The 2010 Honda Insight is that other hybrid.
Sure, there are actually more hybrids on the road than just the 2010 Honda Insight and the 2010 Toyota Prius, but these two hold billing for the Battle Royale of the originals. The Insight arrived a decade ago, then left the U.S. in search of a backseat, while the Prius grew to become the iconic hybrid of America. So the comparison between Honda's newest family member and Toyota's third-generation hybrid seems natural.
But don't be fooled by similar wedged-shaped vehicles. They are not the same, neither are their customers.
Both Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. say the two cars won't compete against each other as much as many experts predict -- suggesting "experts" can be wrong. In my expert opinion, I agree.
The Prius, which costs more and is larger, will attract one crowd. The Insight will attract another, apparently a more frugal and thinner group. They should, really; these cars are as different as Southern California and the rest of the Golden State -- at least everywhere north of the Grapevine.
The Insight and Prius may take different roads, but they end up in similar places, providing much of the same things: Excellent gas mileage, low emissions and a well-made daily driver.
But now come the differences: The Insight, which uses a different type of hybrid system, known as parallel hybrid powertrain, lets its electric motor assist its little 1.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine, instead of providing "electric only" drive at school zone speeds.
The combined powertrain provides 98 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque, which is enough to hit 80 mph, but not much beyond that.
Mated to a continuously variable transmission, the Insight can feel underpowered at times, especially on the highway. The transmission, which doesn't have traditional gears, can whine at very high rpms when accelerating quickly. Once you reach a cruising speed, it calms down and provides a better-sounding ride. There are paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel, which can help a driver improve the car's pickup but can also make the engine scream like a toddler. Insight at best in city
During a week of testing, the light-weight Insight (it tips the scales at 2,700 pounds) was tossed around on the highway during windy days. It may drive well, but I see trouble, or at least a lot of spilled coffee, if the gales of November come early.
While the highway experience in the Insight was less than memorable, the little compact excelled in city driving. The MacPherson strut front suspension and H-shaped torsion beam rear suspension and the Insight's low center of gravity (due to its short stature and low placement of the battery pack) help it bite into corners.
The electric power assisted rack-and-pinion steering feels well weighted and exact. The idea behind electric power steering is to remove stress on the engine and, in some cases, carmakers sacrifice a nicely centered feel at the wheel for saving energy. Honda, however, doesn't sacrifice anything in the car's feel on the road.
Its diminutive size (it only stands 52.6 inches tall and couldn't ride on half the coasters at Cedar Point) helps the Insight feel more like the Honda Fit than a hybrid.
Most important to the Insight's performance is its fuel economy. The Insight has impressive EPA-rated numbers, averaging 40 miles per gallon in the city and 43 mpg on the highway. During my week of testing, which included a lot of highway time, I averaged 42 mpg overall.
Honda has included a few features to help drivers maintain better gas mileage. The most noticeable one is the changing background on the digital speedometer. The more efficient you drive, the greener the background. When your foot finds a little lead in your shoe, a much more judgmental blue appears. All of these devices are part of Honda's Eco Assist system.
Push the Econ button on the dash and the car's programming will focus strictly on more efficient driving. The car will look for more ways to provide you with better gas mileage. It will operate the air conditioning on recirculation mode. It will attempt to use its engine shut-off at idle more often. It will limit power and torque by up to 4 percent, as well as optimize the transmission and throttle for more efficient performance. Instead of passively providing a light on the dash to let a driver know when he's driving efficiently (or not), the Insight actually makes changes to the car's performance. Eco features galore
Like most hybrids, the Insight also provides regenerative braking, which takes energy once lost in the form of heat and turns that into electricity, which it sends back to its nickel metal hydride batteries. Recycling is good, and these brakes feel good, too.
The Insight's Eco Guide (Honda seems to suffer from the same affliction as Ford Motor Co. and cannot help but randomly place the prefix "eco" in front of other words) provides instant and long-term feedback on the driver's performance. It will track the current driving habits as well as reward the driver digital leaves as his or her driving improves over time. The virtual plants provide bragging rights for the owner, but there is no known nutritional value.
With so many eco features on the Insight, it's no wonder the dash feels busier than a kudzu forest. The digital speedometer above the instrument cluster is a bonus feature that takes a little adjusting to. I prefer analog gauges. I don't need to know I'm doing 53 mph when 50-ish seems to be enough for me. This also provides plausible deniability for any state trooper questions such as, "Do you know how fast you were going back there?"
While the dash seems overdone with silver plastic trim, the rest of the interior is very comfortable and well-crafted. The front seats are nicely bolstered and the second row, which can fold down in two sections and provides enough space to fit two adults comfortably and three adults in a jam. The 60/40 folding second row also provides 31.5 cubic feet of open storage.
The Insight comes with lots of driver-friendly features, including a tilting/telescoping steering wheel -- an often overlooked necessity on a compact car. Amenities include a 160-watt four-speaker stereo (which has an auxiliary input jack and USB slot for connecting your iPod), an optional navigation system, Bluetooth connectivity and climate control.
For a compact car with a sticker price under $20,000, the Insight is nicely appointed.
And that's the biggest difference between the Insight and the Prius: Cost. The Insight tops out at $23,770, including shipping charges. The Prius starts at $22,750 and can top $32,000 fully loaded. Toyota plans to introduce a stripped down Prius this fall with a $21,000 price tag, just in case there is some cross shopping between the two hybrids.
The Insight is the most affordable hybrid around, and that's a difference that will catch a lot of people's attention who once aspired for that other hybrid.
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2010 Honda Insight
Type: Five-passenger, gas-electric compact hybrid
Engine: 1.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine with 10 kilowatt electric motor
Transmission: Continuously variable transmission
Power: 98 horsepower, 123 pound-feet torque
EPA gas mileage: 40 mpg city / 43 mpg highway
*Does not include $670 shipping
Source: Kelley Blue Book and Honda Motor Co.
Exterior: Good. Wedge shape and little wheels give the Insight a clean, modern look but nothing original.
Interior: Excellent. Dual tier instrument panel easy to read, quality materials and nice layout combine form and function.
Performance: Good. Fun to drive around town with spirited pickup and excellent handling characteristics. But slightly underpowered engine and light body works against the Insight on the highway, where it feels less stable than traditional gas-only compacts.
Safety: Excellent. Electronic stability control, crumple zones and full set of air bags.
Pros: High overall mileage and low price make this a nice daily driver.
Cons: Gets tossed around on windy days and engine feels underpowered.
***( Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor