Talk with anyone about hybrids and the Toyota Prius will be mentioned within the first minute. Try it sometime. Bring your stopwatch. See? We just did it in the opening sentence. It's almost to the point where the non-word "Prius" has achieved synonym status alongside Kleenex and Xerox.
So when the first official photos of the new 2010 Honda Insight Hybrid were released, cries of "They've copied the Prius!" began almost immediately. It's the high rear hatchback paired with a vertical glass window between the taillights that does it. The Prius had that back in 2004. Case closed.
Doesn't anyone recall that the original 2000 Honda Insight and the 1988 Honda CRX had that hatch arrangement first? Who copied whom, here?
That's the Insight's problem. No one remembers that it was the first hybrid sold in North America because its two-seat layout was weird-looking and impractical. Sales were dreadful — only 18,000 worldwide over six years. Changing the 2010 Insight into a four-door hatchback isn't another example of copying; it's just good business sense. After all, Honda wants to sell 90,000 new Insights per year.
To ensure those sales, Honda aims to keep the price low and keep hybrid eccentricities to a minimum. Official prices are not yet available, but we estimate that our 2010 Honda EX with Navigation, the most loaded configuration there is, will sell for less than $22,500. That's about $5,000 less than a comparably equipped 2009 Toyota Prius. Better still, the starter Insight LX, well-equipped in its own right, is expected to debut for less than $18,000.
In order to keep the price low, Honda stuck with its simple, tried-and-true Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system. Basic propulsion here comes from an efficient 1.3-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine that makes 88 horsepower and 88 pound-feet of torque. Sandwiched between that and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) is a thin electric motor that produces another 13 hp and 58 lb-ft of torque. It's fed by a 108V battery pack that uses familiar nickel-metal hydride cells.
Under braking, this motor acts as a generator and feeds electrons back into the battery. Total system output when you mash the throttle is 98 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque. At our test track, the Insight scooted to 60 mph in 10.9 seconds — a tenth quicker than the last Honda Fit Sport we tested and about 2.5 seconds better than a Honda Civic Hybrid. It's no speed demon, but the new Insight is no slug, either.
When you're in less of a hurry, there's enough electric motivation to propel the 2010 Insight at city speeds up to 30 mph with the engine off. This transition is utterly seamless because the always-connected nature of the system means the engine is still spinning and the tachometer still registers whenever the car moves. In this fuel-cut electric mode, the Insight's VTEC system switches to a lobe-less round cam that keeps the valves shut to reduce pumping losses.
EPA fuel economy figures have not been released, but Honda says they'll come in at 40 mpg city, 43 mpg highway and 41 mpg combined. Yes, the 2009 Prius is rated higher at 46 mpg combined. But the non-linear nature of the mpg unit means a 5-mpg difference in this rarified region is less meaningful. In a 15,000-mile driving year, it amounts to 40 gallons — $80 at current fuel prices. We ran our Insight EX against a 2009 Prius in a 197-mile suburban fuel economy loop near Phoenix, and the Insight returned 51.5 mpg to the Prius' 54.4 mpg. Not too shabby.
From the firewall forward, the new Insight borrows its chassis and strut suspension from the 2009 Honda Fit. It features a twist-beam rear axle like the Fit, too. The ABS brakes are ventilated discs in front and drums out back. The result is a nimble-handling compact in the Honda tradition. It goes where it's pointed, feels lively and stops smartly. There's no hybrid weirdness, either. The regenerative braking operates transparently and the electronic power steering (EPS) weights up nicely in corners.
The Fit-based Honda Insight rides like a lot of other small Hondas, too. The ride isn't overly firm, but it isn't squishy, either. It stays flat and composed. Wind noise isn't an issue, but there's some coarse road noise. This is a common trait in Honda's smaller cars, the result of a preference for low weight at the expense of sound-deadening materials.
The seating position and seat design impart a feeling of relaxed comfort. You sit lower here than in a Prius, and there's more apparent front legroom. The tilt steering wheel also telescopes out to meet the hands of taller drivers, and the EX has a height-adjustable driver seat for a custom fit. The picture isn't as rosy in back, where the compact nature of the Insight becomes apparent. The Insight's 100.4-inch wheelbase (compared to 106.3 for the larger Prius) equates to a lack of leg- and headroom for rear-seat passengers of above-average height.
A new Eco-Assist driver coaching system is the key interior feature of the new Insight. It takes advantage of the Civic-style split-level dash by altering the background color of the high-mounted speedometer from blue to green to indicate efficient driving. The default page of the comprehensive trip computer houses a bar graph that encourages gentle use of throttle and brakes, and it awards leaf icons for sustained thrift over a trip and over the life of the car.
If it sounds like a rolling videogame, you're right. But it manages to be compelling without distracting. Want to improve your score? An "ECON" button desensitizes the throttle pedal and alters the CVT and IMA software for increased economy. It also cycles the A/C compressor off more often and makes the EX-only cruise control less aggressive. The Insight becomes a bit more sluggish in this frugal mode, but will earn you more eco-laurels.
Traditional controls are well laid out and easy to operate. Single-zone automatic air-conditioning is standard, and its controls are particularly close to the driver. The CVT shift lever has a "Sport" position, and EX models have steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. All Insights have an aux jack, and the EX adds an iPod-friendly USB port. The audio system is simple to use, but at the end of the day, even our top-level stereo needs a speaker upgrade.
The Insight's standard luggage capacity is 15.9 cubic feet — a bit more than the Prius. Folding the 60/40 seats down together opens things up to 31.5 cubes.
The Insight provides impressive visibility around the A-pillars and an excellent rearward view due to the rear hatch's lower window. We didn't find the headlights particularly illuminating, however. Stability control is standard on the EX and all trim levels carry a host of airbags, including side curtains.
Design/Fit and Finish
We found the long and low look of the new Insight sleek and attractive, resembling a stretched early-'90s Honda CRX with two more doors. The new corporate grille and headlight treatment that look a little odd on the CR-V are particularly effective here. We're not as smitten with the inside, however. It's well put together, the pieces are attractively grained and the gaps are small, but the overriding nodular design theme is busy to look at. The wealth of hard plastic is forgivable in an economy car, and should hold up well.
Who should consider this vehicle
The new Insight is affordable enough to be on the shopping list of any recent college grad. It has enough space for small families and empty-nesters alike. But this is a compact. The lack of a roomy backseat, a hallmark of the Prius, makes it less desirable for those who plan to transport adults in back on a regular basis. Bottom line: The Insight might be the first high-mileage hybrid that is affordable enough for the purchase price to pencil out.