Honda appears finally to have learned how to play in the hybrid game. Simply putting a hybrid powertrain in a regular car doesn't cut it. If a carmaker wants to be taken seriously, it had better deliver a hybrid that looks like what the market has said it wants a hybrid to look like. And that, apparently, given the sales numbers, is a Toyota Prius. Hence, the all-new, Honda Insight is virtually a carbon copy of that market leader.
Beyond that obvious surrender to a take-no-big-chances market, however, the 2010 Honda Insight does manage to march to a slightly different drummer. It's smaller than the Prius, for instance, which isn't necessarily a plus, as interior room suffers. But it's lighter, which is a plus, as less weight contributes to it's being a somewhat livelier driver.
Beyond this, it generally stays the course, with the common array of standard features plus an optional navigation system and Bluetooth capability. It also can be ordered with gimmicky paddle shifters that imposes an artificial construct of seven electronically created ratios on the continuously variable automatic transmission.
When the new Honda Insight is measured against the outgoing-generation 2009 Toyota Prius, it definitely hums a different tune. Put simply, the Insight's EPA-rated City/Highway 40/43 miles per gallon trails significantly the 48/45 mpg rating for the Prius. Honda appears to believe its faithful will willingly trade a few miles per gallon for a modestly quicker car.
Perhaps the most significant change Honda brings to the hybrid market is price competition. With the Insight, shoppers now have two similar cars from which to choose. The 2010 Honda Insight's $19,800 Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price just slightly undercuts the $21,000 MSRP of the all-new 2010 Toyota Prius. The first-generation 2009 Prius retailed for $23,375.
The 2010 Insight comes in one configuration: a four-door, five-passenger sedan. One powertrain is available: a combination of a 1.3-liter, 88-horsepower, inline four-cylinder gasoline engine and a 10-kilowatt, 13-hp, brushless, DC motor. Power goes only to the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). In the top two of the three models offered, steering wheel-mounted shift paddles manage a computer-generated seven-speed, simulated-manual gearbox. The base model uses a standard CVT that's efficient and highly competent.
Putting a bit of a spin on the old saw that imitation is the best form of flattery, Honda apparently has concluded that imitation is the best form of cashing in on somebody else's success, as in, Toyota's with the Prius. Although in every dimension the 2010 Insight is an inch or three smaller than the Prius, only with the two parked door to door does this become visible to the eye. Otherwise, they could be twins separated at birth and only reacquainted in their mid-20s.
Squinting headlights peer out from the front corners, bracketing a grille that, save for the H logo, eerily reminds of a Ford Fusion, or a Gillette Fusion, for that matter. An open-mouth smile below the grille seems the more functional of the two openings as far as breathing cooling air for the radiator and engine compartment. Slit-shaped vents to each side break up the expanse of the front bumper and accent chin-link splitters at the corners that help keep the front end planted while it cleaves the air.
Side view shows a deeply wedged hood leading to a very fast, or raked, windshield. Roofline continues the arc over the passenger compartment and equally fast backlight, ending abruptly at a sharply chopped, relatively high, hind quarter. The beltline runs straight back beneath black-framed side glass, rising gently, from just aft of the centerline of the front wheelwell to just forward of the centerline of the rear wheelwell, emphasizing the Insight's short wheelbase (distance between the centers of the wheels, front to back). Flip-up door handles sit flush with the body panels, making for good drag numbers but not for easy gripping; gloves are helpful for preserving long fingernails. Tires don't quite fill the wheelwells, implying light weight and compactness. A close look reveals glimpses through the gaps of suspension hardware, again hinting at a hyper-consciousness about shaving weight. A shallow, sculpted character line across the bottoms of the doors links matching indents creasing the lower portions of the front and rear bumpers.
The rear aspects hews the closest to the original Insight's super-aero styling, showing lines that, if extended, would taper to a pointed terminus some 10 feet or 12 feet behind the mostly vertical rear fascia. The Prius flattery continues here, with an understated rear spoiler splitting two parts of the backlight, the one above steeply raked, the one below upright and easing rearward visibility, especially when backing into a parking slot. The rear license plate sits in a recess in the liftgate, itself resting in a cutout cupped by the rear bumper. A single, almost demure exhaust tip peeks out from beneath the right side. Smallish, triangular taillight housings tuck into the upper corners of the rear fenders.
The flattery game ends inside the new Insight. There, Honda looks to its most recent hybrid, the Civic version, for inspiration. Save for the shapes of the functions embedded in the dash, which go to oval from squarish, and the resurrection of a traditional placement for the shift lever and hand brake, the Insight's interior shows all the telltales of a direct descendent from that predecessor.
Not the least of these is the cyclopean pod perched on top of the dash, like a single eye glaring at the driver over the top of the steering wheel, projecting a digit rendition of the car's speed. In the Insight, however, it serves another purpose, indicating by gradual changes between otherworldly bluish and greenish tints the efficiency a driver is achieving with the hybrid powertrain. To see this, it's necessary to have pressed the ECON button at the left end of the dash to activate a collection of efficiency-enhancing alternative algorithms in the engine control computer that optimize throttle control; CVT operation; idle-stop activation and duration; air conditioning; and cruise control for best-possible fuel economy. Otherwise, the instrument cluster comprises the usual gauges that occupy the usual locations and report the usual information for a hybrid.
Audio controls are ergonomically positioned and proportioned, except for the on/off button, that is, which is seriously undersized and placed way up in the left corner of the control panel, about as far away as possible from the volume knob, which is the logical location. The air conditioning controls are uniquely consolidated in a circular array below and to the left of the audio panel (which the Navi system displaces on the top-of-the-line EX and with which the text EX was not outfitted). That takes some acclimation, but once that's achieved, the layout feels less illogical. Radar detector users should order the longer cord, as the power point is tucked away back up under the dash beneath the A/C control pod.
Front seats are comfortable, if not especially assertive in terms of side bolsters on the bottom cushion. Front seatbacks, however, do a decent job of keeping the driver's and passenger's torso in place through relatively hurried changes in direction, provided occupants' backs are comfortable with the mildly aggressive lumbar support. The rear seat is contoured more for two passengers than for three, with an elevated center section relegating that position to use only on short runs around town. All three head restraints adjust, however, and each position has the requisite three-point seatbelt.
Where the Insight should have stuck with imitation is in interior roominess. Although it ekes out a win over the 2009 Toyota Prius in two measurements, front seat legroom and front seat hip room, both are by less than an inch. And against the 2010 Prius, in not one interior measurement does the Insight come out on top. The rear seat trails especially, by more than two inches in every dimension. In no small part this is a credit to the six-inch longer wheelbase of the Prius and almost two inches more of overall length. These, plus a roof that's two-and-one-half inches higher, also mean the cargo area of the new Prius will hold about five more foot-square boxes than the Insight.
The 2010 Insight is a hybrid, so expectations for ride and handling rightly ought to be on the conservative side. And that's about where they belong. Straight-line acceleration is not a strong point for hybrids. Neither is heart-pumping response to quick, right-left-right steering inputs, or even impressive stickiness around long sweeping curves. Where hybrids by right ought to shine is on the daily commute. And the Insight does.
Transitions between power sources are markedly smoother in the new Insight than in the Civic Hybrid and easily on a par with the '09 Prius. The paddle-shifted, simulated manual seven-speed seems to us an unnecessary, even wasteful, gewgaw, more a gratuitous tipping of a braggart's hat to Honda's high-tech heritage than a functional addition to an already very competent, and fuel-efficient, powertrain.
The aforementioned ECON button is more in keeping with the Insight's mission. Although equally unnecessary, it at least fulfills a purpose, giving the driver real-time indications on how frugally the powertrain is functioning while still leaving the driver free to tap the powertrain's full potential when and if desired or necessary. Driven normally, the powertrain operates at optimum fuel efficiency. Pressed, it dutifully pumps out everything it has, shifting back and forth between the two effortlessly, with the only indicator being the changing colors backlighting the digital speedometer.
With ECON engaged or not, lifting off the gas eases the needle metering the power flows into the regenerative Charge range; applying the brake pushes the needle even deeper. The new Insight's regenerative brake system is slicker than the Civic's, too, masking more fully the system's disengagement as the car nears a full stop. Speaking of brakes, the Insight's did their job without any drama, with the only limitation on their stopping power resulting from the small foot print of the tires.
Road and tire noise is more intrusive than in either the current Prius or the most recent Civic hybrid. Wind noise, though, is minimal; props to that wind-cheating, Prius-like body. Ride is firm, but not stiff; it is a hybrid, after all, not one of those traditional family sedans with all that road-hugging weight to suppress pavement heaves and bumps. Likewise, fit and finish is Honda-spec, for the most part quality plastics with consistent gaps between panels. The dash-mounted, 360-degree rotating a/c registers are a nice, much-appreciated touch.
Honda has done almost everything right with the new, 2010 Insight, with that almost relating exclusively to the hybrid's fuel economy. Believing its faithful prefer a more responsive gas pedal over fewer visits to the local gas station, Honda geared the Insight accordingly. And while the jury's out on whether Honda guessed right, the result is a clear choice in the hybrid segment. Finally.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from the northern regions of California's Central Valley.