To some, the telltale aerodynamically influenced wedge shape of the modern affordable hybrid is a badge of honor. To others, it might as well be a limply hung white flag out there for the whole neighborhood to see. If you're in the latter group, consider the 2019 Honda Insight.
2019 Honda Insight First Drive
A 50-Plus MPG Hybrid, Concealed
Yes, that name has previously adorned archetypal wedge-mobiles, such as the special first-generation Insight, which not only came with a manual transmission and optional air conditioning but also shared an assembly line with the Honda NSX and S2000. Today's Insight is less militant about how it achieves fuel efficiency, delivering instead a normal driving experience, a sharp-looking exterior, and a functional interior. And though it's not built alongside sports cars, its engine and battery come from Ohio, while final assembly occurs in Indiana.
Beyond being a hybrid, the new Insight shares few similarities with its predecessors. It's handsome, for starters. Its underlying structure may come from the Honda Civic, but the Insight's exterior design comes from the larger Accord. Thanks to a wide-set grille and standard LED head- and taillights, the result looks nothing like an overt fuel-miser.
The Insight is about the same size as a Civic, and the construction is similar underneath with a few changes to accommodate the hybrid-specific hardware and improve overall drivability. An aluminum hood reduces weight, and additional sound-deadening material and active noise-canceling hardware make the interior quieter. Unlike its predecessors that had a hatchback body style, the new Insight is a sedan with a traditional trunk.
Honda projects 52 mpg combined (55 city/49 highway) for two of the three Insight trim levels, the base LX and the midgrade EX. The fully loaded Touring's additional features — ranging from a sunroof to power and heated front seats to larger wheels — push it to a different weight class that lowers its rating to 48 mpg combined (51 city/45 highway). Most owners probably won't see a difference in real-world driving.
The fuel economy ratings border those of the Toyota Prius and Hyundai Ioniq, but the Insight's hybrid system packs a bit more punch. Under the hood is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that acts primarily like a generator, making electricity for the motor that drives the front wheels. Combined, the system provides 151 horsepower and 197 pound-feet of torque. The engine can supply power directly to the front wheels under heavy accelerator use and at freeway speeds, but does so only through a clutch and a fixed gear ratio. There is no traditional automatic or continuously variable automatic transmission. The Insight's 1.1-kWh hybrid battery is situated under the rear seat.
The powertrain may sound complicated, but driving the Insight isn't. Press the start button, choose Drive on the gear selector, and roll on the accelerator. With more torque than a Civic Si and the immediate response of an electric motor, the Insight scoots right away from a stop. It's no sport sedan, but acceleration is strong enough that you won't fall by the wayside during the commute rush.
You hear the engine speed rising and falling in line with the accelerator pedal. The somewhat syrupy experience is similar to a car equipped with a continuously variable automatic transmission: Stab the accelerator pedal while merging on the freeway and the engine revs up to a point and hangs there while you get up to speed. While smooth, the noise from the engine is prevalent. The Accord Hybrid's system operates the same way, incidentally.
Behind the steering wheel are what appear to be shift paddles. They aren't. The paddles actually adjust the intensity of the regenerative braking, which is when the electric motor recuperates energy and slows the vehicle when you lift off the accelerator. While the paddles are a good idea, the execution is a bit strange. The regenerative braking isn't strong enough to trigger the brake lights and, outside of Sport mode, the Insight reverts to the default setting after a few seconds or after you come to a stop. These traits limit the usability of the paddles to long downhill stretches or for hypermiling enthusiasts. Everyone else can just ignore them.
These oddities stand out because the overall experience largely mirrors that of the Civic, which is one of our favorite compact cars. The variable-ratio steering feels natural; the brake pedal seamlessly switches between regenerative and friction braking; and the large windows and mirrors provide good outward visibility. One difference is the accelerator pedal, which slightly increases in effort as you press it down and clicks when you pass three-fourths travel. It does this to indicate that the engine is supplying power directly to the wheels.
A Touch of Class
Adapting Accord design cues and higher-quality materials gives the Insight's front seats a more premium look and feel. You may not notice individual improvements, such as real stitchwork, but the overall impression is one of quality.
It's a clever space, too. A pocket to the right of the gear selector is big enough for oversize phones and has a rubberized bottom to keep them in place. The massive center console has multiple sliding parts and configurations, including two standard cupholders and a big one for a supersize gas-station thirst quencher.
When it comes to interior measurements, the Insight compares favorably to the Prius and the Ioniq, with similar roominess up front and greater legroom for rear passengers. The sloping roofline reduces headroom slightly, so taller-than-average adults might find their heads brushing the ceiling. Shoppers with families and potential ride-sharing intentions should note that the Insight lacks rear console-mounted vents and charging ports.
Placing the battery under the back seat means it doesn't affect interior volume or cargo space. The trunk offers 15 cubic feet of storage, which is among the largest you'll find in compact sedans, and 60/40-split folding rear seats (on the EX and Touring) expand that space further.
An 8-inch center touchscreen reacts quickly to inputs, such as when you're entering an address into the navigation system. Unlike the Civic, the Insight thankfully sports a real volume knob and a few physical buttons for easier use. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are also included on the EX and Touring trim levels.
Every Insight comes standard with the company's Honda Sensing suite of advanced driver safety aids, which includes adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with emergency automatic braking, lane keeping assist and automatic high-beams. A traditional blind-spot monitoring system isn't available, though. Instead, there's Honda's LaneWatch system (Touring only), which puts cameras on the sideview mirrors and displays their view on the entertainment screen when you activate the turn signal. That means using the turn signals blocks whatever you have on the display, such as navigation directions, which can be annoying when you're finding your way in a new town.
In Plain Sight
The 2019 Honda Insight arrives at dealers in early summer 2018 with a price range from $23,725 to $28,985, including destination. That pricing, like the fuel economy, compares favorably with the Toyota Prius and the Hyundai Ioniq. But the Insight's greater power and upscale interior make it a nicer car to drive in the real world. What's better, the design means you can have the fuel economy of a hybrid without announcing it to the whole world.