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My Commute

Yeah, right, hybrid cars don't get any better fuel economy than normal cars...

by Julian Edgar

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Recently I decided to take a four week contract writing and editing position. After working for car magazines for well over a decade, I wanted to experience technical writing and editing in a completely different environment. However, the important point for this story was that the job was located at Brisbane airport, which is 86 kilometres from where I live.

So each day I was doing a 172 kilometre commute. In the world’s most economical car – a 2001 Honda Insight.

Said quickly, “world’s most economical car” means little: it’s a throwaway line. So let’s take a look at what it actually was like on the road each day, hitting the Gold Coast to Brisbane freeway at 7 o’clock every morning.

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My first 20 minutes each day is on a steeply descending, winding and bumpy secondary country road. In this environment the Insight is quite poor: the rear suspension travel is far too short and the dampers too soft. The car pitches and bounces, the thinly padded seats not providing the second layer of absorption needed in this road environment. But the electric power steering is precise and direct, a far cry from most electric-assist systems.

I could tell you the fuel economy that I get on this first 25 kilometres downhill but it would be completely atypical – even thirsty cars get excellent economy when most of the trip is made with the foot off the throttle!

So it’s at the bottom of the hill – and stopped at the roundabout – that I re-zero the fuel consumption display.

The Insight has four fuel consumption displays. The first is an instantaneous display. The second is a lifetime display, showing the fuel consumption since the car first drove off the production line. The third is a resettable display used most often to show tank consumption and the fourth is a trip display. It was the latter that I reset.

The roundabout is still a kilometre or so from where I join the freeway and the urban traffic is busy at this time of the morning. So after exiting the roundabout, I short-change the gearbox, following the pleading ‘up’ light that appears on the dash and always suggests up-changes at quite low revs. The 1-litre 3-cylinder engine hasn’t got massive bottom-end torque, but after each up-change, the ‘assist’ display on the dash shows that the 10kW electric motor is giving a short-term helping hand, each time using about 25 per cent of its maximum available torque.

But as with any car, accelerating away from standstill takes lots of power, and the fuel consumption display average (which updates every few minutes) pops up a first figure of 12 litres/100 kilometres.

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I have time only to read it before I arrive at traffic lights. They’re always red and as I lift my foot to slow, the instantaneous fuel consumption drops to zero as the over-run fuel injection cut-off occurs. As soon as I select neutral gear and slow under braking, the engine switches off completely, an ‘auto stop’ light flashing on the dash. So as I wait for the traffic light to change, the engine of the car is silent. That’s not helping to get my 12 litres/100 km figure downwards – but it is stopping it rising.

The light changes to green, I select first gear and the engine instantly starts – the 10kW electric motor now acting as the starter. There’s no waiting for the engine to come to life: it’s just a case of selecting the gear and going.

I turn right across the intersection and then join the freeway entrance lane. This section of freeway is marked at 110 km/h and, even with the constant police presence, the traffic flow here at Oxenford usually sits on 115 km/h. So this time I ignore the ‘up’ change indication and wind the little engine out much further – 4000 rpm in first and second gears. Because of the large throttle angles, the electric-assist works strongly – I am getting nearly full electric power during this acceleration. I join the freeway slow lane at 100 km/h and then shift across one or two more lanes (there’s four to choose from) before settling at 115 km/h.

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On this concrete surface and at this speed the Insight is noisy. Tyre boom reverberates through the all-aluminium body and the car doesn’t feel remotely as sophisticated as its original near AUD$50K price suggests it should. But I have fitted a JVC DVD player with dozens of albums of MP3 music encoded on a DVD so I just crank it up and listen to the weird mix of 1970s country music that I find soothing at this time of morning.

On this stretch of freeway, bum-snufflers abound: those that see a small car ahead of them, assume it must be slow, speed up until they’re metres behind me, change lanes to go around me, get in the fast lane and then look at their speedos, realise they’re now going fast enough to be pinged, slow down, then realise that I was already going as fast as they want to go, swap back into the lane behind me, do some more snuffling....

The traffic is flowing well and there’s little to do except listen to the music and watch the fuel consumption display. In sequence up pop the numbers.

8.2 litres/100km...

Hmmm, now as economical as my V8 Lexus LS400 could ever manage on this freeway...

6.8 litres/100km...

OK now more economical than my 4 litre 5-speed manual EF Falcon...

5.4 litres/100km...

