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Let's address the elephant in the room first, shall we? Many who have seen early photographs of the 2010 Honda Insight Hybrid have dismissed it as nothing more than a carbon copy of a Toyota Prius.
These people would be wrong.
What "these people" are forgetting is what was said about the current Toyota Prius when it first debuted in the fall of 2003. "It looks like a four-door Honda CRX," they whined.
Much of this finger-pointing stems from the nearly horizontal rear glass of the 2010 Honda Insight with its vertical, peekaboo rear window for enhanced rearward visibility.
The vertical glass panel allows the Insight to fully exploit the widely recognized aerodynamic principles of Wunibald Kamm, who discovered that if one abruptly chopped the tail end off a teardrop, the most streamlined of shapes, most of the low-drag goodness would remain. A Kamm back, they call it.
Yes, the Toyota Prius has this very arrangement. But so did the 2000-'06 Honda Insight and the 1988-'91 Honda CRX before it. That the 2010 Insight looks this way is no accident, because Yasunari Seki, chief engineer for the 2010 Honda Insight, made his name at Honda while working on the CRX HF.
And that's just what the 2010 Honda Insight is, more or less: a hybrid version of the late Honda CRX HF, but with four doors, room for five passengers, up-to-date safety features and modern conveniences.
With respect to the 2010 Honda Insight, Honda is guilty of copying no one but itself.
The Honda Hybrid Approach
The trouble with hybrids is that they don't seem to pencil out. We've compared many to their non-hybrid counterparts, but the cost to buy one is never offset by the fuel savings realized.
Of course, the reasons to purchase a hybrid extend beyond saving money at the gas pump, and that's why Toyota Prius owners are likely to be well-heeled early adopters more interested in the philosophical benefits of going green than the financial ones.
But Honda wants the 2010 Insight to be affordable enough for almost anyone. And it wants the Insight to be the kind of hybrid that provides measureable benefits without introducing day-to-day eccentricities. To these ends, Honda has not developed an all-new hybrid system with dual electric motors and a complex series-parallel arrangement, like a Prius.
Instead, Honda has stuck to an approach that has worked for its hybrid cars before: Integrated Motor Assist (IMA), a simple system consisting of an efficient gasoline engine, a conventional continuously variable transmission (CVT) and a thin, brushless electric motor sandwiched between the two. The battery pack is of the tried-and-true nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) variety.
Official pricing is not due until we get closer to the new Insight's release date of April 22, 2009 (yes, that's Earth Day). But the base LX model's price is expected to come in well under $18,000. We figure that this fully optioned 2010 Honda Insight EX-Navi (EX with navigation) should cost less than $22,500 — at least $5,000 below a comparable Prius.
The engine in this case is a 1.3-liter inline-4 derived from the Honda Civic Hybrid. Changes for the Insight application include two spark plugs per cylinder and reduced internal friction.
The VTEC variable valve-timing system is also less elaborate. Instead of three VTEC modes, there are but two: a standard cam profile for everyday running and a zero-profile round cam that prevents any valves from opening and creating pumping losses when the Insight runs in full-electric mode.
By itself, this engine makes 88 horsepower and 88 pound-feet of torque. But it seldom runs alone. The IMA electric motor provides up to 13 hp and 58 lb-ft of torque. It's a smaller setup than the 20-hp electric motor found in the Civic Hybrid, because the Insight weighs some 150 pounds less than a Civic. Our test Insight registers 2,736 pounds on our scales.
All told, the combination is good for 98 hp at 5,800 rpm and 123 lb-ft of torque from 1,000-1,500 rpm. On our test track, this produces a run to 60 mph from a standstill in 10.9 seconds (10.5 with seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and does the quarter-mile in 17.9 seconds at 77.9 mph. That's a dead heat with the 2009 Fit Sport we recently tested and a trouncing of the 2009 Civic Hybrid by 2 seconds.
That MPG Thing
Mileagewise, the 2010 Honda Insight is expected to be EPA rated at 40 mpg in the city and 43 mpg on the highway. By comparison, a Honda Fit Sport is rated at 27 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. The Civic Hybrid is rated at 40 mpg and 45 mpg, respectively.
