Making plans for the future is tough when the market is as shaky as it is now, but Honda is trying to find a way to get its Insight hybrid to market in the U.S. for less than $20,000. To do so, it may have to build the car in the U.S., but it won't be able to justify that step unless it can sell 100,000 of the cars in North America. Already on sale in Japan for about that price, the Insight is racking up sales, exceeding its monthly target by 200%.

The Japanese price of ¥1.89 million ($20,623) already makes the Insight the least expensive hybrid vehicle on the market, setting it up to succeed where other hybrids have failed, i.e. by still being economically justifiable even when fuel prices are relatively low. That puts a positive spin on the likelihood of a U.S.-built Insight, as long as the success in its home market carries over to America.

Initial sales figures weren't expected to be huge, for the obvious economic reasons. "If the Insight had gone on sale a half year earlier, it would have been such a sure hot-seller," said Honda's automotive development manager, Norio Ano, at the car's Tokyo unveiling. But the unexpected success of the Insight in Japan has the company optimistic.

"This is so much better than expected. The Insight is priced below 2 million yen, and is energy efficient. We believe consumers like these aspects," Honda spokeswoman Natsuno Asanuma told The Detroit News.

The car's 43mpg rating and low initial price are seen as the Insight's main selling points, since it will be cheap to buy and to operate, especially once fuel prices resume their inevitable rise.

The sub-$20,000 U.S. price was confirmed as a target at the Japanese-market launch by executive vice president Koichi Kondo.
The decision to build the Insight in the U.S. won't happen until the car's sales volume tops 100,000 per year on a regular basis. The company hopes the low price will help the car reach its annual sales goal of 100,000 cars in the U.S. and 200,000 globally.

Japanese buyers have been buying the car for about a week, with European availability starting next month. U.S. sales won't start until April.