Honda's market researched turned up an interesting fact: The people most likely to buy hybrid cars are young people who can't afford them. Enter the 2010 Insight, a purpose-built four-seat hybrid designed to bring high mileage to the masses. But the Honda Insight isn't just a cut-rate hybrid -- it turns eco-driving into a video game, complete with snappy graphics, cheat buttons, high scores and trophies. How does the Insight do it? Read on. Base price: $20,470. EPA fuel economy TBD.
I liked the new Insight as soon as I set eyes on it. From the outside, the Insight looks like a Honda-ized Toyota Prius, which is understandable -- the shapes of both cars are optimized for best-possible aerodynamics. Angular headlights and a shiny chrome grille recall Honda's hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity, while the taillights remind me of the original two-seat Insight.
Settle into the Insight's cloth-covered, height-adjustable bucket seats, and it's clear that this is a hybrid designed for Generation Y -- the dashboard has a futuristic look that wouldn't pass muster with Honda's older, more conservative Civic and Accord buyers. Like the Civic, the Insight uses a brilliant split-level dash, with a digital speedometer up top and other gauges in a bin below the steering wheel rim. Cargo space is excellent -- Honda engineers redesigned the Insight's controller and battery pack to fit into a small package under the trunk floor -- but back seat room is very tight, with little headroom and low doors that make it difficult to get in and out.
Honda offers the new Insight in two models, and they're easy to spot: Plastic wheel covers denote the cheaper Insight LX, while jazzy alloy wheels mark the Insight EX. LX models get power windows, locks and mirrors, keyless entry, automatic climate control and a CD stereo, while EX models add cruise control, electronic stability control, an iPod adapter, an optional navigation system, a center armrest, and a few other bits and bobs.
Look & feel
The Insight is a lot of fun for a hybrid -- acceleration is zippy and it handles with typical Honda agility, though the ride is noisy, especially at highway speeds. But the coolest thing about the Insight is that it turns eco-driving into a video game. The dash is chock full of displays that give you feedback on your driving. A colored band behind the speedometer glows green when you're eco-miling, bright blue when you're lead-footing it, and blue-green when you're somewhere in between. And then there's the Insight's multi-information gauge -- besides the traditional instant fuel economy and power flow gauges, it has an Eco Guide with a bar graph that moves left or right as you brake or accelerate. Keep the bar as close to the middle as possible, and presto, you're hypermiling. The car even keeps a long-term score, using a small "plant" icon that rewards eco-drivers by growing leaves and, eventually, a flower.
Most modern-day video games have cheat codes that you can type in to improve your chances of success. The Insight has its own form of cheat code: A big green ECON button. Pressing it changes several aspects of the Insight's behavior, from the way the engine responds to the accelerator pedal to the output of the air conditioner. Even the cruise control gets in on the act; it relaxes a little when Econ mode is engaged, allowing the car's speed to vary a bit on inclines. Aside from the cruise control behavior, Econ mode doesn't make a huge difference in the way the Insight drives, but it does help pick up an extra MPG or two.
The Insight is powered by a 1.3-liter gasoline engine and a continuously-variable automatic transmission with a DC brushless motor sandwiched between them. Combined output is 98 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque, with 10 hp and 58 lb-ft coming from the electric motor. Like the system in the Civic Hybrid, the Insight can't run the engine and the motor independently , but it does shut the engine off when the car is stopped and it has an electric-only mode for low-speed cruising -- the intake and exhaust valves are closed, sealing the engine and minimizing engine drag. But since the engine is still turning, the Insight doesn't "run silent" the way most hybrids do -- the power gauge is the only indicator that the Insight is running on pure battery power.
EPA fuel economy estimates for the Insight have not yet been announced, but Honda's in-house tests predict 40 MPG city and 43 MPG highway. Compare that to 40/45 for Honda's Civic Hybrid and 48/45 for the Toyota Prius. Honda set up a hypermiling course consisting of 16 miles of suburban streets with a 35 minute time limit. I drove it normally as a benchmark and got 50.2 MPG. Using my best eco-driving skills and the Insight's video feedback tools, I scored 63.7 MPG and completed the course in 34 minutes. Then I tried it in a Toyota Prius, which lacks the Insight's eco-feedback gizmos. With only my ears and the seat of my pants to guide me, I got 74.5 MPG in 31 minutes. Oops! Sorry, Honda.
When it’s all said & done
I like the Insight -- it's cute, it's useful, and it's fun. But it has two major problems. The first is size: The Insight is great for singles and young families, but as your kids grow, you're going to need a bigger car, and the best family-friendly hybrids come from Toyota (Prius, Camry Hybrid) and Nissan (Altima Hybrid). Second, I don't think Honda's IMA system is as good as Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive. Despite all the Insight's gauges and gadgets, Toyota's system -- which shuts the gasoline engine off entirely, rather than just disabling it -- makes eco-driving easier, as proven by my slightly-unauthorized hypermiling experiment.
One important question remains unanswered: Just how affordable is the Insight going to be? Honda hasn't announced pricing; my guess is that the LX will come in around $20k, and an EX with navigation will be closer to $24k. Compare that to the base- model Prius ($22,720) and Civic Hybrid ($24,320). But Honda dealers are bound to gouge -- sorry, "add" -- an extra mark-up -- sorry, "market adjustment" -- when the cars are new, so the Insight may not be that great a deal, at least not for the first few months of sales.
Bottom line: It's great to see a hybrid designed specifically to make eco-driving fun and affordable. Unfortunately, the Insight simply isn't as fuel-efficient or as practical as the Toyota Prius -- but it is a lot more enjoyable. If you're willing to trade a bit of economy and utility for a higher fun-to-drive factor, the 2010 Honda Insight is the hybrid to have. -- Aaron Gold