In hybrid war, Prius pummels Insight

Honda sells one Insight for every six Toyota Priuses.

Automotive News
3 min read

Automotive News

LOS ANGELES -- The launch advertising declared the Honda Insight "the hybrid for everyone."

"We don't want a car for a sliver of the market," Steve Center, Honda vice president of advertising and public relations, said at the launch in March.

And in a transparent dig at the Toyota Prius, he added, "This is going to be a populist's car, not an elitist's car."

But so far, the Insight's sales look like a sliver.

Honda's initial 90,000-unit U.S. sales goal was revised to 60,000 because of the weak economy. But sales of the Insight since its March launch total just 17,530, for an annual sales rate of about 25,000, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

The conclusion after eight months: The Insight badly trails the segment-leading Prius, although the Insight is selling better than other rival hybrids.

Honda is selling one Insight for every six Toyota Priuses. And consideration and intention rates, as tracked by Compete Inc. and Edmunds.com, show the Insight isn't garnering the interest needed to hit its sales goals.

"The Insight was not intended to compete with Prius," says Honda spokeswoman Christina Ra. She says the Insight was intended as a gateway vehicle for young shoppers, who have been hit hardest by the recession.

'A different segment'

"While Prius is a hybrid vehicle, it is in a different segment," Ra says. "When cross-shopped, consumers will find that Insight was developed and built as an entry or gateway to hybrid technology--unlike Prius."

Indeed, Honda says, the Civic Hybrid and Insight are Nos. 1 and 2 among hybrid buyers under 35, with Prius third.

Moreover, the Insight is outselling the hybrid variants of the Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, Chevy Malibu, and Nissan Altima.

Through October, industry-wide hybrid sales total 245,111, according to the Automotive News Data Center. The Insight had a 7 percent share of that segment. In August, amid the cash-for-clunkers program, the Insight's share spiked to 11 percent.

But industry watchers aren't buying Honda's excuses. They say Honda has underperformed with yet another hybrid entry: The original Insight was a two-seat niche player; the Honda Accord Hybrid was too expensive, and the Honda Civic Hybrid is an also-ran.

The Insight's $2,500 lower price "does not justify its inferior size, fuel economy, and awareness compared to Prius," says Dan Hall, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, Calif. "For now, Toyota seems to own 'hybrid' by owning the Prius."

Lincoln Merrihew, an analyst with Compete in Boston, says the Insight is "way behind Prius."

During the cash-for-clunkers months of July and August, consumer interest in the Insight, as measured by Compete, actually decreased, while interest in the Prius increased. What's more, Compete data showed sales closure rates of nearly 30 percent for Prius, compared with 15 percent for the Insight.

Because of those lost sales, Honda has missed a potential $166 million in revenue, Compete calculated.

This year during the Insight's launch, the car's consideration numbers were almost equal to those of the Prius, according to Edmunds.com. But now they are barely half the Prius figure.

The Insight shopper is most likely to cross-shop the Prius from among all possible vehicles and vice versa. But nearly twice the percentage of Insight shoppers actually consider a Prius, compared with the number of Prius shoppers who check out the Insight. But the Prius audience is far larger.

Even if Honda salespeople were able to do a better job persuading shoppers, there aren't enough Insight shoppers for Honda to hit that 60,000 annual sales target, Merrihew says.

"Insight shopper counts are trending down, so the problem is likely to get worse without an active intervention from Honda," he says.

Merrihew recommends a second marketing launch, emphasizing the Insight's approximately $2,500 price advantage over the Prius.

Edmunds.com President Jeremy Anwyl denies that the Insight, or its launch, is a failure. "Whenever there's a vehicle launch, we see a spike and then a drop-off in consideration and intentions," Anwyl says.

"Consumers are in financial distress, and hybrid technology is expensive. At Honda dealerships, intent numbers for Insight are pretty good. But the dealer has a way of moving people around into Accord or Civic if it makes better financial sense."

Data from AutoPacific's tracking surveys also show that consumer interest in hybrids rises and falls with gasoline prices. But regardless of gasoline prices, the Prius name carries as much awareness as the category "hybrid."

And Prius owns almost half the hybrid segment.

(Source: Automotive News)