From the 1970s to the 1990s, Honda earned a reputation as the most technically innovative and ecologically sensitive Japanese automaker. Honda introduced the first hybrid to the American market. Unfortunately, its rep for green tech leadership took a big hit when the original Insight, an EV1ish tear-drop-shaped two-seater, was totally eclipsed by Toyota’s Prius. Hybrid versions of the Civic and Accord did little to stem Toyota’s PR gains. For 2010, Honda has introduced an all-new Insight hybrid. Does this car have a shot at ending Toyota’s dominance of the green car mindscape?
The success of the Toyota Prius, and relative failure of all other hybrids, suggested that people didn’t want a hybrid that looked like any other car. Honda appears to have learned this lesson—sort of. Although based on the Honda Fit, the new Insight looks like no other Honda. What it does strongly resemble: the 2004-2009 Toyota Prius, only with even more ungainly proportions.
Inside the Insight, the hyper-plastic sci-fi theme of other recent Honda interiors has advanced even deeper into the absurd. If any attempt was made at a clean, cohesive, rational design, it’s not evident. From the bi-level instruments to the bifurcated HVAC controls, a team of acid-tripping designers and bean counters appears to have completely routed the human factors folks. This from the “keep it simple” company. One small win: unlike in Toyota’s hybrids, there’s a tach.
Human bodies come in many different shapes and sizes. So there’s a chance that some people will find the Insight’s front seats comfortable, or at least bearable. This tester couldn’t wait to escape from the prominent, non-adjustable lumbar bulge and head-prodding headrests. Visibility, another traditional Honda strength, is good ahead but awful to the rear.
One more lesson learned from the first round of Insight vs. Prius: hybrid buyers want a back seat. So the new Insight has one. But not much of one; unlike in the Prius, adults barely fit. Cargo room is more competitive.
Like past Honda hybrids, the 2010 Insight employs a much simpler powertrain than Toyota’s HSD. The relatively puny electric motor, while theoretically capable of powering the car at low speeds, rarely does so in typical driving. Instead, it provides a mild assist to the engine-for a total of 98 horsepower—and enables the engine to nap at traffic lights.
While the electric assist makes the Insight feel sufficiently energetic off the line and in casual driving, the more you push, the weaker the engine feels, and the raspier it sounds. (Didn’t Honda used to be known for the most refined small fours?) A contributing factor: the engine/motor is connected to the wheels by a conventional belt-and-pulley CVT (as opposed to the planetary gearset sort employed by Toyota). This CVT typifies the reasons many people hate the entire concept. When pushed, it sounds and feels as if the clutch is slipping. Noise levels increase dramatically; thrust not nearly so much.
I drove the LX. Upgrade to the EX and you get paddle shifters to select from seven simulated “gears.” Someone at Honda clearly has a sense of humor.
The point of the Insight’s otherwise awful powertrain: fuel economy, of course. The EPA’s numbers are 40/43. That’s inferior to a Prius, but perhaps ten MPG better than a Fit. Hit a big green “ECON” button for optimum results. Honda’s chief innovation is an “Eco Assist” feedback system that’ll bring out the hypermiler in your mom (in case the underhood racket isn’t sufficient incentive to tread lightly on the throttle). This driver appears to have passed-the little green tree remained lit despite a few attempts to discover whether the Insight could, if necessary, get out of its own way (yes, barely).
In turns, the Insight leans less and feels less bobbly than the non-Touring second-generation Prius. But that’s a low hurdle. Compared to conventional compacts, handling is average at best. Despite some reports to the contrary, the Insight is not fun to drive in any conventional sense of the words “drive” or “fun.” The price of mere handling parity? When traversing patchy pavement, the underdamped, overly firm rear suspension gets the jitters and incites tin-can reverb in the cargo area.
Honda’s strategy with the Insight: offer a car nearly as good as the Prius for substantially less money. With a $20,570 base price, the Insight lists for a couple grand less than the more stylish, quicker, more economical, and more comfortable 2010 Prius. (Or opt for a leftover 2009, and incentives will considerably narrow the gap.) This is one of those cases where spending a little more money on the “real thing” will get you a lot more car.
Copycat exterior, cheap interior, uncomfortable seats, cacaphonous engine, nervous ride, competes on price . . . the Honda Insight sounds like a Prius knock-off from China. Except it’s from Honda. What happened to the company that gave us the 1984 Civic?
[read Michael Martineck's review of the Honda Insight here]