The Insight takes on the Prius with mixed results
Because the Toyota Prius has become such a cultural icon, even most environmentalists probably do not remember that the first full-hybrid sold in America was made by Honda. Like the Prius, the futuristic-looking Insight was built from the ground up to be powered by both an electric motor and gasoline engine.
First reaching these shores in 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rated the Insight at a remarkable 70 miles per gallon - even better than that achieved by the Prius, which went on sale here two years later.
But, in one of the biggest automotive marketing mistakes ever, Honda stopped producing the Insight in 2006, just before gasoline prices began to skyrocket. As public demand for fuel-efficient cars increased, Honda and other manufacturers began offering hybrid options for some of their conventional cars. But they were not nearly as economical as the Prius, which the EPA rated at around 50 miles per gallon.
It is easy to understand why Honda dropped the Insight once the Prius caught on. The Insight was a small three-door hatchback with no back seat. In contrast, although the first-generation Prius was also small, it came with four doors and a truck. But the second-generation Prius that debuted in 2004 was a much larger and more practical five-door hatchback.
What is not so easy to understand is why Honda didn't immediately replace the Insight with a larger model that could compete directly against the Prius. Now, four years later, that's exactly what Honda has done by introducing the 2010 Insight, still only the second full-hybrid car sold in America. Both feature electric motors integrated with small four-cylinder gasoline engines to maximize fuel economy.
But this time Honda has a trick up its sleeve. The Insight is the cheapest hybrid car sold in America, including cars with hybrid options. The Insight is also priced well below the Prius. Although prices vary by trim levels, the least-expensive Insight is at least a couple thousand dollars less than the entry-level Prius.
Honda obviously wants potential new car buyers to compare the two cars. The Insight is a wedge-shaped five-door hatchback, just like the Prius. The new Honda even has a small wing across the split rear window, like Toyota's iconic hybrid. But the Insight is also sleeker than the Prius, and features an angled silver grill that gives it a more aggressive look.
Like the Prius, the Insight also offers an economy mode that put a premium on mileage and a normal mode that increases accleration to more like a convention four-cylinder-powered car. Both cars also feature electronic dash displays that encourage the most economical driving habits.
Despite the strong physical and mechanical resemblance, the Insight offers something the Prius lacks - road feel. The Prius is engineered more for comfort than performance. The steering is vague and the ride is soft. In contrast the Insight is almost sporty. The steering is direct and the suspension transmits road imperfections to the driver. The result is occasionally unsettled, however, especially over broken pavement.
Although both cars only come with continuously variable transmissions, our test model had an optional sports mode and steering-wheel mounted paddles that allow drivers to manually shift through gears for even better performance.
Although inviting comparisons, the Insight does not stack up to the Prius in a number of important areas, however, beginning with mileage. The EPA rates the new Insight at 40 miles per gallon in the city and 43 on the highway.
Although those are impressive figures, the Prius is rated significantly higher - 51 city and 48 highway. The difference is especially noteworthy because the 2010 Prius has a larger gas engine (1.8 liter vs. 1.3 liter) and produces more net horsepower (134 vs. 98).
Nor does the Insight drive as smoothly as the Prius. All hybrids incorporate regenerative braking mechanisms that use otherwise wasted braking energy to recharge the batteries that power their electric motors. This results in some pulsating through the brake pedals as the cars slow. The effect is more pronounced in the Insight than the Prius, however, although stopping is never an issue.
Likewise, all hybrids use electric motors and gas engines that operate at different times. The electric motors provide most of the power when the cars are driven slowly, they work together when the cars are accelerating, and the gas engines do most of the work at higher speeds. Vibrations from the gas engine are more noticeable in the Insight than the Prius, especially in the economy mode. The slight shaking is not a serious distraction, however.
The Insight is also much smaller than the Prius, which was redesigned to be slightly larger than the previous version this year. The interior of the Insight feels far more confined than the Prius, especially in the back seat. Visibility in the Insight also suffers in comparison because the seating position is lower than in the Prius. At the same time, the smaller size contributes to its sportier feel.
Interiors materials in the Insight are also cheaper than those in the Prius. The Insight has more hard plastic and the seat cushions are thinner. As a result, the Insight feels more like an economy car than the Prius, which is almost beginning to go upscale.
But that may in fact be another trick up Honda's sleeve. The Prius has always been about more than saving gas. It represents the aesthetic of conservation, which calls for a certain level of self-sacrifice to save the planet. By making the Insight more basic, Honda has produced a hybrid that can make their owners feel like they they have bought the minimal car necessary to get admirable mileage.
Facts and figures
• Test Model: 2010 Insight.
• Manufacturer: Honda.
• Class: Compact.
• Layout: Front front engine, front-wheel-drive.
• Style: Four passenger, five door.
• Power train: 1.3L inline-4 cylinder w/permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor (98 hp, 123 lb-ft torque net).
• Transmissions: Continuously variable transmission.
• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 40/43 mpg.
• Price: Beginning at approximately $19,800 to $23,100.