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It's difficult to describe the 2010 Honda Insight without mentioning another vehicle. The most obvious is the current heavyweight champion of the green car world, the Toyota Prius, from which the Insight has clearly lifted its silhouette. Both vehicles being dedicated hybrid models, it's easy to see why many assume the Insight is Honda's "Prius-killer."
Unfortunately for Honda, the Prius' more sophisticated drivetrain beats the Insight, offering more power and a higher EPA-estimated fuel economy. However, all is not lost, as the Insight brings a secret weapon to the green car wars: value.
With a much lower estimated price tag, the Insight may not kill the Prius, but it'll definitely appeal to hybrid buyers who want to keep a little more money for gas in their pockets.
On the Road
We wanted to test our Honda Insight in conditions in which your average commuter would find himself, so we drove it straight into one of San Francisco's afternoon traffic jams.
We chose the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge route for the sheer volume of commuters who cram through it every weeknight as they leave the city and head home for the suburbs of the East Bay.
Creeping along in the stop-and-go traffic, we were able to appreciate the transparency of the Insight's hybrid power train. Technically classified as a mild hybrid, the Insight's hybrid system never goes into a completely electric-power mode. Rather, the gasoline engine is always the primary motivator and is assisted to varying degrees by the electric motor.
Firmly wedged into the traffic jam, the Insight feels remarkably like a conventional Honda Civic. The only difference is that the fuel economy meter was reading 40-plus mpg, instead of mid-30s, and there was no shifting of gears, due to the Insight's continuously variable transmission's (CVT) lack of fixed gears. Other than that, a blindfolded passenger would have a hard time knowing that the Insight was anything more than a standard vehicle.
Once we'd gotten a good distance outside of the city limits, we hopped off of the highway, leaving the traffic jam behind for a twisty road, and found one more difference between the Insight and the Prius: the Insight is actually fun to drive.
The Insight's 123 pound-feet of torque may not seem like a lot of power (and it's not), but the low-end grunt of the electric assist means that all of the twist is available as early as 1,000rpm. This relatively low power means that the Insight's engine never gets ahead of its suspension.
While Honda's dedicated-hybrid model isn't as tossable and eager to please as, say, the Honda Fit, it certainly is a livelier ride than the Prius. The electric power steering is slightly overboosted and uncommunicative, but the handling is predictable.
As we flogged the Insight around a back road, the gasoline and electric engines sang a tiny, two-tone engine growl combined with an electric motor whine. It's not a pretty sound and, thankfully, the Insight is whisper quiet at more sane operating speeds.
As we tucked the Insight into its spot in the CNET garage, we couldn't help but note that the fuel gauge had barely moved, in spite of the exploitation of the Sport mode. Days later, upon filling the tank, we were glad to see that our overall fuel economy wasn't hurt too badly, landing squarely at the top of the EPA's estimated range.
In the cabin
The Insight's cabin is, at first glance, identical to that of the Honda Civic, only more cluttered.
While the general layout is the same, the Insight's more bulbous dashboard feels less aesthetically cohesive than that of the Civic.
The Insight's instrument cluster has the same futuristic, two-tiered design and bright, blue, backlit gauges. The speedometer has a neat hidden trick: normally blue, the speedometer's backlighting changes to a bright green as you drive more and more economically. By using color as an indicator instead of a separate gauge, we were able to keep our eyes on the road and monitor the "greenness" of our driving using our peripheral vision. Combining green driving and safe driving was a smart move on Honda's part.
Other green gauges include a multi-information display (MID) positioned in the center of the tachometer, which displays current and cumulative fuel economy, along with myriad other parameters. To the left of the tachometer is the charge and assist gauge, which supplies information about whether the batteries are being charged or are discharging to assist the gasoline engine. Finally, to the right of the tach is the ever-important gas gauge.