Like Toyota, Honda is a pioneer in the hybrid-powertrain movement. Both Japanese manufacturers launched their first gasoline/electric models as the 21st century began: Toyota with the first-generation Prius sedan, and Honda with its two-passenger Insight coupe. Toyota redesigned and enlarged its Prius for 2004, and is issuing a reworked 2010 model in late spring of 2009. Honda kept the Insight in production until 2006, having added a Civic Hybrid sedan for the 2003 model year.
One of the criticisms of hybrid cars has been their cost. Each model, passenger car or SUV, has been priced higher than a comparable gasoline-engine vehicle. Often, considerably higher. That's logical enough, considering the relatively high cost of hybrid-powertrain components. Yet, the difference - valid or not - has doubtless kept some potential buyers from taking the hybrid plunge.
Honda hopes to address that pricing issue with its new-for-2010 Insight Hybrid hatchback. Though its name is the same as that of the company's first hybrid, it's a completely different type of vehicle - though Honda points out several design ties between the two. Honda calls its new five-passenger compact Insight the "affordable" hybrid. It's even referred to as the "populist" hybrid, suggesting an attraction to a broader group of less-affluent buyers who have shunned hybrids in the past.
Built on a 100.4-inch wheelbase, the Insight is 172.3 inches long and 56.2 inches tall, weighing in at 2,723 pounds. Luggage space totals 15.9 cubic feet, behind the fold-down 60/40-split rear seats.
Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, includes a 1.3-liter i-VTEC (intelligent variable valve timing) four-cylinder gasoline engine, which develops 98 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. Nickel-metal-hydride batteries supply 100.8 volts to a 10-kilowatt electric motor/generator. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is installed in every Insight. EX models have paddle-type gearshift levers at the steering wheel, and 15-inch tires are mounted on all Insights.
When the Insight is accelerating, and also during certain cruising situations, the electric motor can add power to what the gas engine provides. Cylinder deactivation occurs while decelerating, and an idle-stop feature shuts off the engine when the car is stationary, to help boost fuel mileage further yet.
Honda also is promoting its Ecological Drive Assist System, known simply as Eco Assist. According to the company, the system can optimize vehicle operation in accord with driving conditions. It also provides feedback that's related to the individual driver's style. Pushing the ECON button at the left of the dashboard will enhance throttle control, CVT operation, idle-stop duration, and air-conditioner operation. Each of these measures is intended to glean the greatest number of miles from every gallon of gasoline.
Six airbags are standard in all models, and antilock braking incorporates electronic brake-force distribution. Every Insight contains power door locks and windows, automatic climate control, a tilt/telescoping steering column, and manual height adjustment for the driver's seat. EX models add such extras as Vehicle Stability Assist with traction control, heated mirrors with integrated turn signals, variable-speed wipers, cruise control, and alloy wheels. Honda's navigation system is available, but only in the EX model.
Insight drives easily and enjoyably, but gas mileage doesn't match the competition
Compact Hondas aren't necessarily known for nimbleness, but the Insight handles with a fair degree of agility - though steering isn't quite instant-responding and doesn't always feel totally connected. While the hatchback rides comfortably on smooth pavement, occasional bumps hit harder. Even though the Insight's suspension seems more active than some, virtually all of the reactions are handily snubbed. While not qualifying as gentle, the Insight's ride ranks as well-controlled.
Performance is enthusiastic enough for this class, scoring a bit higher than the hybrid-car average. Acceleration from a standstill is a little stronger than the response for passing or merging.
Only a little engine sound occurs while acceerating, and it's refined in nature. Noise has long been an issue with CVT-equipped cars, which tend to keep the engine running at higher-than-normal speed while the car accelerates. But Honda's hybrid system keeps that sound to a minimum.
The hatchback shape gives Insight a personality that's lacking in the Civic Hybrid, making it easy to separate from other models. Paddle shifters can provide the promised selection of simulated "gears," and the difference in performance is easily noted. Even so, the paddles aren't exactly essential.
Indicators alongside the high-mounted digital speedometer change from blue to green, to reveal how efficiently the Insight is being driven. They can be difficult to see, but an easy-to-read needle-type Charge/Assist gauge at the left of the large tachometer also displays powertrain efficiency. Honda's idle-stop feature shuts off the engine as the car eases to a halt. In normal driving, it restarts as soon as you start to release the brake pedal.
Front occupants get sufficient space, but those in the rear are more cramped. Because of the Insight's roofline, rear headroom is skimpy. Toe space is acceptable but legroom isn't enticing, and short seat bottoms don't help. Comfortable front seats, on the other hand, include helpful side bolstering. Getting into the backseat likely requires a body twist and ducking of one's head, but front riders face no such issues.
Good visibility is aided by long back-door windows, but Insight shares one obstacle with Toyota's Prius: a horizontal bar across the back window. Because Honda's upper rear window is practically horizontal, butting a lower pane that's nearly vertical, an obstruction at that joining point appears inevitable.
Gas mileage, while satisfying compared to other compact cars, fails to approach Toyota's figures. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Insight gets a fuel-economy estimate of 40 miles per gallon in city driving and 43 mpg on the highway. In nomal driving, reaching 40 mpg isn't too difficult. Still, Toyota's newly-redesigned Prius gets an EPA estimate of 51 mpg for city driving and 48 on the highway. A gentle touch on the gas pedal can boost those Prius figures higher yet.
Is the Insight really the "affordable" hybrid? Well, yes, compared to the others; but the dollar difference isn't great. An Insight LX has a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of $20,470 (including the inevitable $670 destination charge). Stepping up to an EX edition adds $1,500 more. An EX hatchback with a navigation system stickers for $23,770. As a comparison, Toyota's redesigned 2010 Prius is a little higher at $22,750. Honda's own Civic Hybrid sedan commands a comparatively hefty $24,320.
Hybrid-car makers aren't entirely certain how their wares will fare, regardless of price, if gasoline prices stay comparatively low. When gas prices peaked in mid-2008, hybrids quickly turned into hot items. That burst of popularity eased substantially when prices at the pump began to slide downward. Steadily-increasing gasoline prices in late spring of 2009 might bring another surge of interest in fuel-efficient gasoline/electric powertrains. Or, hybrids might remain appealing mainly to the environmentally-conscious.
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