Home » Gas Savers In Two Flavors: 2009 Smart Fortwo vs 2000 Honda Insight

Gas Savers In Two Flavors: 2009 Smart Fortwo vs 2000 Honda Insight

Sbsd 4 13 2023
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Good morning! Today on Shitbox Showdown, we’re taking a look at a couple of fuel-saving economy cars, and you’ll be relieved to hear they both run and drive. We’ll get to them in a minute, but first let’s answer yesterday’s MG authenticity question:

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And it’s the rough but restorable MGA coupe by a landslide. The old-timers in my MG club will be so pleased to hear it. Gotta keep the faith, and no jumped-up German economy car in a fiberglass suit is gonna do that.

Now then: Gas is expensive. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. Some of us feel the pain worse than others; I have two vehicles that I use regularly, and one of them averages about 15 miles per gallon, and the other gets about 21. It doesn’t matter because I love them both, for reasons more important than economy, and I’m not giving up either one of them just because they’re a little thirsty. But I can respect the desire for a lower fuel bill. And the less fuel you burn, the less exhuast you put out, and that’s good too. In that spirit, I’ve found a pair of two-seater fuel-sippers for us to look at; let’s see which one you’d rather have.

2009 Smart Fortwo Passion – $3,400

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.0 liter dual overhead cam inline 3, five-speed automated manual, RWD

Location: Alameda, CA

Odometer reading: 137,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep!

One thing I didn’t count on when I started this gig was how much research I end up having to do. It’s bad enough when I get a detail wrong about a car and a reader calls me out on it, requiring a mea culpa, but there’s extra pressure to get things exactly right when the car in question is the apple of another Autopian writer’s eye. If I get a VW Beetle detail wrong, Torch is on me like cheese on macaroni. Mix up a Jeep transmission, and I never hear the end of it from David. (And you don’t even want to know how Gossin reacts to a Chrysler Sebring flub.) Now, finally, it’s Mercedes’s turn to get all pedantic at me, because a Smart has finally found its way to a Shitbox Showdown.

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The Smart is one of those cars that, to me, always seemed better in theory than in execution. It’s cute as a bug, and the engineering and packaging are genius, but the fact that they were only able to eke out 40 mpg or so from it is kind of disappointing. Equally disappointing is the lack of a clutch pedal (in this generation, anyway) in a rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive car. Now, I confess that I’ve never driven one, so it may be more fun than I imagine, but it always seemed like it should either be more fun, or more efficient.

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It does look awfully nice inside, at least. This is the upscale “Passion” model, with some extra goodies over the basic car, including a pair of inviting-looking leather seats. Outisde, it looks to be in quite good shape, but it also has had some repairs done from a minor altercation. One headlight and one front body panel have been replaced. In a couple of the photos, one headlight looks a little less cloudy than the other, so I guess that’s the new one.

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The Mitsubishi-sourced 1.0 liter three-cylinder engine is said to run just fine, and the car has newer tires. There’s a lot of brake dust on the front wheels, so you might want to check the pads, but otherwise it looks pretty good. I’d have to check with our resident Smart expert, but if you want one, this seems like a good choice, and a fair price.

2000 Honda Insight – $2,400

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.0 liter overhead cam inline 3, electric motor assist, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Antioch, CA

Odometer reading: 190,000 miles

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Runs/drives? Sure does!

Honda, of course, is no stranger to small fuel-efficient cars. The company made its name with the super-efficient and clean-running (for its time) Civic CVCC engine, culminating in the CRX HF, which managed to be not only efficient but sporty and fun to drive. In the late 1990s, Honda managed to one-up its own creation with this car, the Insight, rated at an astonishing 61 miles per gallon on the highway. To achieve this, Honda threw every trick in the book at the Insight: light weight, aerodynamics, a tiny engine, and a newly-developed hybrid drive system.

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The Insight is what’s commonly known as a “mild hybrid” – it has both a gasoline engine and an electric motor, but it isn’t capable of driving on electric power alone. The motor is in between the engine and the five-speed manual transmission; it adds thirteen horsepower on acceleration and acts as a generator to charge the nickel-metal hydride battery pack in the trunk when you let off the gas. The engine also shuts off at stoplights to conserve even more fuel.

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This first-year Insight has seen some things. It has 190,000 miles on the clock, and it’s pretty beat-up and faded. It’s missing its rear wheel skirts, which probably adds a tiny bit of aerodynamic drag, but not around town at least. It runs and drives well, and just passed a smog test.

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The question here is the same question that is starting to enter the conversation in all electric and hybrid vehicles: the condition of the battery pack. The advantage of the Insight is that if the battery pack is toast, it will still run and drive just fine, only with less power. There’s a lot of information online about replacing or rebuilding the battery pack if it needs it. And at only $2,400, you’ve got some wiggle room in the budget.

