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Concept Stage: The "J-VX"
The first view the world got of Honda's plans for a hybrid gas-electric car came in the form of the J-VX concept car, first shown at the 1997 Tokyo Motor show.
As you can see from these pictures, the J-VX concept was much more radical in appearance than the Insight ended up being. The J-VX was presented as a super-efficient sports car, with less emphasis on efficiency. Much of Honda's presentation focused on the J-VX's sporty side, touting its light materials as giving it the "quick, agile handling only available in lightweight sports cars". They also claimed that the J-VX had a "nearly ideal front/rear weight ratio".
Still, from the very beginning the J-VX was a car designed to achieve a new level of efficiency and low-emissions. In fact, Honda claimed that the J-VX would achieve fuel efficiency of 30 km/liter, almost exactly the 70 mpg level achieved by the final production Insight.
Some similarities to the final Insight can be seen in the J-VX's body design, such as the two-door format with vertical rear end including a small vertical window. Like the Insight, the J-VX also had an tapered rear end with the wheel wells being wider than the body above them. Both J-VX and Insight also feature smooth underbody panels. All of these elements come from the goal of achieving very low aerodynamic drag.
At 3840mm long x 1750mm wide x 1255mm tall, the J-VX was four inches longer than the Insight, two inches wider but the roof was four inches lower. Despite being longer, J-VX's wheelbase was 2360mm, which is about an inch and a half shorter than the Insight's 2400mm wheelbase.
There were many other differences between the J-VX concept car and the Insight. For one thing, the J-VX included rear seats, but had much less cargo space than the Insight. The entire roof of the J-VX concept car was tinted glass.
The interior had a stereotypical concept-car radical, primary color design. Single-piece bucket seats were used in the J-VX. An interesting feature of the J-VX that never made it to production was "air-belts", seatbelts that would inflate much like airbags do. The J-VX had HID headlights.
The IMA powertrain, as introduced with the J-VX, was originally going to use an ultra-capacitor rather than batteries for energy storage. Like batteries, capacitors are used to store electrical energy. However, rather than storing that energy chemically, a capacitor stores a charge in the form of electrons. A capacitor would have the advantage of a virtually unlimited lifetime, and the ability to deliver its power very quickly. However, this ability to release this energy very quickly could have proved to be very dangerous, particularly in an accident. The ultra-capacitor was mounted in front of the rear axle, very close to the gas tank. Capacitors also have the disadvantage of losing their charge relatively quickly, which might have made them less suitable for the typical driving cycle.
Like the final Insight, the J-VX was to have a 1.0 liter, 3 cylinder VTEC gasoline engine. The J-VX was to use direct injection, but in many other ways the J-VX's gasoline engine lacked many of the weight saving and friction reducing advancements present in the Insight's engine.
The J-VX prototype featured a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), similar to the one that is used in some production Insights (currently only in Japan).
Goals & Refinement: The Insight Begins to Take Shape
Despite some of the J-VX's radical features such as glass roof and air belts, the final production Insight is, in many ways, much more advanced and sophisticated than the original concept car. A lot of engineering and innovation went into creating a production car based on the concept of the J-VX. Many of the changes that took place along the way were based on Honda's desire to make a hybrid car that could succeed in the marketplace.
When Honda decided to create a production car based on the J-VX, they evidently set the same 30 km/liter (70 mpg) fuel efficiency level as their target. However, as Kazuhiko Tsunoda, Chief Engineer of the Insight project emphasized, they also recognized the importance of creating a car that consumers would want to buy. In Kazuhiko Tsunoda's words, the Insight had to be "a real world product for the global market." While Honda had made advances with previous cars, such as the Civic VX in 92, and their Natural Gas Civic GX, these cars never sold very well. In order to make the Insight both a technological and market success, Honda set forth these goals for the Insight:
These goals forced many changes from the J-VX concept car. While the entirely glass roof would have created a very light & airy interior feeling, it also would have added a lot to both the weight and expense of the car - not to mention safety issues. Likewise, using HID headlights would have added significantly to the cost of the car. Auto-leveling, a feature normally seen in cars with HID headlights, would have been even more difficult in a car with such a short wheelbase.
Also, while the J-VX's radical styling was great for a show car, the production car would need to have a more conventional appearance to be accepted by consumers.
Taking the basic idea of the J-VX as a starting point, Honda began to explore further options for the body shape and interior styling. With the lower slope of the rear roof made possible by eliminating the rear seats, and the flatter Kamm back, the Insight began to take on more similarity to the last generation Honda CRX. The pictures below show drawings that bear a lot of similarity to the final car, though clearly there was still more refinement to be done.
Over time, this shape was refined to the now familiar Insight body design:
While the hybrid gas-electric powerplant was certainly going to be an important part of the final production car, Honda didn't stop at dropping this powerplant into a conventional vehicle platform. Instead, they devoted just as much effort to developing advanced body technologies. The aerodynamics and lightweight aluminum construction of the Insight's body are a big part of reducing its energy requirements.
This investment in body technologies makes a lot of sense, because even when hybrid power sources are eventually replaced by fuel cell technology, lightweight materials and aerodynamics will still play at least as important a role in energy efficiency as they do in the Insight.
Near-Production Prototype Stage: The "VV"
On January 4th 1999, Honda finally unveiled its pre-production prototype hybrid at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Describing it as "one of the most technically sophisticated mass-production vehicles ever made", Honda announced that they would begin selling the car later that year.
The VV Coupe shown at this time was very similar to the final production car. At this point Honda announced that the car would achieve 70 mpg, and would meet ULEV emissions levels. They also announced that the car would weigh less than 2000 pounds.
However, though there were still some changes to take place. In addition to fine-turning the behavior of the IMA system, Honda made minor cosmetic and functional changes between the VV prototype and the final production car. The pictures below show some of these changes: