I’m afraid I’m one of those people who think the new 2010 Honda Insight resembles the Toyota Prius. You see, since I drove the new Insight in Arizona in early December, I’ve been telling my colleagues that Honda “copied the Prius” for the design of its new, second-generation Insight. Although I certainly defer to design editor Robert Cumberford’s erudition (the man is a walking, talking encyclopedia of automotive history, especially as it pertains to car styling) and his assertion that designs for both the Prius and the Insight are in fact informed by research conducted in Germany some seven decades ago, I will still state this obvious fact: since its debut five years ago, the second-generation Prius has become the definitive shape for a hybrid car in America. It’s little surprise, then, that Honda chose to ape the Prius’s basic exterior design and packaging philosophy. After all, the first-generation Insight, which debuted in 1999, was an oddity: a tiny, side-skirted, skinny-tired two-seater that even fervent Honda fans could not wrap their heads around. Lesson learned, Honda wanted its new, second-generation Insight to be friendly rather than freaky, useful rather than nearly useless, and, most important, a sales winner. So, like both the existing Prius and the all-new, 2010 model seen in the following pages, the Insight is an aerodynamically optimized, four-door, five-passenger hatchback sedan.
Despite its outward similarities to the Prius, the Insight, in typical Honda fashion, blazes its own path. Whereas the Prius is a showcase for Toyota’s engineering prowess, the new Insight is a hybrid for the common man. Created to be sold not only here in the United States but in markets around the world, it will, Honda promises, cost less than the $24,320 Civic Hybrid. When the Insight goes on sale here on April 22, which just happens to be Earth Day, one would assume that it will also have a lower base price than the 2009 Prius, which currently starts at $22,720. We’re hoping American Honda will be able to offer it for less than $20,000.
This is not to say that the new Insight is lacking in technical sophistication. It’s powered by the fifth generation of Honda’s well-known IMA (Integrated Motor Assist), a parallel hybrid powertrain that debuted in the original Insight and still does duty in the Civic Hybrid. In the Insight, the IMA consists of a 1.3-liter gasoline VTEC engine that serves as the primary power source; a 13-hp, lightweight electric motor that provides additional power as well as electricity generation; a lightweight and compact battery; and a continuously variable transmission. (The Civic uses a 20-hp motor with the same 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine.) Thus configured, the Insight provides a total output of 98 hp at 5800 rpm and maximum torque of 123 lb-ft at 1000 rpm. The engine itself is rated at 88 hp and 88 lb-ft.
While “IMA” refers to the Insight’s hybrid powertrain as a whole, the various parts that comprise IMA are spread throughout the car. The gasoline engine, as you would expect, is located under the hood. What Honda calls the Intelligent Power Unit (IPU) is located under the rear cargo floor. Anyone who has ever seen the original Insight’s high, impractical rear cargo floor can understand how much smaller the IPU is now than it was nine years ago, because the 2009 Insight’s cargo floor is as low and easily accessible as it is in any conventional hatchback car, including the Honda Fit. In any event, the IPU consists of a battery pack; a power control unit; and a cooling system that sucks air in from the cabin, routes it through the IPU and around the back of the car, and then ejects it into the left rear wheel well. The whole IPU is no larger than a modestly sized desktop printer.
As for the nickel-metal-hydride batteries, there are seven modules of them, each containing twelve D-size cells, for a total of 84. By comparison, the Civic Hybrid’s IPU contains eleven modules, but the Insight’s batteries are some 30 percent more efficient than those in the Civic. According to Honda, they are also 30 percent more durable. Fewer batteries helps lower both cost and weight; the Insight’s IPU is 28 percent lighter than the Civic’s.