Some might complain that the 1991 Honda CRX HF, a non-hybrid, was rated at 40 mpg city and 47 mpg highway (in 2008 terms). What have we gained? Well, how about safety, room for five and a host of power accessories, for starters? Lest you forget the 1991 CRX HF was a stripped two-seater that carried 800 fewer pounds.
We couldn't measure fuel economy on our customary test loops at home, but we devised a 197-mile substitute in Arizona. This suburban loop had more rural two-lanes in it than our usual Orange County course, but we're still impressed by the 51.5-mpg result our 2010 Honda Insight EX achieved.
The 2010 Honda Insight borrows heavily from the strut-based Honda Fit, and in fact the entire chassis and suspension from the firewall forward is pure Fit. The spring and damper calibrations are specifically optimized for the Insight, of course, but the geometry and many of the hard parts are identical.
The rear suspension isn't a direct carryover, but the twist-beam rear axle is the same. The resulting gap between the rear wheels afforded by this layout is filled here with the Power Control Unit (PCU) and a 100.8-volt battery pack with a 5.75 amp-hour capacity. These components are slim enough that a temporary spare tire can perch atop them and still leave 15.9 cubic feet of space behind the seats — a bit more than a Prius.
Every Honda 2010 Insight rolls on 175/65R15 low-rolling-resistance tires. EX models like this one wear them on cast-aluminum wheels. The brakes are ventilated discs in front and drums in back, with additional drag coming from the IMA, which feeds electrons into the system backward to generate electricity when slowing.
On the road, the 2010 Honda Insight feels more nimble and put together than other hybrids. Some hybrid brake systems feel clumsy because of the regenerative system that's overlaid, but this is not the case here. The fuel-saving electric-assist power steering doesn't feel as precise as that of the Fit when you're going straight down the road, but it responds well and the effort is just right while cornering. In short, the Insight goes where it's pointed, feels secure and doesn't display the compromises we've noticed in previous hybrids.
At the track, our EX stops smartly from 60 mph in 125 feet. Its 0.79g performance on the skid pad is respectable for an economy car on skinny tires. But the slalom performance of 59.3 mph required our test-driver to conquer a bit of oversteer with the stability control turned off — something worth noting because the Insight LX does not have stability control.
To enhance fuel economy, the Insight features a comprehensive Eco-Assist driver coaching system. A Civic-style two-tiered instrument layout is used, and the background of the high-mounted digital speedometer changes from blue to green to indicate how efficiently we're driving.
An Eco-Guide page in the multi-information display grows leaves to indicate our performance over a trip and frames a bar graph that encourages gentle use of throttle and brakes. When the Insight's key is removed, an eco score lingers to indicate how we've done over the life of the car.
They've managed to turn the 2010 Honda Insight into a rolling fuel-economy video game, but without making it distracting.
An "ECON" mode button (green, of course) makes it easier to score higher and improve fuel economy. Engaging it desensitizes the throttle pedal, re-optimizes the CVT and IMA control programs for thrift, increases the time that the air-conditioning compressor is disengaged and makes the cruise control less aggressive in sustaining speed. In short, the Insight becomes more sluggish.
The Insight's overall dash design is nodular and busy, but the major controls are close at hand and the fit and finish is good. We find the front seats roomy and comfortable. And, unlike in the Toyota Prius, the steering wheel telescopes and the driver seat adjusts for height, so our tallest tester settled in with no trouble.
The same cannot be said for the backseat. Those approaching 6 feet in height will feel the roof and wish for more legroom. The Insight's 100.4-inch wheelbase needs an additional inch or two. This, above all, reminds us that the Insight is indeed a compact car. It will not make a good eco-taxi.
Power windows and mirrors are standard equipment for every Insight, as are automatic climate control and an MP3 jack. Must-have techie features like shift paddles, Bluetooth and an integrated iPod and USB connection are standard on EX models.
So even though the Insight is a compact hybrid that gets very good fuel economy, the equipment list won't make you feel cheated. And there's nothing weird about it; the Insight drives like a regular Honda.
All told, the 2010 Honda Insight hits much more than it misses. And the pricing makes it a compelling choice that just may pencil out. So what if some people insist it looks like a Prius?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, and the manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2010 Honda Insight in WA is: