Honda offers up good Insight


by By TOM VOELK / Special to

Posted on April 9, 2009 at 11:20 AM

Updated Friday, Oct 23 at 3:06 PM

Video: Driving Northwest: Honda offers up good Insight

Indulge me as I open this review with a story about a trip to Los Angeles a few years ago.  Visiting a friend's family I noticed them staring at me, then each other.  Finally one of them gushed "It's amazing, simply amazing how much you look like Hank."  The whole family agreed, I was definitely Hank's evil twin. "He's working just down the block.  Let's go see him," said the family.  So we did. 

It was at the Burbank Taco Bell that I met Hank, who I would guess to be half again my size.  His face looked remotely like mine if you squinted in a dark room.  He himself failed to see the similarity.

I am not Hank. Insight is not Prius.

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Keep him in mind as I deftly segue into Honda's new Insight hybrid.  Wish I had a dollar for every time people have asked if it's the new Prius.  Maybe it's the hybrid badge.  Surely the silhouette recalls the Prius.  They both have four wheels too.  In the end these two look similar in the way my "twin" Hank and I have arms, legs and a head. 

Honda's Insight revives the name used for their first hybrid, an impractical two-seater.  While Prius was the first mass produced hybrid in the world, Insight was the first one to come to American roads. Inevitably, people will lump the Honda and Toyota together even though they only have a passing resemblance.  Truth is there are some real differences between them.  First let's look at the Insight on its own merits, and then we'll do a little comparison.  After that it's off for Crunchwrap Supremes.  They're easier to eat than tacos while driving.

Under the hood

All by its lonesome, the 1.3-liter 4-cylinder engine makes 88 horsepower and 88 lbs-ft of torque.  It's assisted by a brushless electric motor that provides 13 HP and a whopping 58 lb-ft of torque. Basic math would say the combination makes 101 ponies but that's not the way these things work.  Honda says 98 hp total.  The motor is positioned between the engine and an automatic transmission of the continuously variable kind.  My EX tester sports steering wheel mounted paddle shifters offering up simulated manual gear changes.

Insight isn't fast but hey, drag racing is not part of its mission.  It's all about fuel economy and reduced emissions.  Insight is about as fast as the outgoing Prius or Honda's own Fit, meaning 0-60 happens in a leisurely 10.5 seconds.  At a steady 65 MPH I'm seeing 46 miles per gallon.  Driving moderately gets 38 in stop and go city slogging.   Keep in mind the car I'm driving is brand new with only 250 miles on the clock.  Mileage should improve.

Handling insight

Honda takes their driving dynamics seriously, so as expected handling is crisp for an economy minded car.   Low rolling resistance tires discourage slalom runs but really, how many times a year do you do that?  Ride comfort is decent but road noise is a little on the higher side of average.  On-center feel is locked down at highway speeds with a nicely weighted feel.

Brakes are decent with discs up front and drums in the rear.  Pedal feel often times suffers on hybrids because of their regenerative feature that charges the nickel-metal hydride battery.   A few days of driving went by without them calling attention to themselves.   Nicely done.

The 411 on IMA  

Generally speaking hybrids shut down their gas engines at stop signs, then pull away using only electric motors, kicking in the gas engine as more power is needed.  Some can even run for up to a mile in electric mode alone.  Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system or IMA is different though.  It starts the gas engine up when you lift off the brake pedal.  This causes a slight shudder that isn't experienced with Toyota and Ford hybrids.   Essentially Honda's electric motor is always assisted by the gas engine.  Other than the initial engine start up, pulling away from a stop feels just like a regular car.  Unlike Prius, the gas engine fires up when starting the car but it does shut the engine down at a stop.

Insight has an ECON mode that makes it easier to get better fuel economy.  Put simply, it makes the Insight less aggressive.   Pushing the big green button remaps the throttle and CVT, and disengages the air-conditioning compressor to keep the gas engine from staying on at stoplights.   ECON even makes the cruise control back off a bit when trying to maintain speed.  Even with this mode selected the gas engine starts up after 20-30 seconds at a stoplight.

Economy you can see

Insight gives feedback to help you on the quest for better gas mileage.  There's no big color screen like Prius.  Instead, a small monochrome LCD Eco Guide display in the tachometer offers up the potential to score five leaf icons if your right foot behaves properly.  I often times had three. 