Despite vast improvements in the efficiency of the IMA system over time, the new Insight falls short of the fantastic fuel economy numbers – 61 mpg city, 70 mpg highway – of its parsimonious predecessor. However, when those figures are recalculated using the EPA’s latest methodologies, they are reduced to a more realistic 49 city, 61 highway, 53 combined. For the new Insight, Honda wagers that 40 city, 43 highway (41 combined) will be enough to lure customers who also are attracted to the car’s affordability and practicality. It seems like an effective compromise and, if anything, these figures, not yet ratified by the EPA as we went to press, will be easy to beat. More on that shortly.
Current Honda owners who get behind the wheel of the new Insight will feel instantly at home. The cabin design and ambience are an appealing mixture of Civic, Fit, and first-generation Insight, with effective ergonomics, intuitive controls (the radio interface is especially nice), and lots of nooks and crannies for storage. One of the things you give up at this price point over the Civic Hybrid is the ability to pay extra for leather upholstery, and you’ll be reminded of this every time you run your fingertips over the cheap seat fabric. (Another sacrifice is stability control, available only on the EX.) As for the seats themselves, the fronts are simple and comfortable, while the outboard rear seats offer good headroom, decent legroom, and good footroom. The middle rear seat is high, flat, and hard and is a miserable place to spend more than two minutes – it’s difficult to imagine three people sharing the rear row unless they’re all preteens. The rear seatbacks fold easily although not completely flat. The cargo area is top-notch, with a big exterior opening through the hatch, a low lift-over height, a tall load space, and a broad, flat floor.
The wide windshield provides excellent sightlines for the driver and the front passenger, and rear visibility isn’t bad through the CRX-style split hatch glass. You start the car the old-fashioned way, by inserting a key in an ignition receptable mounted on the steering column. No silly push-button start here, thankfully. Although Honda claims that the Insight is capable of driving on electricity alone at speeds up to 30 mph on flat roads, in our experience the car always uses its gasoline engine at launch. This hardly seems a detriment, though, because the sound of an internal-combustion engine starting is a reassuring and natural part of the driving experience.
And the driving, for the most part, does feel quite natural, with little of the surging and hiccuping that sometimes afflict hybrids. Driving the Insight basically feels a lot like driving any other small Honda. The electrically assisted steering has decent feel, with a small dead spot on-center that seems to improve the harder you drive the car. The brake and accelerator pedals have been tuned for conventional-feeling responses, with none of the mushiness that mars the Prius. During a brief foray onto some mildly challenging roads in the higher-elevation areas of the Tonto National Forest outside Scottsdale, the Insight was nothing like the soggy mess that the Prius is when you ask it to get sporty. Naturally, the Insight segues into understeer when you really push it, but considering its skinny, low-rolling-resistance tires, it handles quite well and is more than capable of providing a mildly entertaining drive combined with good dampening and body control.
This is not to say that the Insight is anybody’s bargain sport sedan. There’s no manual transmission, only the CVT, which at least has a sport setting and available paddle shifting. If you give up any pretenses of driving for efficiency, the tiny four-banger quickly becomes taxed. Accelerate hard from 65 to 75 mph, and a cacophony of underhood protests, road noise, and tire thrum serves to remind you that this is a car that has been engineered to reward deliberate, considered inputs.
And, oh, does the Insight ever reward deliberate, considered inputs to the accelerator and brake pedals. Over a fifty-two-mile stretch of mostly two-lane roads through the Sonoran Desert scrubland of the Phoenix exurbs, we achieved an indicated average of 57 mpg with the Econ mode engaged and while making a mild effort to keep the digital speedometer’s background lighting bright green, which is an easy way to know that you are driving efficiently. If the lighting turns blue-green, you’re driving less efficiently, and if it turns totally blue, you’re an ecological naughty-pants. The Econ mode, which is engaged by hitting a dash button that’s colored – what else – green, more readily kills the gas engine at idle, keeps the A/C in recirc mode longer, and changes the electronic throttle calibration to limit power and torque slightly (unless you mash the accelerator). In addition to the varied speedo lighting, several other graphic indicators in the instrument cluster help you track your efficiency, including digital flora that grow more leaves the more economically you drive.
