down shift anyway. It's just part of being an informed driver.
The MT cars use a pair of cables to do the actual shifting and it has that slightly vague cable feel when shifting. The car shifts fine but it's not like a direct linkage car. So don't be concerned if the shifting feels a little odd.
12. Strange electrical problems can sometimes be caused by having a left front tire blow out. There is a main wiring harness that passes along the frame of the car behind the left side inner fender panel. If in a blow out the tire carcass flailing around can cut the wires in the harness.
13. And last but not least, WET SEAT BELTS. (No they aren't caused by crazy drivers and nervous passengers!)
If it hasn't rained a day or two before you go look at a car, bring a gallon jug of water with you. There is a designed in gap between the roof and the ~3" wide piece of plastic trim above the doors. That gap is to allow rain water to not run into a partially open window or when you get in or out of the car.
After you've inspected everything else ask the owner if he/she would mind if you pour some water on the car. Then slowly pour about 1/2 gallon on each side of the roof along the opening between the roof and the panel nearest the doors and back towards the top of the hatch window. Wait awhile or take the car for a test drive and then do the following seat belt test.
Pull each seat belt all the way out of the wind up mechanism and see if the last few feet of them feels wet. In extreme cases you may see water on your fingers. If so the car has the wet seat belt syndrome. Not to worry it's curable.
Under the plastic trim there are some hidden plastic hold down barbs and one on each side of the car penetrates through the roof above the seat belt winders. Those two barbs have an O ring that seals the barb so water can't enter the car. Over time the neoprene (or whatever it's made of) gets stiff and you can have a leak that wets the seat belts after a heavy rain. The real problem is that the belt mechanism has electronics in it that can get damaged by the water. So this problem needs to be fixed. Also check to see if any of the water has leaked onto the floor or in the rear hatch area by looking for rust on the bolts that holds the electronics box (the IPU) to the floor under the rear mat. Usually there is a black fiber box under the rectangular trap door under the mat and you can't see the bolts etc. The spare tire, jack,towing "O" ring with a threaded shaft and some small tools are also stored under the IPU. So if you are really serious about the car check that those items are present.
There is at least one very detailed thread on the forum that shows how to remove the plastic covers to fix wet seat belts using a hammer and a wide paint scraper to smash the barbs! If you slip up you will then get to buy the VERY EXPENSIVE plastic trim piece (one on each side) in addition to the expensive barbs.
Or you can buy a $6 tube of clear windshield sealer and fix the leak by running a bead of the stuff to fill the gap. Permatex #81730 is generally recommended although I also had better luck with #80050. Details how to do this are also on the forum. Guess which way I fixed mine?
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Now for some pros/cons about the Honda Insight
Even though the first Insights are 15+ years old they still have a modern good looking body design. The Cd is 0.25 which is excellent even today. The car was specifically designed to give high fuel mileage and most of the car's technical attributes support that goal. Light weight materials, an engine designed specifically for high efficiency and detail towards streamlining the body.
At this time no other production road car can match the miles per gallon attained by a manual transmission Insight. Don't let the EPA mileage ratings fool you. With careful driving you can get 80 to 100 mpg with a manual transmission car driving at the posted speed limits. I can get 120 mpg at the 30 mph speed limit in my town.
I find the seats to be very comfortable and have good bolster support. After driving my second generation CRX-HF for 23 years I found that the Insight has the same in-the-car feel that the CRX has. I got in the first Insight I drove and hardly noticed any difference where the gear lever, pedals etc were located and the general feel of the car was the same as the CRX. It took me awhile to get used all the electronic features the Insight has (welcome to the 21st century!).
If there are no Insights where you live, see if someone with a 1988 to 1991 CRX will let you sit in their car. The weight, gear ratios and driving feel is very similar for both cars. The CRX has more grunt at low speeds and the Insight has more pep once it is moving along. The CRX can get great mpg for a gas only car (51+ mpg) but the Insight is out of sight in that category. A common complaint by Insight drivers is that they only get 68 mpg at 70 mph! When driving in a pack of cars at 70 mpg you can get 100 mpg and more!! Especially so with a tail wind.
The major complaint I have with the Insight is that the spokes on the steering wheel are exactly where I want my hands to be. It makes it very awkward for me to drive the car. The spokes on the CRX wheel angle downward and the Insight has horizontal spokes. The Insight has electric power steering which is absolutely not needed on a 1870 lb car. I prefer the way the CRX steers compared to the Insight. Both cars weigh the same.
The gas and brake pedals are too far apart for easy heel & toe shifting so I've added a side extension to the gas pedal so it is closer to the brake pedal. I had to do the same thing to my CRX so that was something I expected to have to do.
The final complaint is that the stock horn is -sick-! And that is the reason why I named my car "Beep-beep"! Beep-beep is the name of a song that was popular in the 1950s.
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Common questions about the 2000-2006 Insight automobiles:
What about safety recalls etc on the Honda Insight?
If you've found an Insight you are interested in you can go to this Honda website to check the VIN# of the car to see if any recalls etc are outstanding on the car, Honda recalls.
How safe is a 1870 pound 2 seat car with an aluminum body?
You have to remember the Insight was built to safety standards in affect for the 1999 to 2006 time frame. The car has a forged aluminum chassis that has designed in crumple zones to protect the occupants, tempered safety glass, seat belts and two air bags. The insightcentral.net/forums has several threads where the cars have survived running into deer and other animals, rolling into ditches and lately two pictures of an Insight that was traveling at 55 mph and was rear ended by a drunk driver in a Lexus going ~110 mph!
