When Honda introduced the Insight hybrid for the 2000 model year, it was a lightweight, 2-seat car with little everyday utility. Toyota's first-generation Prius (2001-2003) had four doors, but it was a subcompact that didn't offer much room, either. Toyota hit the jackpot when it introduced a larger, second-generation Prius in 2004. Suddenly, American families could buy a hybrid without sacrificing too much. Now, Honda is following suit, resurrecting the Insight as a larger, four-door car. And Honda reps say it's the least-expensive hybrid in the U.S., to boot.
The 2010 Honda Insight is offered in two trims, LX and EX. Standard features on the LX include cloth upholstery, automatic climate control, remote keyless entry, power windows and door locks, a 160-watt AM/FM/CD stereo with four speakers, a multi-information display and P175/65R15 tires on steel wheels with wheel covers.
Notable additions to the EX trim include heated side mirrors with turn signal indicators, cruise control, steering-wheel shift paddles, a USB audio interface, two additional speakers and alloy wheels. Another version of the EX comes with a navigation system, as well as a Bluetooth hands-free cell phone link, an iPod interface and additional steering-wheel controls.
Dual front airbags, front side airbags, curtain side airbags, active front head restraints, a tire-pressure monitor and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution are standard on all Insight trims. Traction control and electronic stability control are standard on EX trims.
Under the Hood
The 2010 Honda Insight features the next generation of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system. Honda says it has improved and strengthened its production methods to reduce the cost of the hybrid system. The IMA system uses an electric motor between the engine and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) to aid propulsion and turn the 1.3-liter i-VTEC 4-cylinder engine off at stoplights. In some steady cruising situations, at about 40 mph, the motor can propel the car for a short time without the aid of the engine. The engine produces 88 horsepower and 88 lb-ft of torque. Combined output with the electric motor is 98 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque.
Customers will be most interested in Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy ratings, which are 40/43 mpg (city/highway). That's 2 mpg less on the highway than the Civic Hybrid, and it trails the Toyota Prius by 8 mpg in the city and 2 mpg on the highway. The Insight qualifies as an Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (AT-PZEV).
Since Honda asserts the Insight is the cheapest hybrid on the market, it's no surprise that its interior reflects that fact. There is definite evidence that the Insight is built to a price, with lots of hard plastics, cheap carpeting and few amenities. LX trims lack a center console, and the EX has a small console bin that is little more than an armrest. The front of the center console has some useful space to put small items. It can be reconfigured to fit and separate various trinkets, but it lacks a rubber mat to keep things from sliding around.
The seats are of a higher quality than the rest of the materials. They are nicely contoured and more substantial than those of the Toyota Prius. The front seat has good headroom, but tall drivers may want more rearward seat travel. A standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel helps the driver find a comfortable driving position. The rear seat has decent legroom, but headroom will be tight for anyone over average height, and hip and shoulder room are limited. While Honda says the Insight seats five, three adults won't fit in the rear seat, at least not comfortably.
The rear seats fold in a 60/40 split, and they lie flat despite the fact that the hybrid batteries are located beneath them. With the seats up the Insight has 15.9 cubic feet of cargo space. With them down there is 33.9 cubic feet. Honda says three golf bags will fit in back with the rear seats up.
The real story of the interior is the multifaceted Ecological Drive Assist system, which encourages efficient driving techniques. Known more commonly as EcoAssist, the system has an Economy mode that is activated by a button (see the On the Road section), a guidance function and a scoring function. The guidance function starts with the digital speedometer, which is on the top level of Honda's signature bilevel instrument panel. It has a background that changes colors depending on driving techniques. Go hard on the gas or brakes and the background is blue. Drive less aggressively and it turns blue-green. Tread lightly and it becomes green. Those who want to get ideal fuel economy will teach themselves to keep the speedo green as often as possible.
Also included in the guidance function are various screens of the Multi-Information Display, which is mounted in the instrument panel. An energy flow screen shows when the motor is assisting the engine or powering the car, when gasoline is used, and when the engine is charging the battery. Another guidance screen shows instant and average fuel economy, and yet another screen has an "Eco Guide" bar that provides real-time feedback on braking and acceleration techniques. The farther you move the bar off center, the less efficiently you are driving.
Finally, the EcoAssist system's scoring function is found on two screens in the Multi-Information Display. One screen shows bar-graph fuel-economy estimates for the current trip and the last three trips. The other, more interesting screen grows leaves that become flowers as you drive more efficiently. This screen scores each trip and, upon turning off the car, gives lifetime results.
On the Road
The experience behind the wheel in the Insight is much like other Hondas. The steering is fairly sharp, with good road feel and light effort. As an economy car, the Insight isn't overly sporty, but it is more stable and less prone to body lean in turns than the Toyota Prius and many cars of similar size. Hustle the Insight into a corner, though, and it is prone to understeer, a condition in which the front end slides forward instead of turning, due mostly to the skinny tires.
Then again, people won't buy the Insight because it is sporty. They will most likely view the Insight as a comfortable car that doesn't bound over humps or pound over bumps. They also won't mistake it for a luxury car, in part because there is some noticeable tire and wind noise.
Power is predictably lacking. In everyday conditions the Insight will keep up with traffic and buyers will understand that they are trading power for fuel economy. Just don't expect to pass with ease.
Insight customers will be more interested in the hybrid driving experience. The IMA system turns off the engine at stops and seamlessly turns it back on. While the motor can't power the car alone under acceleration, like the Prius system can, it can act as the only source of power in low-speed cruising situations. It takes a light throttle foot to engage the motor exclusively, and it doesn't last long. Using the Econ mode dulls throttle and transmission response. It also reduces the blower fan speed, operates the air conditioning more often in recirculation mode, makes cruise-control acceleration more conservative and increases the use of the idle stop feature.
Right for You?
If you are looking for a small but roomy car that puts a premium on fuel economy, the 2010 Honda Insight is right for you. Honda's strategy to make the Insight the lowest-priced hybrid in America will make hybrid technology available to more buyers. Those who really want to be green will enjoy the Insight's EcoAssist system, which does a fine job of teaching efficient driving techniques.
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.