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.