Honda Introduces America's Cheapest Hybrid Car

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Honda is bringing back the defunct Insight nameplate for a hybrid-only vehicle planned for the Japanese, European and North American markets early next year, as the automaker strives to play catch-up with rival Toyota in hybrids.

Toyota Motor Corp. has been wildly successful by promoting the Prius as a hybrid-only model -- a move often praised as effective in highlighting its commitment to ecological technology.

But the industry view is still divided on devoting a model to a hybrid.

Nissan Motor Co. of Japan, which now buys its hybrid system from Toyota but is developing its own gas-electric technology, is less bullish about hybrid-only models. It has said it will instead likely offer a hybrid version of one of its standard gasoline engine vehicles.

Honda Motor Co. executives have repeatedly expressed their determination to come out with more hybrids.

Honda's original Insight hybrid was introduced in 1999 but it was discontinued in 2006 after sluggish sales totaling a cumulative 17,000 worldwide.

Toyota, by contrast, has sold more than a million Prius cars over the past decade.

The reasons for the Insight's failure to catch on are unclear, but relatively high pricing, its unusual styling and other reasons may be to blame.

Tokyo-based Honda, Japan's No. 2 automaker, will show a "concept model" of the Insight at the Paris Motor Show next month, Honda said in a statement Thursday.

It will be a five-door hatchback compact, whose design is based on the sleek FCX Clarity, Honda's fuel cell vehicle, according to Honda.

"The name Insight was chosen to denote Honda's 'insight' into a new era in which hybrid vehicles come within reach of most car buyers," the company said.

Honda did not give pricing. But Honda President Takeo Fukui has promised to keep the price difference between Honda's planned hybrid and a comparable gas engine model to within 1,900. Analysts say the car could sell for as little as $18,500, undercutting the Prius by nearly $3,500

All the world's automakers are rushing to make their models more fuel efficient amid soaring gas prices.

U.S. automaker General Motors Corp. largely has focused on hybrids in its larger vehicles and on the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in electric car it hopes to bring to market in 2010. Ford Motor Co. has mid-size hybrids due out next year, while Chrysler is developing efficient smaller diesels and has hybrids in some large SUVs.