Less than a generation ago, speed was the name of the game. Hands-on automotive enthusiasts would swap their car’s two-barrel carb for a four, replace the manifold, straighten the exhaust, anything and everything to make their ride go faster (at least in a straight line). Even the mechanically ignorant knew that power equaled status, whether under-hood or at their fingertips (windows!). These days, consumption is no longer a disease—it’s an addiction. Where once we laughed watching my buddy Artie’s ’69 Camaro’s fuel needle fall, the new Honda Insight has a needle showing me how much fuel I’m saving. It’s not a very clever insight, but the Insight is a very clever car.
At first glance, the Insight reveals itself as the Prius’ fraternal twin. The flattering imitation separates the Insight from its dopey looking predecessor, and places the new car squarely on the Toyotagas – electric coattails. The Insight’s shape is pleasing, like a large juicer. It’s just not stirring. The Insight gets a bonus star for being a five-door, the practicality of which seems lost on my native country. It won’t be lost on the Insightful.
Who cares? The car’s raison d’être lies underneath the skin. Thin skin. While the Insight’s not as tinny as I’d expected, a word to the wise: don’t crouch behind the car when the shooting starts. What insulation I saw—looking around the spare tire—felt too light to exist. Of course, it’s all part of the mission: do less with less.
To that end, the Insight comes with a bigger version of the powerplant than the one powering the original, two-seat Insight. Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system is an 88 horsepower 1.3-liter four-cylinder gas engine with a 13 hp electric sidekick, served by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The electric motor powers the Insight up to 30 mph without any help. The engine turns off sometimes (e.g., when you’re looking for a parking spot, obeying the school zone speed limit or stuck at a light), but the engine’s shaft doesn’t cease so it’s not as disconcerting as it sounds.
The IMA’s performance is remarkable not for traditional thrills—the ’83 Civic was more fun to drive—but the ho-humness of the whole thing. The 2010 Honda Insight EX’s power comes on slowly and smoothly like an economy car. It’s not dangerously slow; there’s just no entertainment value. It’s not like you can downshift, spool up and goose the little bastard.
The Insight’s continuously variable transmission bars you from any thrill search. I’m pretty sure they sourced it from a dentist drill supplier. The sound alone dissuades you from hard acceleration. The Formula 1 style “gear-changers” on the EX’s steering wheel don’t help. How could they? It’s a CVT. I’m still trying to figure that part out. Anyway, the gear-changers are like flippers on a runway model. Like paddles on a submarine. I can’t . . . never mind. They’re only on the EX. Pretend they’re decorations.
The Insight’s ride was firm but not harsh and actually kind of tight. Up and down a few ramps I started wondering what the car would be like if we popped off the low rolling resistant tires and put some decent skins on the puppy. The response and roll hinted that the chassis was capable of much more than the rest of the car would ever allow.
Like the brakes for instance: antilock with electronic force distribution. The regenerative system stops the car well enough sending energy back to your batteries where it can do some good. But the system creates an odd drag and crusty feel that, again, dispirits the Transporter within. For regular old driving, though, no one’s going to complain.
Because they’re going to be paying attention to other things. You can see the 2010 Honda Insight EX’s owners paradise by dashboard lights. A digital speedometer sits center, in a halo, the shade of which tells you whether you’re driving like an Earth-loving angel or the speed-demon you’ve always been. The Insight provides its namesake in the form of graphs and charts you can scroll through to see your average miles per gallon, battery power, time until oil change, life, hit points and number of sparkly gems you’ve picked up on your journey.
It’s not a video game and I don’t mean to reduce the effect which is optimization of your car’s performance, something my buddies and I used to spend a lot of time doing. The measure’s just different. MPG over quarter mile time. An arguably more noble pursuit. Safer, too, the way Honda does it. The colors give you feedback without distraction. Brilliant.
Combined with the Insight’s Eco button—a kind of anti-Nitrous switch that puts the car into super conserve mode—the gauges and lights serve as new substitutes for a gear shift and tons of torque. It helps make you a more controlled, responsive driver . . . in terms of economy. I averaged 37 mpg. I know I can do better. It’s a different game and the Insight is pretty damn good at it. Toyota’s a playa. And, now, so is Honda.