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Video | 2019 Honda Insight: First Drive Review

The Insight may have been the first hybrid, but it’s always had an uphill climb to get attention: First because it was an oddity, and then because it just wasn’t as good as the car it unsuccessfully tried to emulate, the Toyota Prius.

Well, the new 2019 Honda Insight isn’t particularly odd, and in most ways seems to be just as good as a Prius, or better. It’s a well-rounded effort that should appeal to the hybrid faithfuls, as well as those who have previously shied away from such fuel sippers for various reasons. You know, too dull to drive. Too cheap inside. Too wacky to look at.

To the last point, Honda representatives said that focus groups indicated that many current Prius owners have been put off by the most recent model’s styling. They certainly wouldn’t be alone. That would seem to crack the door open for a different hybrid to earn some Prius loyalists, while attracting those seeking a more conventional and traditionally attractive vehicle. Though sharing much with the Honda Civic, the new Insight’s styling is far more in-keeping with the recently redesigned Honda Accord. It’s a classy silhouette with a hint of a fastback roofline and none of the over-adornment and boy-racer details of the Civic line.

There’s also nothing that screams "hybrid!" about it, as it eschews the traditional body style established by the 2004 Prius and shared by every generation thereafter, as well as the last Honda Insight and current competitors like the Hyundai Ioniq and Chevrolet Volt. Though this sedan body style means it lacks a more versatile hatchback cargo opening, the 15.1-cu ft. trunk is deep, useful and on-par with a midsize family sedan’s. This is the result of its battery pack being located under the back seat rather than under the cargo floor.

Great, But What About Fuel Economy?

The Insight LX and EX trim levels achieve 55 miles per gallon in the city, 49 mpg highway and 52 mpg combined. That latter number, which is quite often the best indicator of what you can expect in the real world, is exactly what most trim levels of the Toyota Prius get (54 mpg city/50 mpg hwy/52 mpg combined).

True, the special Prius Eco trim gets an advertising-friendly 56 mpg combined. The top Insight Touring trim also gets 48 mpg combined due to differences in tires and weight. However, in terms of actual, real-world fuel economy and the amount of gas you pump in, the difference is negligible, and it’s safe to say the two hybrids are essentially equal on paper.

This is impressive when you consider the new Insight has 30 more horsepower than the Prius, with a total system output of 151 hp. The differing way Honda’s hybrid system functions also results in a driving experience more similar to that of an electric car. You get a similar ultra-smooth acceleration feel, while the gasoline engine’s engagement is smoother and seemingly less frequent. Accelerator response is also superior, but that has more to do with tuning than the actual system’s design.

Nuts, Bolts and Batteries

Now, a brief word on how that design’s different than the Prius. Toyota’s system connects both the gasoline engine and the electric motor to the front wheels through an electronically controlled planetary gearset (e-CVT). The result is that the Prius can be powered by the electric motor, the gasoline engine or a combination of the two. In contrast, the Honda system relies in most instances on the electric motor to drive the wheels. That electric motor is powered by either the battery pack or by a generator fed by the gasoline engine. The only time the engine is actually connected to the wheels is during a constant highway cruise, but the switchover is imperceptible and the electric motor seamlessly re-engages when you need to accelerate or pass.

Generally speaking, we think many will prefer the behavior of Honda’s system to Toyota’s, though there’s certainly no shortage of droning engine noise when you accelerate hard. That’s about the same as the Prius, even if the acceleration itself is considerably quicker. Honda says it’ll outsprint the Prius from zero to 60 miles per hour by 1.5 seconds, which would put it in the 9-second range. That would be comparable to a Hyundai Ioniq or some of the slower compact sedans.

It’s Pretty Much a Civic Hybrid

As for the rest of the driving experience, the Insight boasts an agreeable ride-handling balance, reasonably communicative steering and a low, sporty driving position that collectively grants a more engaging, in-control feel than what you’d get in the Prius. Sure, Toyota’s trademark hybrid has improved dramatically with its most recent generation, but after back-to-back drives, the Honda remains the more engaging vehicle.

Frankly, it feels like what it is: a heavier, electrified Honda Civic. Although its face, hood, sides and tail are different, the roof and rear quarter panels are shared with the Civic. So, too, is its body structure and general dimensions. The suspension was altered and in some ways improved, including fluid-filled dampers on the Insight Touring for a smoother ride, but mechanically speaking, the Insight could easily be described as a replacement for the old Civic Hybrid. It’s certainly more similar to that than the old, half-hearted Insight that was last sold for 2014.

One final dynamic element worth noting is the brakes. Hybrids have typically been known for having unusual pedal response due to the switch off between the regenerative braking system needed to recharge the batteries and the traditional, hydraulically operated brakes needed to fully stop the car. Honda has corrected this by introducing a brake pedal connected to a servo, which then proportions braking power as needed to the appropriate braking system. The driver’s foot is therefore interacting with a completely artificial response, but it ultimately results in a more natural feel. You’re unlikely to know anything different is going on with the brakes, which is a very good thing.

A Ritzier Cabin

Inside, the 2019 Honda Insight represents a clear step up from not only the Prius, but every other dedicated hybrid. The quality of materials is much higher — not only can you see and feel this, but you can hear it as well, as the softer materials reduce echoing. The difference between the Insight and the Prius is immediately noticeable, even when going between a $23,000 base Insight LX and the priciest $33,000 Prius Four Touring. We’re guessing the cheaper Ioniq and its eco-sourced cabin plastics might yield an even starker juxtaposition.

Otherwise, the Insight is largely similar to the Civic in terms of its space — generous, even with four adults aboard — and design. The dash architecture is quite clearly shared, but there are enough tweaks here and there to make it unique. The Civic’s clever center console design is maintained, but a useful smartphone holder has been added along with Honda’s electronic shifter that admittedly can be annoying to operate. Above, the infotainment system rises out of the dash much like it does in the Civic, but the unit here is comparable to the newer Display Audio system found in the new Accord and Odyssey. There are physical menu buttons, a real volume knob and a saner menu structure, resulting in a substantially easier system to use. The base LX trim has the same 5-inch color audio display as the Civic, and does without the touchscreen’s standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (two features unavailable on the Prius).

Safety and Value

Safety tech is in abundance regardless of the trim you choose. Forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control are all standard, matching the Prius. The EX and Touring trims further add the Civic’s LaneWatch blind spot camera. You also get standard LED headlights and a multi-angle rearview camera.

Pricing starts at $23,725 for the LX trim, with the EX going up only to $24,995 despite its ample tech upgrade. A loaded Insight Touring is only $28,985. That compares to a loaded Prius Four Touring at $33,396, which by the best we can tell, has a comparable feature count (despite its detriments). A base Prius also starts at $24,685 in most markets despite having similar equipment as the Insight LX. A Hyundai Ioniq does best the Insight’s features-for-the-money proposition while also offering a better warranty, but its lower quality cabin and overall refinement are certainly worth noting.

In total, then, the 2019 Insight offers an impressively competitive mix of fuel economy, driving dynamics, interior quality, style and value. In many ways, it matches or betters its competitors on paper, while making a better impression in person. The Insight will always be the first hybrid, but it now finally has the opportunity to be considered broadly appealing.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle’s manufacturer.

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