Honda tempts new market with cheap Insight

Honda recently released a new value model of its hybrid Insight.

The manufacturer's suggested retail price is $18,200 plus a delivery fee of about $750. It's a base model designed to appeal to buyers possibly on the fence about purchasing a hybrid. That's a significant difference from Toyota's Prius, priced at $22,800, and Ford's Fusion hybrid, priced at $28,990.

Hybrid sales are expected to decline for the third year in a row, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, and this may be an effort by Honda America to inject some energy and a new demographic into the gas/electric sector.

That theory got me thinking about my own brush with a hybrid purchase. At the Central California Auto Show in Fresno in 2008, my wife and I spent a little time sitting in a nice dark blue Civic hybrid debating its merits: fuel economy versus a higher price tag.

We were still thinking about it last year when she and I walked into the Clawson Honda showroom in Fresno intent on leaving with a vehicle.

We'd done quite a bit of research and wanted a fuel-saving, bullet-proof commuter that could put up with Peggy's daily commute to Riverdale, a quiet hamlet surrounded by dairies about 30 minutes south of our house in Clovis. The hybrid wasn't off the menu, but we had settled on the price not exceeding $21,000.

She just wanted a Honda.

I didn't argue. She was driving a 1986 Accord LX fastback when we met. My impression was typical: nice car, gorgeous girl.

We had the transmission rebuilt and gave it to our daughter at 186,000 miles. It lived through Anchorage, Alaska salt-infused winters, blown over Douglas fir trees on Camano Island's Sunset Beach in Washington and the desert winter wind in Kennewick, Wash. with nary a scratch and an almost immaculate interior. It's still alive in Bellingham, Wash. My daughter sold it to a college student. It has almost 400,000 miles on the odometer.

That Accord was a billboard for the Honda nameplate. However, I talked my wife into replacing it with a Volkswagen Passat station wagon. My reasoning was simple. Honda didn't have a station wagon, and we needed something more economical for trips than the Jeep Grand Wagoneer and its 10 mpg.

That day in the Clawson Honda showroom went pretty much as expected. We told the salesman our terms, saw what they had in stock and wound up settling on a gray Civic very similar to hundreds of thousands of others on U.S. streets.

While my wife negotiated details, which were pretty straightforward since we paid cash, I went and sat in the Honda Insight. "You could be driving this for a few thousand more," I told her.

She made a face, saying there was no way under any circumstances she would be seen in "that car." She considers it and the Prius some of the ugliest hunks of metal on the road.

Clawson didn't have a Civic hybrid or if the dealer did, it was white and too boring to consider. This, I should mention, was my wife's decision, but I think white is boring too. Maybe not with six coats of pearl.

If the dealer had an Insight with $18,200 on the window sticker, it may have made a little difference. At least to me. If the hybrid Civic was cheaper, we'd be driving one.

Last year's cost differential between gas and hybrid just didn't make financial sense. The gas version gets superior mileage without a battery pack that could cost big bucks in the later years of ownership. Both Honda hybrids are rated at 40 city and 43 highway and No. 3 on EPA's fuel sipper list. The gas Civic is something like 28/33.

Maybe others think like we did. And maybe they'll change their minds as prices for hybrids decline as I believe they will with Honda's move.

Maybe automakers will push for the second-car market. Katie Fehrenbacher of reported that some of electric car builders appear to be pushing in that direction.

After we bought the Civic, I got the Passat. I love that car. Turbo, black, German engineering thing. Two weeks after parking the 1974 Bug, which I had driven exclusively for about seven years after selling the Jeep, the 2000 Passat died. I had failed to replace the timing belt at 90,000 miles.

The mechanic at Clovis Garage said, "Mike, sorry to tell you this, but it needs a new engine." I pushed the Passat into the back yard where it sat gathering a nice layer of dirt for about eight months and drove the Bug.

That new engine cost $6,600.