2010 Toyota Prius vs. 2010 Honda Insight: The Commute

Last week, we ran our latest Mileage Challenge featuring four ultra-fuel-efficient cars, and before that we rounded up six fuel-sippers to see which one was the best daily driver. But none of these reports put a brutal, real-life morning and evening commute to the test.

That’s exactly what I did in the new 2010 Honda Insight and 2010 Toyota Prius, the two most affordable hybrids on the road. We hear a lot of car shoppers say they buy hybrids to help save on their gas costs and cut down on emissions during their commute. But how did the two do in terms of fuel efficiency, comfort and entertainment for my often 90-minute morning commute and 45-minute afternoon commute? Let’s find out.

One thing our Mileage Challenge couldn’t take into account was morning cold starts and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Luckily, I could. One fresh morning I hopped into the Prius and headed to work via the infamous Kennedy Expressway. Here are the stats:
  • 23.2 miles in a little over an hour
  • Average speed: 20 mph
  • Average mileage: 60.6 mpg
Before you shake your head in disbelief at the mileage figure, it was a nice 60-degree day so I didn’t use air conditioning — just vents (both cars went through the same treatment in this regard). I also used the electric-only EV mode for approximately 2.4 miles during the bumper-to-bumper portion of the drive, which was well under 20 mph. That really ratcheted up the mileage, but I think any Prius owner would use the EV mode in such a way since it is just a simple button push. It also gives you something to do while you’re sitting in traffic listening to traffic reports.

The Prius was a pleasant commute car with a nice sounding stereo that lacked an USB iPod interface, relatively comfortable seats and a sedate ride. Besides hitting that EV button, driving the Prius seemed like piloting any other car. At least in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The afternoon commute went like this:
  • 23.9 miles in about 45 minutes
  • Average speed: 19 mph
  • Average mileage: 55.0 mpg
Dring my afternoon commute, I didn’t use the EV mode and traffic was much lighter. I don’t know why my average speed was lower than the morning commute since the afternoon commute is much more open (less construction) and I routinely got up to 60 mph, which never happens in the morning drive. That easily knocked down my mileage by a few mpgs.

The huge difference between the two commutes wasn’t the dip in mileage; it was how the Prius changed in demeanor. At high speeds, road and wind noise is much more audible. This remains my biggest knock on the Prius overall.

How did the Honda handle the same route?

Its first morning went like this:
  • 23.6 miles in about 70 minutes
  • No average speed display
  • Average mileage: 43.1 mpg
I hauled a two-drawer legal-sized filing cabinet in the Insight’s cargo area with the rear seats down, which weighed things down quite a bit. While a lot of my Cars.com colleagues think the Insight has a rough ride, I found that in bumper-to-bumper traffic there’s nothing really detracting from the ride, which is much like my experience in the Prius. What bugged me most in the Insight was how far you had to reach to fiddle with the stereo system. I liked that the model we tested had an USB iPod port, though.

However, the seats were nowhere near as comfortable as the Prius’ were. Our Insight was an EX model with a few minor upgrades that raised its price close to the Prius’ starting price, $21,300 and $22,000 respectively.

The ride home again was more wide open:
  • 23.5 miles in about 40 minutes
  • Average mileage: 45.3 mpg
This is where you can see the difference between the two cars’ hybrid systems. The Prius does better in slower bumper-to-bumper traffic, and the Insight’s mileage improves in higher-speed settings. Like the Prius, wind noise was really bad in the Insight at high speeds. Winds were also whipping something fierce — about 30 mph — during this afternoon commute, but the thin glass on both cars was a real detriment.

What does this exercise mean to you, the potential hybrid buyer? If you have a commute with light traffic, the Insight will return better mileage than its EPA ratings of 40/43 mpg city/highway. Whether you deal with heavy or light traffic in your commute, the Prius has good mileage while providing a better atmosphere for the driver. 
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