Later, on a similar forty-seven-mile loop on which we drove pretty normally, we saw 43 mpg. Our morning average for just under 100 miles was 49 mpg. During an efficiency driving contest on a varied sixteen-mile suburban loop where we were scored for both time and fuel economy, I saw 59 mpg even though I inadvertently had the CVT in sport mode for the first four miles. Some thirteen participants in the competition averaged 66 mpg, and the winner achieved 69 mpg. Wayne Gerdes, the impresario behind cleanmpg.com and the person who coined the term “hypermiling,” was on hand to show us all up by achieving 78 mpg that day.
Seriously, though, the Insight is a smart move both for Honda and for consumers who’ve been intrigued by the hybrid craze but figured that the purchase of a hybrid simply “didn’t pencil out,” as Dan Bonawitz, American Honda’s vice president of corporate planning and logistics, so succinctly puts it. But the work that Honda has put into simplifying and reducing the cost of its IMA system has not been done solely for the benefit of penny-pinching tree huggers (the target market for the Insight is actually twenty-something singles and retired empty-nesters, two demographic groups who may have felt somewhat shut out of the Prius culture). Enthusiasts will see further benefits from Honda’s continued hybrid development in less than two years, when the company unveils a hybrid sport coupe inspired by the hot CR-Z concept hatch from the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show. Whether it will be called the CR-Z in production remains to be seen, but as for the prospect of an affordable, fun-to-drive, sharp-looking hybrid hatch from Honda that will be a modern-day, hyperefficient reincarnation of the seminal CRX? That sounds like a car even Toyota might want to copy.
2010 Honda Insight
BASE PRICE: $19,995 (est.)
ENGINE: SOHC 8-valve I-4
DISPLACEMENT: 1.3 liters (82 cu in)
HORSEPOWER: 88 hp @ 5800 rpm
TORQUE: 88 lb-ft @ 5800 rpm
BATTERIES: Nickel-metal-hydride, 101v
MOTOR/generator: Permanent magnet DC, 13 hp, 58 lb-ft
TOTAL HORSEPOWER: 98 hp
TOTAL torque: 123 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION TYPE: Continuously variable automatic
STEERING: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Torsion beam, coil springs
BRAKES F/R: Vented discs/drums, ABS
TIRE SIZE: 175/65SR-15
L x W x H: 172.3 x 66.7 x 56.2 in
WHEELBASE: 100.4 in
TRACK F/R: 58.7/58.1 in
WEIGHT: 2733-2785 lb
FUEL MILEAGE: 40/43 mpg (est.)
By adopting a profile almost identical to the second Toyota Prius, Honda establishes seventy-year-old German experimental-sedan ideas as “green” in no uncertain terms. Drive a car with this shape, and you’re a good environmentalist. Apart from the characteristic low-drag profile, this Insight is rather bland and anonymous, not much related to past Hondas, nor does it have much visual identity. It’s not bad, but Honda clearly could have done better with this significant product.
- The long-known but little-used Kamm/Koenig-Fachsenfeld roofline assures minimum aerodynamic drag, making people think Honda copied the Prius. Not true.
- This crisp line up the side derives from the upper edge of the front bumper and provides a base for the taillights.
- Seven-spoke aluminum wheels on EX trim are not as aerodynamic as the base LX’s plain wheel covers.
- The second crease, low on the sides and around the front and rear bumpers, helps stiffen the large, nearly flat door panels.
- The front corners are cut back, as on Honda’s S2000, for aerodynamic advantage. It helps parallel parking, too.
- The cowl is particularly high, presumably for pedestrian safety as well as for reduced drag gained by keeping an almost-monoform profile.
- The three-bar grille was not copied from the Ford Fusion, but it might as well have been, complete with its beveled outer edges.
- The sagging lower lip is not particularly attractive, but it ties the style to the for-lease-only hydrogen fuel cell Honda FCX Clarity.