It’s almost never worth buying a different car to save on gas. But if you’re looking for a cheap car anyway, and you want to use less fuel, something like one of these might make some sense. Which one looks more appealing to you?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
1 month ago

The brake dust is unfortunately normal on the Smart. The OEM pads practically snow brake dust on every stop. That’s why many of us go with ceramic pads.

This one does have a decent list of options. I spot a Radio 10 (more speakers plus a subwoofer), fog lights, alarm system, leather heated seats, dashboard pods, and the sensor for automatic headlights and automatic wipers. In other words, it has basically every option checked. Admittedly, I prefer Smarts without leather, because then you get an interior with real colors. Get leather and the interior is automatically a boring black.

Yet, it’s worth about half of that price. The car has plenty of life left, but you shouldn’t pay more than $2,000 for a Smart with over 100,000 miles.

Last edited 1 month ago by Mercedes Streeter
ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
1 month ago

I love the Insight, there was one for sale near me for similar money that looked much nicer 3-4 years ago. I should have pounced. The purity of a race car, except designed for efficiency instead of speed. Actually they used to have that index of thermal efficiency thing at Lemans the Insight would have been a great car for that.

tacotruckdave
tacotruckdave
1 month ago

Okay Mark tried to email you but no contact info so i will help the autopian universe. First i am a fat old white guy. So i know everything and am part of a group who runs the world. Really guys who run the USA are white BUT white guys dont run it. Like a thumb is a finger but not all fingers are thumbs. I have never been invited to a white guys running the world meeting or even been asked to fill out a survey. So yeah you pick the cars and you know what cars your fellow employees like. You can go all white guy know everything but that is a lot of work. You can avoid favored cars but you still are doing research and attacked for mistakes. Why not go all rainbow kumbayah ask the your expert co workers to evaluate the vehicles they love because you respect their opinion. Cite them in the articles. BOOM less work, mistakes are their faults. Cmon we white guys must be running the world for a reason. Or did you not get your invite either?

GranulatedMiscarriage
GranulatedMiscarriage
1 month ago
Reply to  tacotruckdave

Huh?

Defenestrator
Defenestrator
1 month ago

Translation: “I feel very threatened by the fact that the white guy who wrote the article acknowledged that a black gay trans woman is more of an expert on this car than he is.”

tacotruckdave
tacotruckdave
1 month ago

With all due respect to the lovely and talented Mercedes I am picking the car I wouldn’t be embarrassed to drive. HONDA BABY. And at that price i am just going to beat the living shit out of it I will get my money out of it.

CRX89
CRX89
1 month ago

Sorry, Mercedes but it’s the Honda for me. I’d like to make a Ksight.

Manwich
Manwich
1 month ago

Honda for me even though that particular Insight is in rough shape. They are interesting cars that deserve to be preserved.

Tim Cougar
Tim Cougar
1 month ago

A beat-up Insight automatically looks like a prop for a dystopian future sci-fi movie, and that’s cool.

W124
W124
1 month ago

I’m sorry, but Smarts are kinda shit as a car. They really doesn’t offer anything over a decent European hatchback but forced quirkiness. Which is okay for them who like that, of course. But for me the Insight is clear winner. It looks kinda futuristic even today, has a 5 speed manual and for what I’ve understood decend handling. And this is in such a condition and so cheap that it wouldn’t feel bad to do some modifications or experimentations with it to increase performance and/or efficiency.

JRoth95
JRoth95
1 month ago

I’m not always about the condition, but the Smart looks smart and the Honda looks hinky. And it’s a car that has no character when it’s not shiny—this isn’t some beat-up old pickup or a muscle car in primer. It looks embarrassing, frankly.

sfw
sfw
1 month ago

For the second time now in the last month or so Autopian has misquoted the Honda Insight 1.0 highway MPG. Where is the editorial fact checking??!? (????) Depending on the year, the EPA highway MPG was as much as 70 (dropping slightly as the sales mix of A/C to non-A/C versions changed).

Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
1 month ago
Reply to  sfw

We quote the ratings from the EPA. The 70 mpg highway figure was from the EPA’s older testing procedures, which were updated in 2008. When the testing procedures changed, the EPA retroactively downgraded the EPA ratings for the Insight. Now, the best G1s are rated at 61 mpg highway.

Lr0dy
Lr0dy
1 month ago

Hah! You got to do a tua culpa!

tacotruckdave
tacotruckdave
1 month ago

You go girl! Put Mr SFW IN HIS SMART ALECK KNOW IT ALL PLACE.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
1 month ago

Yeah but you can still exceed that, by a big margin.

Torque
Torque
1 month ago

Oh Snap

mrcanoehead
mrcanoehead
1 month ago

The first gen Smart was horrible to drive with the automated manual (sorry Mercedes). They used to have them on the Car2Go rental program which I used fairly regularly. The transmission was the worst part – it always reminded me of a new driver trying master the clutch. Initial takeup was OK, but the 1-2 and 2-3 upshifts took forever. You would start your left turn and in the middle of the intersection, it would decide to shift 1-2 and you’d pretty much coast through the entire intersection before it would re-engage the clutch.

The second gen was much improved from a driving perspective but a friend of mine had her 2nd gen mechanically totaled when the transmission died at 80k km.

OTOH, I have a relative who had an Insight and put over 300k km on it, commuting 3-4 hours per day. It was completely reliable, but it eventually rusted out in the Montreal salt. I’d go with the Insight.

cautionary-tail-light
cautionary-tail-light
1 month ago
Reply to  mrcanoehead

Yep I too experienced the Smart via a carshare. The Smart auto-manual transmission was so bad I honestly don’t know why they didn’t just make it a small rotary R – P – D switch on the dashboard to discourage doing your own shifts.

Trying to anticipate things like freeway on-ramps and get it to kick down would result in unbelievably dangerous looooooong pauses while it tried to work out what you meant – “I pulled the lever down – I want a lower gear – GIVE IT TO ME! JESUS!!!!” and the only time it ever made a confident decision was on its own, uninvited, at the worst possible time – e.g. upshifting because the engine was approaching redline, which of course was the only time you got good speed out of the thing.

The Insight, tatty as it is, is a rare opportunity to drive a manual hybrid and deserves life-extension.

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
1 month ago

Honda fanboi here so obvious choice is obvious. Whether it’s doing the needed work to bring it back to proper stock condition or going rogue and K-swapping it I know it would provide miles more enjoyment in the end. The Smart is just too compromised a car.

Sorry, Mercedes!

mrbrown89
mrbrown89
1 month ago

That Insight needs a lot of work but they have a special place in my heart since I own a 2004 with a new IMA battery and I love my little red corvette lol, I saw on Facebook there is one with almost 1M miles, insane

This is one of the cases when they let Engineers do their thing, similar to GM and the Chevy Volt.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
1 month ago

The reason the Smart doesn’t get better highway fuel economy is it’s a stubby brick. The air needs more body to become attached to before tumbling off the rear or something like that. For running around town it’s ideal.

Insight me because it’ll run about forever, it was designed for good highway mileage and it’s a proper stick.

JDE
JDE
1 month ago

It is also underpowered for what it is, so it has to work harder to push the little guy down the road. in California where parking is scarce sometimes and RWD is not a negative in the winter, this little pull in to park thing is not terrible, certainly I would take it over and BMW i3 any day of the week. I did choose it, simply because the 1st gen insight was just not great to drive. I drove one from Joplin to Vegas on Route 66 and it did ok, but low ground clearance, Biscuit hard tires and not great seat made for a sore back once we got home. Mileage was great though. I feel like this bumper car was rode hard and put away damaged. it might need more love than I could give to it.

The smart is way to expensive, but maybe not either, the alternative to these back in the day for me was the superior toyota corrolla, it got a bit better MPG on paper just before they gained weight and had 4 seat space

Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
1 month ago
Reply to  JDE

I think the horrible aero has more to do with the fuel economy. Smart did sell more powerful models in other countries and those got even worse fuel economy. The diesel, which has less power and takes 9 more seconds to reach 60 mph, nearly doubles the fuel economy.

I know a Smart owner who did some aero mods to his gasser and it bumped fuel economy up to 55 mpg. So, whatever Smart was doing, it wasn’t good. lol

Last edited 1 month ago by Mercedes Streeter
gubbin
gubbin
1 month ago

Cool tailgate on the Smart but I’m definitely going for the 3 pedal with the nickel-metal.

TheHairyNug
TheHairyNug
1 month ago
Reply to  gubbin

pedal to the nickel-metal

TheHairyNug
TheHairyNug
1 month ago

I thought that the only way to get an Insight below $5k was if it were totaled. At $2,400, I would have a large budget to repair and upgrade. Far more satisfying than spending money on that Smart

Last edited 1 month ago by TheHairyNug
ADDvanced
ADDvanced
1 month ago
Reply to  TheHairyNug

Join the insight group on FB. They are posted for under 5k all the time needing a bit of TLC. And do not assume you need to replace the batteries…. they tend to come back to life with a grid charger.

TheHairyNug
TheHairyNug
1 month ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

The Insight battery is such a known quantity at this point (and also quite small by today’s standards), that it’s really not an issue for me at all

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson
1 month ago

I’m taking the Honda with the hope that battery has some life for a few more years. I’ve driven a stick hybrid Civic from the early aughts and once you get used to the fact you didn’t stall it when it shuts off at lights, they’re kinda fun to drive. Try to find some wheel skirts (are these unobtainium?) and use the money saved on a cheap respray.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
1 month ago
Reply to  Derek Johnson

No, they are easy to find, cars get smashed and parted out pretty often.

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