It’s here at last. Honda’s new Insight hybrid was built for the sole purpose of taking on the Toyota Prius and while it’s not technically in the same class of vehicle, being somewhat smaller than a Prius and therefore only a compact car, Toyota sees the car as a credible threat and has slashed Prius prices to meet the challenge.
|1. The Insight costs just $19,800 ($23,900 CDN) to start.
2. It’s powered by Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system, with an electric motor that helps the gasoline engine.
3. Fuel economy is rated at 40/43 mpg (city/hwy)
So the question remains, can this all-new model compete with Toyota’s third-generation Prius? Let’s take a look.
LOOKS LIKE AND COST ABOUT THE SAME AS THE COMPETITION
With an MSRP of $19,800 ($23,900 CDN) the Insight is the cheapest hybrid on the market. It was supposed to be drastically less than a new Prius, but with Toyota cutting prices as well the difference is now just $2,200.
And with the styling of the two cars being almost identical, it’s hard to judge either vehicle on its visual appeal. Besides, if you’re looking at a car like this you probably already like the futuristic look of aerodynamic efficiency. It’s actually growing on us, although sometimes and from some angles the Insight can still look dorky. We really love the Clear Sky Blue Metallic paint though.
With those factors out of the way, we’re left to judge the car on its remaining categories: comfort, functionality and fuel economy.
Unfortunately for Honda, the “fun-to-drive” factor (a strong hand for every one of the company’s cars) really isn’t of much concern here.
FUEL-ECONOMY: 40/43 MPG
Of most importance then are those fuel economy numbers. Honda claims a 40 mpg city, 43 mpg highway rating – this compares to Toyota’s claim of 51 and 48 for the new Prius. It’s also just under Honda’s Civic Hybrid, which gets 40 and 45 mpg.
In our testing we managed 37.3 mpg on the highway (at a good clip) and averaged 42 mpg in total. We even ran the car down to mostly fumes and got 373 miles. The trip to the pump used up 9.25 gallons of gas (the Insight has a 10.6 gallon tank) meaning that at a national average of $2.50 a gallon we only had to spend $23 for a fill-up!
The Insight doesn’t get near the fuel-economy of the Prius, due to its more rudimentary hybrid system. It might sound like wizardry to some, but hybrid engines, especially Honda’s, are alarmingly simple.
The Insight uses a 1.3-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine as well as an electric motor and a battery pack used to store the energy. Together the systems produce 98hp and 123 ft-lbs of torque and they don’t leave the car wanting for power. This is actually the same gasoline engine as in the Civic Hybrid, but the Insight uses a smaller and less powerful electric engine, resulting in slightly less power.
Honda calls its system Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) and the name pretty much says it all. Whereas Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive allows the car limited operation on just electric power, in the Insight the gasoline engine propels the car and the electric motor simply kicks in to provide additional power, allowing for modest acceleration while using very little gas.
The electric system also recharges itself, turning the energy in slowing the car into stored energy in the battery packs.
On top of this, the Insight also makes use of a start-stop function, turning the gasoline engine off when the car is at idle.
For both fuel-economy and/or convenience Honda has equipped the Insight with an ECON button. When pressed, the start-stop function will work when the car comes to a stop, shutting off the gasoline engine – as well as the fan/heater/air conditioning. If it’s a particularly hot or cold day you can simply leave the car in its default setting, meaning that the fan (and therefore the gasoline engine) will continue to run when he car is stopped.
COLOR-CHANGING SPEEDOMETER A FUEL-EFFICIENCY REMINDER
The ECON button is just a part of the Insight’s Eco Assist feature, which also includes an Eco Guide driver information system and a color changing speedometer background to indicate the level of fuel-efficient driving.
Much like the ECON button, the color changing background is far less complex than it sounds. Essentially the colors change from bright green (efficient) to bright blue (inefficient) depending on the throttle pressure. This can be a bit misleading because at 4000 rpm at 80 mph it’s bright green if you keep your foot steady. Mind you, fuel economy at that speed is still an amazing 37 mpg, but considering what the car is capable of it’s not the most efficient driving.
ECO GUIDE MAKES DRIVING A “GREEN” VIDEO GAME
The Eco Guide might actually be a more useful function, giving you half a dozen screens of fuel-economy information to look at. In fact, it makes driving more like a fuel-economy video game as you strive to see just what the car can do. Honda is very much aware of this; even having one screen display plant leaves that light up as you earn them by driving efficiently. There is also a screen that shows the current and past two trips and the fuel economy rating for each of those.
IMA NOT SO SMOOTH
In real world driving Honda’s IMA system isn’t all that smooth and doesn’t always operate like you might expect. I did notice an improvement from the Civic Hybrid but there is still some jerkiness when the engine shuts off as you coast to a stop at a light.
Also, if you do a quick stop-and-go the car can really buck. The Prius, on the other hand, changes between modes undetectably.
As for the start-stop system, there were times when it just didn’t work. It wasn’t often, but on occasion I’d come to a light and the engine would continue to run. In particular this happened when I exited the highway and stopped at the first light.
Additionally, the start-stop system seemed too sensitive at times, turning the gasoline engine back on when I move my foot around on (but not off of) the brake pedal.
Honda’s hybrid system isn’t bad, it’s just that it isn’t as refined as others on the market and doesn’t get their fuel-economy either.
NICE-LOOKING INTERIOR HAS ITS FAULTS TOO
As for the rest of the car, it’s mostly well thought out and well put together, although we do have a few complaints here too.
Standard equipment includes power windows and locks, climate control, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel and a 160-watt AM/FM/CD audio system with MP3 capability and an auxiliary input.
For an extra $1,500, it’s probably best to upgrade from the EX to the LX model though. It gives you some frills like a six-speaker audio system, paddle shifters, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and 15-inch wheels. The real reason to upgrade, however, is the cruise control and Honda’s Vehicle Stability Assist program.
Standard safety features on the Insight include front and side airbags for driver and passenger, as well as side curtain airbags both front and rear. ABS and EBD are also standard as is a Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS).
The interior is somewhat basic but still well put together and the materials, while economy-minded, certainly don’t look cheap. The seats are quite comfortable and don’t have the rock-hard feeling typical of economy cars.
The audio display, as well as the climate controls, all look and feel high quality and while the two-tier Honda dash can take some getting used to for those not familiar with driving modern Hondas, it’s actually a great setup.
The Insight has a typically Honda audio system that isn’t great and can actually be listened to at full volume. The front cup holders are also an area that needs work, as they are just too shallow, meaning you’ll be cleaning up spilled coffee off the floor mats on a weekly basis.
HATCHBACK HAS BENEFITS AND DRAWBACKS
As a hatchback the Insight gives more functionality than a standard compact car with 15.9 cubic feet of trunk space, which converts to 31.5 cu.-ft. with the rear seats folded flat.
Unfortunately due to the design of the car the rear seats are mostly useless for adults in the headroom department – even though legroom is adequate.
That hatch also makes for a rather obstructed view of anything behind the car. Not only does the rear bar on the hatch sit in the middle of the driver’s field of view, but the side areas of the hatch produce rather significant blind spots.
Honda’s first attempt at a mass-market hybrid is good, but doesn’t quite match up to the new Prius, which has the advantage of being on its third generation. Based solely on fuel-economy (easily the most important factor in buying a hybrid) the Insight is lacking. The IMA hybrid system also doesn’t work as smoothly as competitive hybrid systems.
On top of these two major critiques, we registered far more small complaints about the car as a whole that we’d expect from a Honda.
Still, Honda is marketing the Insight as “the people’s hybrid” and has priced it accordingly. At $2,200 less than the Prius it might just be low enough to win over buyers.