Honda Insight — Not much downside to this hybrid

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Price is going to sell the all-new 2010 Honda Insight hybrid sedan.

If the Insight is as appealing to tire kickers as the segment leader and king of all things green, the Toyota Prius, the cash savings — which could amount to thousands — will put shoppers behind the wheel in droves.

It’s not that Toyota is ignoring the price difference. They have responded with a price for an entry level Prius just $100 more than the Insight’s base price. Attractive, but the de-contented Prius is far from what the typical Prius buyer has traditionally sought.

Prices for Insight will start at $20,510 including destination charge for the base Insight LX and the very well outfitted EX edition will go for $22,010. 

The EX contains a plethora of goodies. The Ex with navigation system has been set at a bargain basement $23,810. The base 2009 Prius sells for about 22 grand and the top-line model with navigation and other goodies runs more than $27,000.

Toyota has introduced an all-new slightly larger Prius than the previous model that will be capable of 50 mpg. We had an opportunity to spend 50 miles behind the wheel of the new Prius and it’s a winner. But here’s the real difference, the Prius loaded up will top 30 grand and them some. We will have a complete review of the Prius later this year.

Honda is, indeed, touting the Insight as the “affordable hybrid.” In these economically challenged times, that’s a pitch we think will work quite well. And the Insight, based on our 300 miles behind the wheel in a variety of driving conditions, is very appealing, indeed.

There’s little new and nothing revolutionary in the Honda design or overall execution compared to the current-generation Prius. Its wind-tunnel design even looks much like the current-generation Prius, but in a sleek set of new clothes.

And it’s a fairly typical hybrid deriving its power from a small 4- cylinder gas engine and an electric motor powered by a flat nickel- metal-hydride battery pack. Its government-rated gas mileage — 40 city and 43 highway — is good, but not exceptional when measured against other hybrids including Honda’s own Civic Hybrid. But we can tell you from 300 miles of automobile test driver lead-foot hauling that the EPA has got this one screwed up.

By the car’s rather sophisticated calculator we averaged 45 miles per gallon. We think more sedate drivers who take economical driving more seriously than we do, can easily average 46 to 47 mpg. Other test results from various magazines and online reviews have also yielded several miles per gallon higher than the government ratings.

Honda has designed an appealing five-door hatchback package that can haul up to five people and 16 cubic feet of cargo. The rear seats fold flat to yield a maximum cargo capacity of 31.5 cubic feet.

We do wish that Honda had made the Insight slightly larger, however. Rear-seat legroom is a bit tight especially if the front seat passenger needs more than average legroom. And head room in the rear is not in plentiful supply because of the steeply sloping roof.

Our rear passengers included a couple of people under 5-foot-8 and they had no problem. Six-footers might find that the roof and their hair meet.

More important to people who will spend all their time in the spacious front driver’s seat, the Insight is definitely more sporty and agile than the Prius. You might say the Insight is the sports sedan of the very small dedicated hybrid segment.

Steering feel is good and handling is smile-inducing. The Insight drives like, well, like a car, and not a typical hybrid. This is not surprising when you discover that the front suspension comes from the sporty handling subcompact Fit. The suspension is tight, but not too firm as to offend.

Like all hybrids the Insight derives its power from a small gas engine, in this case an 88-horsepower 1.3-liter 4-cylinder, and a 13- horsepower electric motor sandwiched between the engine and the continuously variable transmission (CVT). Maximum horsepower, Honda says, is 98.

Obviously, even at a 2,717 pound curb weight, the Insight is not going to smoke many people at the stoplight. But we found that the Honda can successfully merge on those tedious freeway on-ramps and can accelerate out of the way of oncoming traffic when entering a two-lane highway. The only downside to aggressive driving is watching your overall gas mileage drop as graphically measured by the computer.

For comparison purposes, the Insight has been timed during pedal-to- the-metal gas-guzzling 0-to-60 launches in around 10.5 seconds. That’s on a par with the current-generation Prius.

Unlike the Prius and other hybrids such as the Ford Escape and Fusion Hybrids and other Toyota and Lexus models, the electric motor very seldom runs independent of the gas engine. This gives the Insight more of a normal- car feel. For this reason, unlike the Prius but like standard gas engine vehicles, highway mileage is better than city mileage.

The Insight may be the best hybrid yet in allowing drivers to become involved in the car’s fuel-saving capabilities although the Fusion gives it a run for the money. The most obvious and interesting feature is the glowing background on the large digital speedometer.

When you are driving most efficiently the speedometer glows bright green. As you ease into the accelerator the glow turns into a lighter shade of green and then into light blue. Passing and merging brings a bright electric blue. We found that it quickly became a game — keep the speedometer in the green. Perhaps that’s why we were able to end our relationship with the mileage readout smack-dab on 45 mpg.

The other big aid is something Honda calls Eco Guide, a readout centered in the tachometer informing you as to your daily driving habits. It needs to be turned on each time you start the car. If you are oblivious to your mileage, just keep it off. The system has a lot of features, but the one we used most was the gas mileage history guide.

A green glowing Econ button to the left of the driver turns on a computer that moderates air conditioning cycles and throttle response to improve economy. If you need maximum acceleration, no need to hit the button. Econ will be overridden.

The Insight in EX trim without navigation, that comes in at around 22 grand, is loaded with most of the goodies people have come to expect in a car including full power accessories, a six-speaker audio system with CD, satellite radio and iPod connection, automatic climate control, steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters, steering-wheel mounted audio and cruise controls and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel.

Like other small Honda vehicles, power seats are not available. But a large handle on the side of the seat easily ratchets the driver up or down.

We think this is the perfect time for an affordable hybrid family hauler, one that even makes sense at $2-a-gallon. With gas now approaching $3 per gallon there is real cause to consider the Insight. There’s not much of a window sticker downside. And if gas prices start another steady rise toward five bucks, the Insight becomes a brilliant choice.

Base price: $20,470; as driven, $23,770
Engine: 1.3-liter 4-cylinder, electric motor
Combined horsepower: 98 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 123 pound-feet @ 4,500 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 100.4 inches
Length: 172.3 inches
Curb weight: 2,727 pounds
Turning circle: 36.1 feet
Luggage capacity: 16 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 31 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 10.6 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 43 highway, 40 city
0-60: 10.5 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid

The Good:
• Affordable price
• Agile with good handling traits
• Excellent gas mileage

The Bad:
• Too much road noise

The Ugly:
• Tight seating accommodations in back