How We Won the Insight Fuel-Economy Challenge. Without Cheating. Much

How We Won the Insight Fuel-Economy Challenge. Without Cheating. Much How We Won the Insight Fuel-Economy Challenge. Without Cheating. Much
Road Test

Honda proposed a contest: Which automotive magazine could get the best fuel economy from the new Insight in a 195-mile run from Columbus, Ohio, to Detroit, combined with the mileage achieved in a four-lap exercise around Honda's 7.5-mile proving ground?

That would be us, of course. Who else?

As for the highway run, we asked Andy Boyd, Honda's Midwest PR maven, if drafting--the racing art of tucking closely behind another vehicle to avoid wind and air resistance--would be legal.

"Drafting is legal," he replied.

"And we can draft any vehicle of our choosing?" we further inquired.

"Any vehicle you want," said Boyd.

Here's how the winner would be decided: At the conclusion of the highway run, a contestant's average speed would be added to the average mpg indicated on the Insight's trip odometer. That number would then be added to the average mpg attained the previous day during the four-lap run around Honda's track in East Liberty, Ohio.

At the track event, we had managed 102 miles to the gallon. At about 32 mph! A crew from Ward's Auto World managed 105 mpg. So we were behind. We now had to win the Columbus-to-Detroit haul.

We felt certain that the five contestants--and each was accompanied by a passenger--would be driving in the wake of semis and delivery trucks, or drafting them, to maximize their mileage.

We would, too. Except that we chose to supply our own truck. We had a mammoth Ford Excursion in our parking lot. We also had contributing editor Don Sherman, a most competitive and devious human. Don went off to purchase a huge mobile-home mud flap, which he sawed in two and then attached the pieces in a V-shape to form a wind break that mounted to the Excursion's trailer hitch. Sherman also installed plywood fairings to prevent wind from leaking between the break and the bumper, and he found bungee cords to hold open the rear liftgate and Dutch doors. Although it looked plenty weird, it seemed a perfect windbreak for a car the size of the Insight.

On the morning of the highway run, we positioned Sherman in his monster sport-ute a few miles up the road from the starting gate. With yours truly behind the wheel of the Insight (and tech assistant Andy Mead in the shotgun seat), we signaled Sherman by radio as soon as his Excursion came into sight at the side of the road. He deftly pulled out ahead of us and set the cruise control for 65, and we dropped in behind.

Alone on the road and without the draft vehicle, the Insight had been getting 70 mpg at 65 mph. Now, tucked behind the SUV, the mileage soared. When driven within a few feet of the Excursion, the fuel-economy meter leapt to almost 100 mpg. And when we moved to within a few inches of the Excursion, and slowed to 55 mph, the mileage meter went as high as 150 mpg. We had found our groove.

But that groove came at an unnerving price. That close to the SUV, the view out the Insight was entirely blocked by the Excursion. Never before have I so closely pondered the cargo area of a sport-utility vehicle, or the back of another motorist's head, for so long. Worse, the Excursion's brake lights were obscured by its open cargo doors. To avoid calamity, we asked Sherman to raise one hand when he was about to brake. If he saw John Law, he was to wave that same hand frantically. Over the course of 195 miles, that happened three times. It was not a relaxing drive.

We had hoped to keep this little drafting tactic a secret. But about 15 miles into the contest, I caught a glimpse in the rearview of an Insight being driven by a Popular Mechanics staffer. Riding shotgun with him was Kurt Antonius, Honda's senior PR guy. Hey, Honda said any vehicle, didn't it?

As we rolled to the finish line at a hotel in downtown Motor City, the total for our trip registered 121.7 mpg. Our average speed had been 58 mph. We kicked butt--the next-best mileage was 83.4 mpg at 59 mph. Word had leaked out about our Excursion draft animal. The other automotive chaps seemed miffed, oddly enough.

We had won fair and square. Honda concurred and awarded us first prize, which included a check for $5000 to the charity of our choice. We selected Arbor Hospice in Ann Arbor, Michigan, perhaps knowing how good the odds are that a few of us might one day be residing there.