Editor's note: This review was written in October 2012 about the 2012 Honda Insight. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2013, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The Honda Insight has made its mark as the least-expensive hybrid on the market for some time now. While inexpensive, the Insight has never been an easy car to recommend. For 2012, a minor redesign with enhancements to areas where the car previously faltered attempts to spark some life in the Insight. See a comparison of the 2011 and 2012 here.
While the 2012 Honda Insight takes a step forward in refined driving and improved gas mileage, it needed to take five or six more steps to remain competitive.
The Insight's closest competitor, and the first to challenge its price, is the 2012 Toyota Prius c, a new member of the Prius family that's smaller than the regular Prius. With similar base pricing and passenger room but better gas mileage ratings, the Prius c is a big threat for the Insight.
Under the Insight's hood is a modest 98 horsepower from the combined efforts of a 1.3-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and a 13-hp electric motor. With some new noise insulation, the engine is now less of a noise nuisance than previous versions — to an extent. The engine is still buzzy when you have to wind out the little guy to pass or merge.
For 2012, Honda squeezes an additional 1 mpg from the Insight across the board — in city, highway and combined mileage ratings — to reach an EPA-estimated 41/44 mpg city/highway (42 mpg combined). The minor bump isn't enough to match the Prius c's estimated 53/46 mpg (50 mpg combined).
Ratings don't tell the whole story, though, because it's easy to match or beat the Insight's EPA estimates. Using the Insight's in-car mileage display and other economy assistance readings, I observed mileage into the 50s after a 30-plus-mile commute at highway speeds. However, exceeding the Prius c's ratings is also easy, and it has an 8 mpg combined head start on the Insight. Note that the weather during all these drives was favorable, with lows in the 60s and highs in the 70s. In our experience in Chicago, cold weather reduces hybrid mileage dramatically.
More intrusive than engine noise is the idle stop/start feature that shuts off the engine at complete stops to save gas. It's a characteristic of the Insight we've complained about since day one, and it's a major disruption in an otherwise smooth experience. There's a noticeable vibration through the steering wheel and floor when the engine shuts off and fires back up that's far from the refined experience found in other hybrids. The sensation mirrors a non-hybrid car when you turn the engine off and on — and it shouldn't.
The Insight's ride quality also has room for improvement. Take the insight over rough roads, and the suspension sounds like it's flopping around under the car. Other editors noted chassis flexing and shuttering on imperfect roads. Cars.com Managing Editor David Thomas notes in his review of the Prius c, "The Prius c rides and feels worlds apart from the rough-riding Honda Insight."
The Insight's interior is one of its strongest assets, with good quality and roominess as well as great visibility. In previous model years, Insights suffered from wind and road noise at highway speeds that piped unpleasant whooshing, rustling and tire noise into the cabin. For 2012, thicker sound insulation and additional noise suppression in the hatchback area reduce wind and road noise to unobtrusive levels. The quieter interior is a welcome improvement on long drives, where the Insight is decidedly more refined.
Over-the-shoulder visibility through the pillar-less rear quarter windows and tall glass is excellent. The split rear window isn't too obstructive to look through, but it's a bit distracting that the bottom glass is tinted and the main liftgate window isn't.
Despite additional headroom for 2012 and a good fit for me, the rear seats simply weren't comfortable for my slender 6-foot frame. Honda modified the rear ceiling and sculpted the rear cushions to provide an additional half-inch of headroom, which isn't an insignificant amount when you're talking about headroom. My head was clear from any interference with the ceiling, and legroom was also suitable. My comfort problem came from the seating position, which lacks thigh support and left my knees uncomfortably raised.
Base Insights are well-equipped with power windows, keyless entry, power locks, automatic climate control, an array of hybrid-specific gauges and more. A few missing standard features we'd like to see include Bluetooth and a USB input for music players. The Prius c includes USB and Bluetooth, as well as everything mentioned above, in its base price, as do many non-hybrid cars in the sub-$20,000 range.
Upgrading from the base model to the $21,065 LX (all prices cited include destination charges) adds cruise control, a four-speaker stereo with USB in place of the standard two-speaker unit, and a center console with an armrest. Bluetooth and satellite radio unfortunately come only on the most expensive EX trim level ($22,755), where they're standard. They aren't optional on less-expensive models.
I could do without the paddle shifters included on the Insight EX's steering wheel. Even though the Insight uses a continuously variable automatic transmission, the computer can select fixed gear ratios when using the paddle shifters. Those paddles, however, result in shifts that are as crisp as an uncooked piece of bacon, and just as satisfying.
One appreciated feature was something that should be done well on a hybrid — hybrid-specific efficiency displays. The Insight uses easy-to-see background lighting around the speedometer that turns green during efficient driving and blue when your right foot gets heavy. The feature is one of the ways I coaxed excellent gas mileage from the Insight; it's also used on other Hondas and likewise works well in those applications.
The 2012 Honda Insight is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, meaning it scored the agency's best rating, Good, in four tests: front, side, rear and roof strength, a measure of rollover protection. The Insight has not been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Standard safety features include front airbags, front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags and side curtains for the front and rear seats. The federally mandated antilock brakes, electronic stability system and tire pressure monitoring system are also included. You can see a full list of standard safety features here.
2012 Honda Insight in the Market
The 2012 Insight is an improved version of the hybrid, but it takes merely a step forward instead of the leaps and bounds that were needed. The Insight's mileage, price and feature content aren't good enough now that the pesky Prius c exists. And despite the Insight's declining sales through the year, as of this writing we don't see any cash-back rebates or financing offers from Honda to sweeten the deal.