Now moving past the freeway figure of my Prius turbo, and getting better than all but the smallest engine petrol cars on the road.

4.5 litres/100km...

OK, goodbye diesel passenger cars.

3.8 litres/100km...

Now we’re in a field of our own...

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On this smoother surface the Insight is comfortable, the seats which at first seem to give too little lumbar support are well-shaped and have no pressure points, the front and rear visibility is good, the steering precise and direct. The car moves around a little in the aerodynamic bow waves of other vehicles but it’s a consistent, slow movement which after a while is corrected for without thought. There are a few gentle rises and falls on this road; the Insight traverses them seamlessly and with no effort. However, with the lack of cruise control, keeping the digital display reading constantly on 115 km/h takes a little concentration.

I wonder how fast I could go if the road wasn’t so heavily policed: one night I followed a V8 Falcon ute home at a constant 135 km/h and the Insight still felt like it was just loafing – that tiny frontal area and drag coefficient of 0.25 aren’t just irrelevant specs...

So far the traffic flow has been great but I know from bitter experience that once we all reach Springwood, the lines of traffic – now down to three lanes – will come to a literal halt. I switch on the UHF radio that I’ve fitted and listen to the trucks: typically, they’ll be broadcasting lines like “Northbound coming to a halt at Springwood” which gives me a few kilometres of warning. That way I can get rid of the bum-snufflers who two out of five days cause a tail-end collision on this stretch of road. (You’d think they’d learn, but....)

I watch the wall-to-wall brake lights appear around the bend and lift off, the regen braking indicator moving to full scale. When the regen automatically switches off at 32 km/h, I select neutral and so the engine is already off as I come to a halt. The traffic is moving in fits and starts: first or second gear for the Insight. Both are incredibly tall gears (second takes the car to over 110 km/h) and to pull the gearing, the electric assist is kicking in and out.

Unlike a Prius, the Insight cannot run on battery alone so every time I need to move forward – even only a few metres – the engine restarts. You’d think that would be a huge disadvantage for fuel economy but the average trip consumption keeps dropping – now it’s down to an incredible 3.4 litres/100km. When scanning the dash displays it’s easy to come across the ‘3.4’ number and wonder for a moment what it actually means: the idea of trip fuel economy being this good is simply so startling.

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Like an elephant with a hangover, the traffic wrestles and grumbles before finally starting to flow. I join the Gateway Motorway and then reach the real traffic: from here, the 20 kilometres to the airport it will be one long traffic jam. It is every day.

On the radio the truckies swap jokes (Truckie #1: My wife is an angel. Truckie #2: Geez mate, you’re lucky; mine isn’t dead yet) and the traffic crawls along. Incredibly, the Insight trip fuel economy gets better and better: 3.3 litres/100km, then down to a mind-boggling 3.0 litres/100km.

Yep, three litres per hundred kilometres.

When the two lines of cars can travel at 80 km/h, the instantaneous fuel consumption display shows 2 litres/100km – but the traffic isn’t sitting on 80 km/h. Instead, there are more starts and stops, more of the sort of driving that in any manual trans car is wearying. In these conditions the Prius – with its automatic trans – is much more relaxing.

I watch the navigation screen of my VDO Dayton system (this is the third car it’s been in) and see the Gateway Bridge over the Brisbane River inching closer. Finally it comes into view and I stop at the toll gates to pay the $2.50. The climb up the bridge is steep and I stay in the slow lane: I am to turn off shortly and the extra trip time of staying in this lane is inconsequential.

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The acceleration away from the toll booth and the climb up the bridge have not been good for fuel consumption: the trip consumption has risen to 3.1 litres/100. But rolling down the other side of the bridge, throttle off and a little regen braking automatically occurring, brings the display average back to 3.0 litres/100km.

I turn onto Kingsford Smith Drive and thread my way through the back roads to the aviation maintenance area of Brisbane Airport. The roads are marked – and policed – at 60 km/h and the traffic has all but disappeared. I sit on 61 km/h in fifth gear, the engine barely turning over and any acceleration being provided by the electric assist.

A kilometre or two from my destination, the trip fuel consumption drops to 2.9 litres/100km.

Yes, this car with its sound system and its weatherproofness and its twin airbags and its good steering and its ability to easily keep up with the traffic, this car has just taken 90 minutes to transport me to work with a fuel consumption of 2.9 litres for every 100 kilometres.

One day, I even got 2.8 litres/100.....

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