On The Road Review: 2010 Honda Insight Hybrid

It is 9 o’clock as I head north from Middleboro, Mass., in Honda’s latest hybrid sedan offering, the all-new Insight. No longer the edgy, space-aged looking two-seater of the first generation Insight — as well as the very first hybrid for sale in America — the latest Honda is a four-door family car that closely mimics the Jetson-like styling of the Toyota Prius. More about this in a minute.

Thinking that Boston’s notorious traffic situation would be abated by this relatively late hour, I head up Interstate 93 right though the heart of the city — the shortest route for home. My hopes for a speedy trip are quickly dashed as first a car wreck in the southbound lanes has traffic stopped for over three miles, and then paving construction brings four lanes of teeming northbound traffic down to two lanes and, as you can guess, no forward progress. Who are all of these people and where are they going at this late hour?

According to a recent Associated Press story, the average American driver spends over 36 hours a year in stopped, gridlock traffic, with a combined wasting of over 2.8 billion gallons of fuel. The Boston-metro region remains a top-10 offender in this type of unproductive driving.

Two thoughts come to mind. Hybrid cars work very well in this type of stop-n-go driving, as the battery pack and electric motors in many new hybrids allow some, if very limited, electric-only operation. With the gasoline engines running less often — or not all — hybrid cars then would make more sense than typical internal combustion powered vehicles for congested city driving, hence their higher fuel economy numbers.

Secondly, many of our modern cars come with features and amenities that entertain and inform a vehicle’s occupants while trapped inside during these aggravating rolling roadblocks. Are our cars starting to become our secondary living rooms with heated/cooled power seats, infotainment navigation/stereo systems, Bluetooth cell-phone access and in-car DVD players?

If only the Honda’s onboard navigation unit could have warned me of these traffic obstructions, I could have taken evasive action and arrived home earlier than 2 a.m. This, however, would only be one of several puzzling realizations with the latest Insight.

As mentioned, Honda was first with hybrid power to America in 1996 with the two-seat Insight. Yet archrival Toyota had crafted the larger, more family friendly four-door Prius as its primary hybrid offering. Prius sales grew steadily; Insight sales plateaued.

Toyota followed up with several more hybrid offerings, often on its SUVs and premium Lexus vehicles — products with larger profit margins, products that could cover the higher than expected development costs. Toyota built a ‘green’ campaign around its hybrid portfolio. Honda was more cautious and only added hybrid versions of its Civic sedan, which looked identical to the regular Civic, and a hybrid version of the Accord V-6, which made a lot of sense business-wise but did not catch on in the showroom.

Now Honda is in the position of playing catch-up as hybrids are now synonymous with fuel savings for many import-buying consumers. Honda plans to roll out a hybrid version of the small Fit in the coming months, plus a new hybrid sporty car called the CR-Z.

Of late, though, the Insight has gotten a fair amount of media attention. Its size and shape are almost exactly the same as the outgoing Toyota Prius sedan — right down to the two-part hatchback with the lower glass panel that is infuriating to experience in heavy nocturnal traffic. Trailing headlights hide and then appear from behind the bar that separates these two panels, giving the driver a flickering light flow that can be very disconcerting when the beams behind you are bluish bi-xenon lamps.

The Insight further regales you with its own dash-mounted light show, as the circle surrounding the digital speedometer glows green when you are thrifty with your power-use and consuming battery juice, or, blue when you are not so light on the throttle and both the gas engine and the battery pack are supplying forward power.

This is reflected in the Insight’s actual fuel economy. At speeds at or below 60-mph, with some urban driving added, the Insight seems to achieve its best mileage. Two fill-ups for 261 miles and 171 miles returned 49.2 and 48.8 mpg respectively, while fill-ups following strictly highway use, with travel at the prevailing speeds of most traffic, the Insight returned between 38.1 and 43.0 mpg.

These numbers are both better and worse than the EPA economy estimates of 40-mpg city, 43-mpg highway. These numbers are also less than the Prius — by a significant margin — plus they are actually less than the Honda Civic Hybrid sedan; 40/45-mpg. Go back 15 years to the Honda Civic VX coupe and the Insight’s fuel mileage pales in comparison. This lighter, smaller VX car earned EPA ratings of 47/56-mpg!

On the plus side, the Insight is, by far, the better driving small hybrid. The Honda has excellent steering feel and path accuracy, the car’s handling is composed and balanced, and the regenerative brakes have the linear feel that most drivers are accustomed to. The cargo space behind the front seats is expansive when the split second row seats fold. The front seats are surprisingly comfortable for two large men to spend all day; and the control layout is more conventional and user friendly than some alternative offerings — such as the Prius.

Conversely, Honda wanted to make the Insight more price attractive than the Toyota and they succeeded in some areas that are regrettably noticeable. The Insight’s floor covering material is low-brow carpet no matter what you call it; the doors sound tinny when they close and the windows even rattle when only partially closed; the cabin is loud at moderate speeds (Honda doesn’t think so) and there is no real trip computer that calculates distance, mileage, etc., the information that hybrid owners like to boast about mentally as they reinforce their buying decision. The Insight also uses rear drum brakes — a clean concession to cost-cutting, plus satellite radio is an omission, even as navigation is added.

Conversely, the Insight has terrific aerodynamics that handles cross-winds effectively, plus, allows you to savor the fresh outside air with all, or some, windows open. In a summer with few hot days, the fresh air was very welcome.

I hate to say that the Insight copies the Prius’s styling, but that conclusion is almost inescapable as the cars look too much alike to come from two different philosophies. The Insight undercuts the Toyota’s price by a couple of thousand dollars — which will have an impact on sales — yet, Toyota appears to want to take the Prius more upmarket and realize greater margins. Honda, with more compact hybrids on the way, appears to be plotting to take the economy end of the compact segment by storm. Watch for Hyundai to step into this battle too.

Despite the evident contradictions, the Insight will be a popular seller. But it has a long road to hoe to catch the Prius, a marketing oversight that Honda surely laments.

Just the Facts: 2010 Honda Insight Hybrid

2010 Insight is a five-passenger, front-wheel drive compact class hybrid sedan. Base prices start at $19,800 for the LX trim level, $21,300 for the EX. Tested EX w/Navigation starts at $23,100.

Power comes from a 98-hp 1.3-liter SOHC i-VTEC in-line four with Honda’s IMA-integrated motor assist system. Gas engine automatically stops when at rest, most of the time. A CVT-automatic transmission is employed that also features steering wheel paddle shifters for driver interaction, plus ECO mode for improved fuel economy. EPA mileage estimates are 40/43-mpg.

EX trim provides: electric power steering, ABS brakes, stability control, 60/40 split rear seats, auto climate system, digital card reader/MP3, Bluetooth access, six-speaker 160-watt stereo with redundant steering wheel controls, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, height adjustable driver’s seat, cruise, external temperature gauge, heated power mirrors with turn indicator lamps, projector beam halogen headlamps, remote entry, LED taillamps and 15-inch alloy wheels.


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