Honda keeps trying to get people interested in the Insight hybrid. First, it was a tiny two-door hatchback that showed up in 1999, before people knew what hybrids were — and it flopped. A decade later, it tried to become a Prius fighter, adding a pair of doors, Prius-like styling and room for five — and given that it was noisy, slow and felt cheap inside, it also flopped. Now we have the third attempt at an Insight — a larger, more premium product based largely on the highly successful Honda Civic, and the question becomes: In a time when everyone is clamoring for crossovers and SUVs, will anyone want a new Prius-fighting hybrid compact sedan?
The Prius itself is struggling in the market, a victim of waning interest in the vehicle type and Buck Rogers-on-a-bad-acid-trip styling. The new Honda Insight aims to slide into this segment with much more appealing looks, a far nicer cabin, better usability and fuel efficiency that matches the latest Toyota hybrid.
Electrified, Not Electrifying
This latest Insight uses a lot of the hybrid system technology Honda employs in the larger Accord and Clarity hybrids. Unlike Honda's earlier Integrated Motor Assist hybrids, which had just one motor-generator and failed to achieve the efficiencies of Toyota's hybrids, the two-motor hybrid system does have two electric motor-generators, though technically one of them serves only as a generator rather than doing double duty. These components work along with a tiny 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine and a lithium-ion battery pack to store energy. Though it has the properties of a continuously variable automatic transmission rather than the conventional step-gear type, the Insight operates more like the Toyota hybrids, varying gear ratios through the interaction of the gas engine and electric motors. There's no transmission in the changing-gear or belt-and-pulleys sense.
Usually, the Honda Insight operates in electric mode, employing electricity stored in the battery pack to provide motivation and using the gas engine to recharge the battery or power the generator for more oomph. It results in leisurely acceleration, but it doesn't feel underpowered. It's meant to emphasize efficiency over sportiness. Put your foot down, however, and a clutch allows the gas engine to connect directly to the wheels and provide actual propulsive force, as well. This enables more rapid acceleration, but at the cost of serious engine noise — that little four-cylinder revs its guts out, and you hear all of its efforts in an unpleasant drone. It all works seamlessly without any input from the driver, leaving you to try and discern what the system is doing by watching the power-flow display on the multimedia screen and listening to the considerable engine note.
Not the Fun Kind of Drone
And you won't have a problem hearing that engine note, unfortunately. Driving the Insight in normal conditions brings the engine into play a lot, especially when approaching slight inclines, causing the thing to rev like crazy as it provides some more juice to the electric motor and battery, and/or assists in propulsion. It happens like this in the Accord and Clarity as well, but in the Insight it's loud. Really loud. At around 45-50 mph on calm two-lane roads through the Minnesota countryside, I was astonished at how often the little engine would rev its heart out, as if it was being tasked with a monumental challenge, when all I was doing was cruising up a slight grade. This is not the case in the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid despite using the same 1.5-liter engine — but employing a much larger 17-kilowatt-hour battery pack that allows the Clarity to operate in full electric mode a lot more often. The Insight uses a much smaller 1.1-kwh battery, meaning that engine has to run a lot more often and work harder to generate electricity for the car to use on demand.
That loudness is also a factor when cruising at highway speeds, where the larger 17-inch wheels and tires on our Touring trim test car were highly susceptible to changing road surfaces. On new, smooth blacktop, the car was silent as can be, but as soon as you hit any kind of concrete, a surprising level of road noise and drone was transmitted to the cabin — an incongruous situation given the Insight's upscale interior and premium sedan pretensions.
Smooth and Efficient, But Quirky
Honda is positioning the Insight as a premium product and has tuned it much more for comfort than for sport. The driving experience is a dual-personality mix of tepid hybrid-style powertrain performance and cushy upscale compact-sedan ride and handling. Mash the accelerator at a stoplight or on a highway on-ramp, and acceleration ... happens. Not quickly, mind you, but it does move well enough not to be a traffic impediment. With 151 "system" horsepower and 197 pounds-feet of torque, one would expect the Insight to be acceptably quick, and it is — just barely. It gets more responsive in Sport mode (one of three you can choose from, including Normal and Econ), which seems to employ the gas engine more often for propulsion but also strangely changes the engine's exhaust note. Push Sport, and the droning, churning noise of the 1.5-liter mill becomes deeper, sportier — and decidedly more appealing. Suddenly, you don't mind hearing the engine revving its guts out because it actually sounds exciting instead of wince-inducing. In my opinion, Honda should make it sound like this all the time.