In addition, a gauge spikes blue when gas power is used, and dips into the green zone when batteries are being charged.  That gauge info is duplicated by the 3-D speedometer with a background that glows green when driving economically, blue when not.

Ahead warp factor 9

Insight gets the full "Star Trek" treatment when it comes to interior design.  Conservative it is not.  With its multiple curves and gauge pods Jean Luc Piccard would look right at home behind the wheel.  Still, everything is easy to use with controls like single zone climate control in a convenient cluster.  Materials and textures are good for a car in this price range. 

My tester is a fully loaded EX model that goes for $23,840.   The voice activated nav system is a good unit.  Its screen tips open to reveal the CD slot and Compact Flash reader that plays MP3 files. 

I highly recommend the EX model that starts at $21,970 over the LX.  For the additional $1,500 it adds important stuff like electronic stability control, cruise control and Bluetooth handsfree phone connection.  There's also a better sound system with dedicated iPod interface, 15-inch alloy wheels, and steering wheel paddle shifters.  Remember Washington state buyers, you will pay no state sales tax on an Insight because it's such a fuel sipper (that goes for Civic Hybrid and Prius as well).

Moving to the rear

In back there are belts for three and just enough legroom for normal folks.  Headroom is manageable for those of average height in the outboard positions so big Hank from Taco Bell will not like it back here.   It's worse in the middle because of the raised cushion.  Consider it for smaller kids only.  There's no folding arm rest and drink holders are only found down low on the doors.

Want a sunroof or leather?  Sorry, no can do.  You'll want to order mats to cover the budget floor material (notice I didn't call it carpeting).  Finally the front seat's lumbar support doesn't hit my back in the right place.  Normally this is something I don't touch on because seats are a personal issue but a number of passengers commented on the same thing.  Something for you to check on a test drive. 

Hatchbacks are a very useful design, the average one holds 6 packs of warehouse sized 2-ply bath tissue.  Insight easily swallows that amount easily.  The cargo area also has some little storage cubbies here and there. 

Insight vs. Prius.  The hybrid smackdown

My comparison will be with the new 2010 Prius available in late May since Insight will be competing with it for the foreseeable future.  Starting with the exterior, I don't think they really look like twins, at least in person.  Their aerodynamic shape is a form-follows function design and why Insight and Prius look similar, just like me and Hank the manager at Taco Bell both have a human form.  Insight has a bolder Gillette razor style grille up front.  A crease that follows the windshield pillar's line into the front fender is a detail easily missed in photos.  The Honda's rear taillights and C pillar are much more stout than Priuses. 

Style seems to count in this segment.  Drive a Honda Civic hybrid and few people comment.  Cruise in an Insight or Prius and the shape tells everyone you're Captain Planet. 

Moving on, Insight is a bit smaller with a less useful back seat.  The Honda gets the nod in the fun-to-drive department, cornering is a little more engaging when pushing hard in the corners.  The new Prius has improved though, it's not the wet noodle it used to be.

Starting at $20,400 a comparably equipped Insight is less expensive by around 2 to 3 grand depending on a whole host of factors.  I base this on the current Prius MSRP.  The 2010 Prius is un-priced at this writing and there are rumblings of a price war.  Word is Toyota is considering selling the second generation Prius as a lower cost companion to Gen 3 in Japan and even has a lower priced competitor in the works. 

Insight stacks up well to the outgoing Prius but fades against the 2010 version.  The new Toyota not only gets better gas mileage (41 vs. 50 EPA estimates), it has a more premium feel all the way around than the Honda.   Prius seems to want to be all things to all people considering leather, radar adaptive cruise control and automatic parking assist can be ordered.  Fully loaded it's not unreasonable to guess a Prius will blow past the $30,000 mark.  

Summing up, Honda has done a good job of building Insight to a price point.  It drives like the well executed economy car it is.  Everything about it, from the limited packages available to the user interface recalls the best of this brand's mottos: " Honda, we make it simple."  In the end Prius and Insight may share some attributes but their execution is different.  Just like Hank and me.  For the budget-minded hybrid shopper, Honda offers up good Insight.