2020 Honda Insight review: Effortless efficiency
The 2020 Honda Insight makes hypermiling an effortless endeavor. Drive one of these cars and you no longer have to overinflate the tires, refuse any passengers or cargo, tailgate tractor-trailers or squander a single brain synapse contemplating the pulse-and-glide acceleration technique. Honda has made it so ridiculously easy to get superb fuel economy you almost won't believe it.
Absolutely without trying, I managed to average better than 44 miles per gallon during my week-long stint in an Insight Touring, the range-topping model. Admittedly, that figure is fractions of an mpg less than the car's combined rating, but what makes this impressive is that it delivered said fuel economy when I drove it more aggressively than any typical owner would. I subjected the car to plenty of wide-open-throttle blasts and a large amount of high-speed interstate driving. Operate it more conservatively or predominantly in an urban setting and you should expect far greater efficiency.
The car stickers at 51 mpg city and 45 highway. Combined, Uncle Sam's minions at the Environmental Protection Agency say it should return 48 mpg. If, for some reason that's not enough, you can forego a few features by grabbing either an entry-level LX version or a midrange Insight EX, either of which will get you even greater fuel economy. Those cars are rated at 55 city, 49 highway and 52 combined.
The mighty misers
These efficiency scores compare favorably to other hybrid models from rival manufacturers. The mainline version of Toyota's pioneering Prius is rated at 54 mpg city, 50 mpg highway and 52 mpg combined. Grab an Eco trim version and both the city and combined ratings climb by 4 mpg each, while the highway score increases by 3. For drivers that want the ultimate Prius experience, the plug-in hybrid Prime model offers an electric-only driving range of up to 25 miles, along with stellar internal-combustion economy.
Hyundai is never a company to kick back and relax. It's always busier than a colony of killer bees and probably more aggressive, at least when it comes to entering new vehicle segments or updating its product range. The brand's Ioniq hybrid is similarly economical to the Insight and Prius, returning 55 mpg city, 54 mpg highway and 55 mpg combined. The super-saver Blue model is even more efficient than mainline variants, delivering 57, 59 and 58 mpg, respectively.
Drivers interested in this Honda might also consider the larger Accord , which is available as a hybrid, too. Ditto for the Toyota Corolla and Camry if cross-shopping is your thing. But enough yammering about the broader hybrid segment. Let's delve into the Insight's finer points.
A Civic(s) lesson
Honda is positioning this hybrid between its Civic and Accord, offering it as a more premium compact sedan. Even though the car is intended to squeeze into this relatively narrow space, it shares a litany of components with that smaller four-door model.
Insight essentially rides atop the 10th-gen Civic's underlying architecture, with a few minor tweaks here and there. These two cars feature the same 106.3-inch wheelbase and have bodies that are roughly 183 inches long. Other common components include the basic suspension design and variable-ratio, electrically assisted power-steering system.
Naturally, there are some important distinctions between these cars. The rear floor pan, for instance, required a redesign in order to accommodate the Insight's hybrid battery pack. The car, and passersby, benefit from an aluminum hood, which not only saves weight, but is designed to make crashes safer for pedestrians by deforming in a collision. Plenty of other enhancements bolster safety in this type of accident, from breakaway windshield-wiper pivots to energy-absorbing fender mounts. Still, don't play in the street, kids!
Thanks to its rugged platform, the Insight is a supremely safe vehicle. It's an IIHS Top Safety Pick and has numerous five-star crash ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Compared to the Civic, the Insight also features improved aerodynamics all around, something that undoubtedly plays a major role in delivering those impressive fuel-economy figures. Still, even though it's slipperier than a well-used bar of soap (though flecked with far fewer stray hairs), this hybrid actually looks like a normal car.
Now in its third generation, the Insight is an attractive piece of work, something that could never be said about a Prius. The first Insight came out around 2000, looking like a gel-cap painkiller on wheels. It was probably just as numbing to drive. Honda's second attempt was no less strange. Debuting around 2010, it resembled a partially deflated station wagon that had a good part of its rear-end torched off. On their third go-around, designers pretty much nailed it. The car is chiseled and squared off in a handsome, almost rugged way.
Speeds and feeds
The Insight's powertrain is anchored by a 1.5-liter, Atkinson-cycle, four-cylinder gasoline engine. Tuned for maximum efficiency, it delivers a mere 107 horsepower and 99 pound-feet of torque on its own. Fortunately, it's augmented by a pair of electric motors, one for starting and power generation plus another that propels the vehicle. Add it all up, carry the three, try not to divide by zero and you might be surprised to learn this car has 151 system horses with 197 lb-ft of twist. A 1.2-kWh, lithium-ion pack serves as an electron reservoir. Curiously, the car's primary, 12-volt battery is housed in the transmission tunnel, roughly next to the driver's right knee, a curious placement that could make servicing it mighty difficult.
Honda's two-motor arrangement is quite clever in that it can operate as either a series or parallel hybrid, or even as a pure electric. The gasoline engine is connected directly to the motor-generator. This duet is in turn fixed to the propulsion motor via a high-capacity, lockup clutch. A stepped gearbox or even continuously variable transmission is not required with this design.
