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.
Sport mode? In a hybrid
Dropping the shifter into Sport mode made the Insight's CVT more aggressive and allows use of the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
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.
The Insight's instrumentation is positively sci-fi, with nice touches such as a speedometer that doubles as a "green driving meter."
The steering wheel is the same triangle-in-a-hoop-design unit from Honda's parts bin, with illuminated buttons for audio control, cruise control, hands-free calling, and operation of the MID.
Many of the Insight's cabin features that differ from those of the Civic seem like they were changed for the sake of being a quirky hybrid. For example, Honda has moved the climate controls into a rounded pod now set closer to the driver. At first this seems like an ergonomic plus; until you realize that in doing so, Honda has moved the touch screen an inch or so further from the driver.
Our Insight EX with Navigation uses the same DVD-based Honda Satellite-Linked Navigation System that is available on all Honda vehicles from the Fit on up. The system features a fantastic voice-command system that is among the easiest we've used. Also included with the navigation package is Bluetooth hands-free calling and a center console mounted USB connection with iPod support.
Audio quality from the six-speaker audio system is lacking. While this "premium" system--found only at the EX trim level--adds a pair of tweeters over the four-speaker system found in the base model Insight, the lack of a subwoofer and high quality components is immediately audible. Fortunately, the system doesn't need to work too hard in the Insight's quiet cabin.
Whether equipped with navigation or not, all Honda Insights feature an auxiliary input at the bottom of the center stack.
Under the hood
The Insight's 1.3-liter inline-four is augmented with Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid drivetrain, which couples an electric motor with the gasoline drivetrain for better economy. The system is virtually identical to that of the Honda Civic Hybrid, but in this incarnation outputs 98 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque (combined gasoline and electric output). Because of the electric assist, all 123 pound-feet of twist is available early in the power band (1,000rpm) and made short work of steep-hill starts.
The Insight's 1.3-liter IMA engine is a much simpler affair than the Prius' power train, with only one mode of operation.
Insight's hybrid system only operates in on one mode: gasoline engine on with electric assist. At no point when the Insight is moving does it operate under pure electric power. Compared to the Prius, which is more obvious with its hybrid synergy drive's various modes, the Insight's IMA system is all but invisible. Rather than feeling like a hybrid the Insight just feels like a vehicle with a larger displacement engine, but without the fuel economy penalty.
Coupling the IMA drivetrain with the wheels is Honda's Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), a transmission that eschews fixed gears in favor of infinitely variable planetary gears that keep the engine speed in the sweet spot for maximum efficiency. Odd for a vehicle with a green image, our Insight EX's transmission was equipped with a sport mode with paddle shifters. Pulling the shift lever down to the "S" position caused the CVT to choose a slightly more aggressive chuck of the power band which, when combined with more aggressive activation of electric assist, created a more lively driving experience. Acceleration was by no means neck snapping, but the immediacy of electric torque can be appreciated.
To the right of the instrument cluster is a large green Econ button which puts the Insight into Eco Assist mode. Honda says this mode modifies various vehicle systems to minimize the vehicle's overall energy use for increased fuel economy. In practice, we didn't notice any discernible difference between the vehicle's operations with Eco Assist on versus off.
Unsure of why anyone would want to drive a hybrid uneconomically, we left the Eco Assist system on for the bulk of our testing.
The Insight's drivetrain also features a Start-Stop system that shuts down the gasoline engine when the vehicle is stopped, for example while waiting at a traffic light. The system only works when the vehicle's engine has warmed to operating temperature and the shifter is in "D." The transition from stop to start is noticeable and, if you don't get the brake-to-gas-pedal timing just right, can be a bit jarring. We'd like to attribute this behavior to the fact that our Insight was a preproduction model, but considering that we had a similar experience in the Honda Civic hybrid, we're sure that it's just designed that way.
Over the course of our testing, which included an equal mix of city and highway driving, we attempted to keep the Insight's speedometer glowing green with thrifty driving techniques, but we must admit to taking a few hasty trips in Sport mode. In spite of our lead-footed indiscretions, the Insight managed a respectable 43.2 combined mpg, landing at the top of EPA estimates of 40 city and 43 highway mpg.
When we tested the Prius, we ended up with a combined 45 mpg. When you consider that the Insight, unlike the Prius, never goes into an all-electric mode and can be fun to drive, the 43 mpg mark is that much more impressive. We believe that, with more restrained driving, the Insight would match the Prius for miles per gallon.
Trips to the pump in the Insight should be few and far between.
The Insight outputs less power than the slightly heavier Civic Hybrid. Oddly, the Insight is also slightly thirstier than the Civic Hybrid, which manages 40 city and 45 highway mpg. Looking at the performance and economy numbers, one would assume that the Civic Hybrid is the better direct Prius competitor in Honda's lineup.
So where does the Insight fit in?
The answer may lay in the expected MSRP. The base-model Insight Hybrid is expected to retail for around $20,000. The EX model adds alloy wheels, paddle shifters, traction control, cruise control, and upgrades the audio system to six speakers, and is expected to add about $1,500 for the upgrade. Checking the box for Honda's satellite-linked navigation system with voice command, Bluetooth, and USB connectivity should add about $1,200 more for a grand total of about $22,700.
A similarly equipped Toyota Prius would retail for $26,574 and the Civic Hybrid with navigation comes to $25,650, making the 2010 Honda Insight EX with navigation a potential best value for a hybrid vehicle.