Editor’s note: This review was written in January 2009 about the 2010 Honda Insight. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2011, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The Honda Insight name — used between 1999 and 2006 for the first gasoline-electric hybrid in North America — is back for 2009, this time representing an affordable four-door, five-seat hatchback. The original was a two-door two-seater. Though Honda sold hybrid Accord sedans in the past and still markets a Civic Hybrid, the Insight is distinct because it’s a hybrid-only model, like the Toyota Prius. To cut to the chase, the Insight is a good car that I suspect will sell reasonably well, but it will depend on its price, which Honda won’t determine until closer to April, when it hits dealerships. The Insight’s EPA-estimated mileage is 40/43 mpg city/highway, which in hybrid terms isn’t particularly impressive. The larger Civic Hybrid is rated 40/45 mpg, and the 2009 Prius rates 48/45 mpg. (What’s more, the 2010 Prius that goes on sale this spring has an estimate of 50 mpg in combined driving.)
The company promises the Insight will be the most affordable hybrid on the market. That puts it below the 2009 Prius, which starts at $22,000. Many believe the target price is below $20,000.
In the annals of American history, the first-generation Insight plays Leif Ericsson to the Prius’ Christopher Columbus. The Insight might have been first to America’s shores, but the Prius was the first hybrid to be discovered by America. Adding insult to that injury, people are already saying the 2009 Insight looks like the Prius. There’s no doubt that it does, but look at the photos of the Prius alongside the original Insight before drawing conclusions about who’s aping whom. If you don’t like the Prius/Insight silhouette, you’re heading into a dark period: Aerodynamics are critically important, and this is one of the most efficient shapes.
Apart from the profile and tail, the Insight is more distinctive and much better-looking than the current Prius. From the front it looks like Honda’s growing fleet of experimental FCX Clarity fuel-cell cars, which is a big positive in my book. Despite the FCX resemblance, the Insight shares its underlying structure, from the front bumper to the A-pillars, with the Honda Fit. The Insight is more than 10 inches longer than the Fit and about 5 inches shorter than the Civic Hybrid. Its A-pillars anchor pretty far forward, but there isn’t a large, peculiar-looking window extending in front of the doors like the Fit has.
There are few cues to distinguish the step-up EX trim level from the base LX. The latter has turn signals on its side mirrors and it replaces the LX’s steel wheels with alloys. Both are 15 inches in diameter.
Like the Civic and Fit, the Insight qualifies as a compact, not a subcompact, based on the EPA’s interior volume criteria. Though it uses the Fit platform as a foundation, the Insight is very much its own architecture starting behind the engine compartment. Designed specifically as a hybrid, it packages the cabin space, gas tank and high-voltage battery with its associated electronic components more efficiently than a modified Fit could. At 85 cubic feet, the Insight has a bit less passenger volume than the Fit and Civic Hybrid, which both have 91 cubic feet. On the upside, the Insight has more cargo space behind its backseat than the Civic Hybrid has in its trunk: 15.9 cubic feet versus 10.4 cubic feet. Plus, the rear seats fold in the Insight, as they do in the Prius, for maximum cargo volume of 31.5 cubic feet. All other hybrid cars to date — including the original Insight and the first-generation Prius — have sacrificed cargo space or folding seats, or both. The Fit maxes out at 57.3 cubic feet of cargo volume, so it has an edge over the Insight in cargo as well as passenger volume.
The Insight has 1 inch less headroom than the Civic and 2 inches less than the Fit, but I had enough room. Even with the height-adjustable driver’s seat jacked all the way up there were a couple inches to spare, and I’m about 6 feet tall. Front legroom is just slightly greater than the Civic’s and an inch more than the Fit’s, but that’s strictly by the numbers. Legroom measurements are two-dimensional reflections of 3-D space, and they don’t tell you how low you sit in the Insight. There was enough room for my legs, but they were stretched out pretty far forward. It’s better than not fitting in a car, but I felt like I was sitting on a speed bump, even with the seat at its highest point.
This doesn’t result in a bathtub feel, though. Visibility is very good to the front and sides, and the rear view is decent. Honda gets credit (or blame) for the bisected liftgate design that puts a separate rear window pane under a cross-member. It’s better known from the Prius hatchback, but it appeared first on the Honda CRX and then the first-gen Insight. At first it seemed like the Insight’s upright window segment gave a lower view than the Prius does, but, as the photos show, I parked a 2009 Prius and the Insight the same distance from an orange cone and the visible height was almost identical. The fact that the Insight’s backseat head restraints collapse almost flush with the backrests helps open up the view more than in the Prius.
The Insight has about 3 inches less backseat headroom than the Fit, which makes it a bit tight. I just fit in there, but it seemed like a tap from a car behind me would have felt like a mallet to the top of the head, and the head restraint didn’t adjust quite high enough. Backseat legroom is an inch less than the Civic’s and Fit’s, but I figured I could tolerate it for short trips. My knees were raised, but the seat didn’t feel as low as the front’s. The floor isn’t totally flat, like the Civic’s, but the center floor hump is pretty small. There are three seat belts back there, but it’s functionally a two-passenger backseat. Throw a child seat in there and I’m not sure you could add more than one adult. For what it’s worth, though, the incidence of true three-passenger backseats is pretty slim in today’s cars.