Being a hybrid, the Honda Insight also employs regenerative brakes, but unlike almost every other hybrid I've driven where you can set and forget a more aggressive regen mode as if it were an additional gear choice in the transmission (in the Prius, you'd shift from D to B), you have to activate the Insight's every time you want anything other than just coasting to a stop by pulling on a steering-wheel paddle. There are three levels of increasingly aggressive regen, but they don't feel all that different from the normal condition — and the fact that I have to select them every time I want to brake means I'm not likely to ever use it. With the more common one-time setting, the more aggressive regen mode is always there, allowing you to recapture more energy as you've altered your driving style to a "one-pedal" method. Honda's is a backward way of doing regen that doesn't seem logical at all, here as on the Clarity.
So the driving experience isn't really any better than a Prius, and in some ways isn't as good — the Prius feels quicker and sharper, with a better integrated hybrid powertrain system. Fuel economy is in the same ballpark as the Prius, which ranges from an EPA-estimated 46-56 mpg combined depending on equipment, or the Hyundai Ioniq, which ranges from 52-58 mpg. The Insight is rated at 55 mpg for the Insight LX and EX trims, or 51 mpg for the heavier Touring model. Our brief 70-mile drive in the Touring trim saw the computer tell us we were achieving 52 mpg in aggressive driving, which isn't bad at all.
Where the Insight Shines
The highlight of the Honda Insight's dynamic performance is without a doubt its ride quality — it's big-car smooth, absorbing bumps and pavement imperfections without upsetting the steering or transmitting much unpleasantness to the occupants at all. Hopping into a Toyota Prius that Honda had on hand for comparison was enlightening — where the Toyota felt harsh and loose on rough pavement or when crossing over train tracks, the Honda Insight felt stable, well-damped and nicely controlled. The Insight's steering feel is commendable, too, with a quicker than expected steering ratio that encourages eager turn-in. But changing direction in the Insight reveals the car's softer suspension tuning — it drives like a bigger, heavier car, plowing through turns with moderate understeer and a decent amount of body tilt. Drive it like simple, everyday transportation (a Prius, for example) and you'll be perfectly happy. Drive it like a sporty Honda Civic Si and you won't be.
Where the Insight really sets itself apart is inside. Honda has crafted a cabin that feels more upscale than anything in an Acura showroom save for the latest RDX. The Insight comes in a choice of three trim levels, starting at the LX, bumping up to the EX and topping out at the Touring. Few standalone options are available — content is arranged in the trim levels. The base LX model has very nice cloth seats, the trim on its dash, door and headliner is still nicer than the nicest Civic, and it even puts the newest Volkswagen Jetta to shame. Splurge on the leather-lined Touring, and you get high-quality leather on the seats and steering wheel as well as stitched dashboard, door and armrest panels. It's all very conventional when compared with the Prius' bizarre, plasticky Voltron-inspired motif, but it's appealingly clean, contemporary and very well executed.
Also well done is Honda's latest optional 8-inch Display Audio system, which offers big touchscreen icons and a knob for volume adjustment. This might be the best Honda multimedia system in a long while, and it works flawlessly. Kudos must also be paid to the new gauge cluster layout, which is a far more attractive display than the one found in the Civic or Accord. It's half digital screen and offers a lot of custom configurability that's easy to use on the fly, with graphics that are big, bright and sophisticated-looking. I kind of wish the Civic had this gauge cluster; maybe it will someday soon.
Honda is pricing the Insight squarely in the $20,000 range, with the base model LX starting at $23,725 including destination fee. For that, you'll get 16-inch wheels, standard LED headlights and taillights, a 7-inch multimedia display with six-speaker audio system, heated mirrors and Honda Sensing, the company's suite of collision avoidance systems that includes forward collision alert and autonomous emergency braking. The EX comes in at $24,995 and adds keyless entry, Honda LaneWatch side-view monitor, the 8-inch Display Audio touchscreen multimedia system with an eight-speaker audio system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a 60/40-split folding rear seat. Topping off the range is the Touring for $28,985, which adds navigation, a moonroof, leather interior, 17-inch wheels, 10-speaker premium audio, heated power front seats, dual-zone climate control and automatic wipers. That puts it head-to-head not only with competitors like the Toyota Prius and Hyundai Ioniq, but also other compact sedans like the Volkswagen Jetta, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra and a host of others.
Honda says that by 2030, two-thirds of the vehicles it sells globally will have powertrains somehow augmented by electric systems — hybrids, battery-electric vehicles, fuel-cell vehicles, etc. The intention of the Honda Insight is to start getting everyone used to the idea that mainstream sedans are going to increasingly feature these kinds of powertrains as the norm and not as the option. Honda still has some work to do to convince us that a hybrid like the Insight is going to appeal to anyone except those intending to buy a vehicle with a hybrid powertrain — in a vehicle this size, it's not yet possible to completely mask just how differently the system operates versus a conventional gas-powered vehicle. But against a Prius or Ioniq, it's an upscale, refined, decidedly better-looking alternative that trades a minor amount of fuel economy for a major amount of everyday appeal. It's the best Insight Honda has ever made, and for the dwindling number of people looking for a compact hybrid vehicle, it's worth checking out.
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