There's this video on youtube that shows a souped up Insight at El Mirage dry lake accelerating to go over 200 mph again when something went wrong and the car crashed. The car had all the added safety features required by the timing association which protected the driver but the car was torn to bits when it rolled/spun and finally came to a stop upside down. (You have to scroll down the page a bit to get to the video.)
All of the Insight drivers survived and still swear by the safety built into the cars. Yes the car is small compared to larger American cars but they are big enough so they appear to be a normal car when traveling on the road. So it's not like you are going to get forced off the road by a Cadillac.
And now a term you may not have heard about before, lean burn.
The secret of the manual transmission Insight getting phenomenal gas mileage is lean burn (LB). This is a special running mode where the gas engine is capable of running on a fuel air ratio as lean as 23:1! The engine will only have enough power to stay in LB and have a little excess power for acceleration if needed. If you demand more power than the system can provide under the present conditions it will drop out of LB and the AFR will go to a normal 14.7:1
The USA Insight with a CVT transmission does NOT have LB and typically can "only" get a maximum of 75 to 80 mpg. The 5 speed manual transmission Insight has been the mpg king (typically 85 to 120 mpg) since it's introduction in 1999 in Japan. Even today no other standard production car on the road can get the high fuel mileage that a first generation 5 speed Insight is capable of.
When out of LB the typical maximum steady state mpg will "only" be 75 to 80 mpg with no drafting etc. Once the engine is thoroughly warmed up the car will automatically go into LB if the proper driving conditions are met. LB can normally be used in 3rd, 4th and 5th gear. 3rd is rather difficult to do but 4th and 5th are no trouble. By chance both 4th and 5th are overdrive gears.
Typically speeds over 70 mpg will require more power than LB is programed to supply and normally can't be used in still air. But if you are in a group of cars going a little more than 70 mph you may be able to take advantage of the drafting effect and get LB with exceptionally high fuel mileage of over 100 mpg. The highest high speed mpg I've gotten so far is 120 mpg at 72 mph while I was along side of a semi truck that was slowly passing me! I had a passenger in the car which is usually good for a 10 mpg loss!
A standing joke about the Insight is, "You know you're an Insight driver if you complain that you can only get 68 mpg at 70 mph." While giving a friend his first ride in my Insight I told him my car could tell me how much he weighs. He was really surprised about that so I looked at the FCD (the Fuel Consumption Display) and said, "Yep, .... [pause] .... you weigh about 10 miles per gallon!"
You can force the car into LB by using the following method. Accelerate up to a few mph faster than you want to travel (say 52 mph), put the car in 5th gear and let up on the gas a until you see the FCD indicate 100 mpg or more. Let the clutch out as you give the car a little gas and keep the FCD above 75 mpg. The car may take a few seconds and you will then see the FCD graph suddenly go up to 90 mpg or more. Welcome to LB. Keep the FCD above ~55 mpg to stay in LB. Typically you will see 90 to 110 mpg at reasonable speeds. I just drive the speed limit and enjoy the car.
If the car doesn't enter LB the first time, wait a few seconds and repeat the sequence. If the car isn't fully warmed up (10 miles should do it) the car may feel hesitant because the mixture is just a little too lean at that time. Just keep plugging along and the car should smooth out and run fine.
While in LB the car is producing more NOx than normal and that stuff is stored mostly in the 2nd cat converter. Every once in awhile the ECM commands a "purge" of the cat converters and the AFR will drop to 13.7:1 for 5-10 seconds to clear out the NOx. You will feel the car accelerate to a few mph faster because it is producing more power. Do NOT change your gas pedal setting. When the purge is over the car will reenter LB and the mpg and speed will slow back down to the previous speed.
The car can teach you what to do to get max mpg by watching the dash indicators. Although the up shift arrow seems to be set for a hyper milers and not normal driving.
This is an odd complaint but ought to be mentioned
Be careful the first time you use the Insight's power brakes!! The car uses regeneration to charge the IMA battery when slowing down and the affect is like pushing much harder on the brake pedal. When you want to slow down just let off on the gas and if needed the electric motor will start charging the IMA battery at 2 to 8 amps. The car will slow down noticeably faster than a normal car because of the regenerative charging and the fact the car is much lighter than most other cars.
If you need a little more braking affect push the brake pedal only enough to light the brake lights. It will feel like you have pressed the brake pedal to engage the brakes but the brakes shouldn't be dragging yet. You will be getting anywhere from 6 to 35 amps of charge going into the battery. The car will slow down even faster now.
When you finally push enough to get the brakes working, pressure sensors on the ABS braking circuits will command even more regeneration; up to 60 amps, and you will stop much shorter than in a normal car with the same brake pedal feel. If you try to stop like a normal car you will find that the regeneration braking effect will cause you to stop way before your intended stopping point. Maybe 100 feet or further back.
The first Insight I test drove I pressed the brake pedal as I've always done with my Honda CRX-HF at about 10 mph. I completely locked up the front tires and stalled the engine! So remember, you have a built in braking system that is controlled by just getting the rear brake lights to light. And your brakes will last much longer because you can slow the car down without using them.
The tricky part is that at any time the car may decide that there is enough charge in the battery and it may reduce or stop regeneration! Then you may need to use more brake pedal pressure. So you have to adjust your stopping distance. I approach stops a little faster than normal and let the regeneration do most of the slowing down to stop the car instead of using the brakes. It's all part of learning what the advanced electromechanical Honda experiment is all about.
In light of the Insight being a fun car to drive and you do buy one, this quote from an old TV show might be appropriate:
"Good luck Mr. Phelps. If you or any of your cohorts are apprehended in this mission the department will disavow any knowledge of your activities." (Especially so if your significant other asks what that small space ship is doing in the driveway. ;-)
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