Honda has been ahead of the curve in terms of the quality of its affordable-car interiors. The Fit is a good example, though once you look at the price and not just the size class, it’s one of the least affordable choices. The Insight is comparable, with bright gauges and nice, low-gloss surfaces. The seat fabric is presentable, and it’s identical in the LX and EX trim levels. Leather isn’t offered. It’s mainly functional features that distinguish the EX, including cruise control, a USB audio interface, seatback pockets, visor vanity mirrors, a center armrest storage console between the front seats, and steering-wheel controls. I’m surprised that a hybrid would lack standard cruise control, as it helps maximize efficiency, but Honda is trying to keep the LX’s cost low. Nowadays, cruise control costs an automaker practically no hardware and little extra money, but in the Insight the feature requires the EX’s more complex steering wheel.
The new generation of Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system works on the same principle: An electric motor fixed to the engine’s crankshaft helps add acceleration power and serves as a generator to charge the high-voltage battery when coasting or braking. In effect, the Insight can accelerate on electric power alone up to 30 mph — or 50 mph when going downhill — but the crankshaft and pistons are always moving, even if the fuel injectors aren’t squirting gas, unless the car itself comes to a stop. That means the Insight doesn’t give the silent electric-only experience that most hybrids do. Honda says the big advancements in this new generation of Integrated Motor Assist are manufacturing cost and durability.
The Insight is pretty seamless as far as hybrids go. The brakes feel natural, as does the steering — pretty good for rear drum brakes and electric power steering. There’s some lag in accelerator response. Though the Toyota and Ford hybrids exhibit continuously variable properties — where there’s no rev-and-shift, rev-and-shift feel — they don’t use a continuously variable automatic transmission as we define it. The Insight does, and the slight lag comes from that more than any hybrid aspect. (There is no manual Insight.)
In the EX trim level, you get steering-wheel shift paddles so you can choose “gears” manually. A CVT has no fixed gears, so these seven settings are arbitrary ratios that the transmission hops among if you use the paddles. I think it’s a bit silly, but it’s viewed as sporty, and the Insight is intended to be more fun to drive than most hybrids. I think it is. There’s good steering feel and the handling is crisp. The added weight of the battery and other components is carried so low that it seems to lower the car’s center of gravity, which makes it feel grounded. Overall it’s way more engaging than the 2009 Prius, though in fairness that car’s technology is pretty outdated; Toyota hybrids introduced more recently are more refined, and the redesigned 2010 Prius is sure to be as well.
The ride quality is firm but good, and I think it’s less bumpy in the backseat than the Fit, perhaps thanks to the Insight’s longer wheelbase. The Insight’s cabin noise is admirably low considering affordable, efficient cars often shed noise-abatement measures in order to shave weight and improve mileage.
The Insight’s acceleration is merely good. The modest-power approach is one of the reasons the Prius has been such a hit, so it’s a bummer the Honda’s EPA figures aren’t better. The Insight is 100 or so pounds lighter than the higher-rated Civic Hybrid, but its electric motor has 13 horsepower versus the Civic Hybrid’s 20 hp. The gas engine is a 1.3-liter four-cylinder with 98 hp. For what it’s worth, I was racking up mpg in the mid- to high 40s during my few hours behind the wheel; a colleague got into the 50s, and a number of other drivers got into the 60s by hypermiling, the name used to describe a feather-footed driving style that maximizes efficiency. Ironically, being hyper doesn’t help at all; it should be called mellowmiling. The only one who’s hyper is the guy behind you who’s in five-alarm road rage while you accelerate on electric power trying to beat your high score.
There’s now an “econ” mode to help you in this endeavor. It makes the accelerator less sensitive and tries to keep the transmission in an efficient ratio. Econ is the default mode when you turn the car on. Even though the pedal is less responsive overall in this mode, if you floor it you get full power — a safe design. Compared to some hybrids, especially the new Ford Fusion Hybrid, the Insight’s readouts are minimalist. It gives you basic power-flow information and both instantaneous and long-term mileage readouts on an LCD screen on the instrument panel. The digital speedometer’s background color changes from blue to blue-green to green to indicate when you’re driving most economically. It’s effective because the display sits high up, close to your line of sight, so you’re not transfixed on a low-mounted display or gauge. You just catch the color at the edge of your vision. Unlike most hybrids, the Insight’s navigation system (available on the EX) doesn’t have supplemental hybrid graphics, nor does it have a backup camera.
While these safety features are becoming more common marketwide, it’s nice to see antilock brakes and side-impact and side curtain airbags on a budget-priced car. The front seats also have active head restraints, and the EX adds an electronic stability system with traction control.
The Insight’s success will depend on how shoppers react to its EPA rating and/or whether they hear that the true results are better than the estimates — something automakers are prohibited from marketing. Before the 2008 change in its calculation methods, the EPA overestimated hybrid mileage — even more than it did non-hybrids — and now manufacturers seem to be paying the piper. For example, I’ve effortlessly achieved mileage well into the 50-mpg range in the current Prius. While it’s good that the Insight might exceed its ratings, it won’t be the only hybrid to do so.
As we prepared to publish this review, reports say hybrid sales — including those of the Prius — dropped in December 2008 more than non-hybrid sales did, which suggests that cost is a larger issue now than gas mileage. It makes sense; hybrids cost more than comparable non-hybrids. This could bode well for the Insight. Being the most affordable hybrid — if Honda indeed meets that objective — isn’t a bad position to be in. Americans don’t believe gas prices will stay as low as they are now, but the current situation has allowed them to hold onto guzzlers a little longer than they thought possible when gas was close to $4 per gallon. If and when gas prices go back up, some of these people will be driven back to the market, where its combination of a low sticker price and good, if not exceptional, mileage could make the Insight look like the right investment.