Driven normally, the Insight operates as a series hybrid where the engine turns the generator that then either powers the drive motor, charges the battery or does both. But as conditions dictate, this powertrain can also function as a parallel hybrid. In these situations, the engine can drive the wheels along with the propulsion motor.
Given its small hybrid battery pack, the Insight's electric-only driving range is, unsurprisingly, limited, maxing out at just about one mile. Don't challenge a long-range Tesla Model 3 owner to an electron-only endurance run if you're driving this Honda.
It feels like a normal car, too
Not only does the Insight look like a normal car, but when you're nestled behind its meaty steering wheel, it feels like one, too. At least in Touring trim, the interior is sensibly laid out and constructed of premium materials. There are plenty of soft plastics on the dashboard and front door panels, plus you'll find nice swaths of stitching ahead of the front passenger and on the center console. Build quality is peerless.
As for comfort, the front buckets a bit too broad and flat for my bony, six-foot frame. They also offer almost zero lumbar support, which causes my spine to curve forward, almost to a slouching position. You also sit unexpectedly low in this car, your bottom seems scarcely a handbreadth above the pavement. These factors can make the Insight less than comfortable on extended drives.
In typical Honda fashion, this hybrid is a master of space efficiency. The rear seat offers ample room for noggins and knees, though there are no air vents for passengers relegated to steerage. The trunk is gargantuan, with 15.1 cubic feet of junk-hauling space. Unfortunately, there's no spare tire or trunk-closing handle.
Tech this out!
Offered in three trims -- LX, EX and Touring -- the Insight comes with a generous amount of equipment. Honda Sensing, the automaker's suite of advanced driver aids, is standard across the board. It includes a host of goodies like lane-departure warning, collision-mitigation braking, adaptive cruise control, traffic-sign recognition and more. Automatic high beams are also included at no extra charge, ditto for features like a multi-view reversing camera, power windows and door locks, LED exterior lighting and heated side-view mirrors.
Inside, there's standard push-button start and Bluetooth. The base LX model also comes with a six-speaker sound system and 7-inch driver information display, plus a 5-inch LCD screen on the dashboard.
EX and Touring versions gain an 8-inch Display Audio system with high-resolution touchscreen as well as support for both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. These models are also equipped with remote start and keyless entry, plus Honda LaneWatch, which fits a wide-angle camera on the passenger-side mirror housing. When you hit the turn signal or press a button on the end of the stalk, it gives you a video feed of your blind spot. This can be handy during daylight hours, though the resolution is disappointingly low. At nighttime or even dusk, it's nigh-on useless.
Setting them apart from the rest of the lineup, Touring models also gain 17-inch alloy wheels, LED fog lights, rain-sensing wipers and a power moonroof. Inside, you'll find perforated leather seating surfaces, dual-zone climate control and a sound system with 10 speakers.
Putting it in motion
The Insight is pretty innocuous to drive, clearly prioritizing efficiency over even the notion of sport. Still, its steering is relatively crisp for a hybrid and the ride quality is supple without feeling sloppy.
I assumed the car's electro-servo braking system would draw my ire, but this was unfounded. The pedal is responsive and easy to modulate with none of the robotic feel I anticipated.
Four driving modes are available in the Insight. There's Normal, Econ, Sport and EV. The first option is probably the most livable, offering decent acceleration with excellent efficiency. Sport dips deeper into the battery's energy reserves, but gives the car noticeably greater scoot, especially off the line when the propulsion electric motor delivers a heap of torque. EV enables emissions-free, nearly silent operation at low speeds for very short distances. And then there's Econ. You'll want to avoid this driving mode as it makes the car feel utterly lifeless. Taking off from a standstill, you dip into the accelerator and nothing really happens, then you go a little deeper, push more and more, and then you're practically wide-open as the car finally starts moving. I've concluded this setting basically makes the accelerator unresponsive in the name of slightly better fuel economy.
Another annoying aspect of the Insight is its powertrain. Yes, this engine-and-motor combination is superbly efficient, but it also feels confused. Since the internal-combustion powerplant doesn't necessarily drive the wheels, there can be a perceived disconnect between driver and powertrain. The Insight's engine revs change at random times and sometimes have little correlation to vehicle speed or load, which is just weird. Under heavy acceleration, the engine churns away, making an unexpected amount of unpleasant sounds. The powertrain, while effective, is uncharacteristically annoying for something produced by Honda. Drivetrain refinement is one area where the Prius and likely Ioniq, too, have an edge.
Still a fine choice
Minor quibbles notwithstanding, the 2020 Honda Insight is still a fine choice if top-notch fuel efficiency is one of your priorities. It's spacious, nicely trimmed and mostly looks like a normal, compact sedan. It's also unexpectedly affordable.
The range-topping Touring model tested here checked out for a totally reasonable $29,270, a price that includes $930 in delivery charges. Opt, instead, for an entry-level LX model and you can drive away from your local Honda dealership for less than 24 grand.