The 2010 Honda Insight looks like a cynical attempt to copy the Toyota Prius. It's not. Actually, the Insight is a very cynical and clever attempt to give Americans exactly what they want.
Remember the South Park episode "Smug?" All the uppity environmentalists drove around in whooshy little cars that looked like generic versions of the Toyota Prius. That distinctive shape has come to define the Hybrid vehicle in the American psyche more by luck than intention; Toyota arrived at the shape for the Prius by working out the most aerodynamic way to package a traditional five-passenger vehicle. The result looked like no vehicle before it. The 2010 Honda Insight takes the same approach and, unsurprisingly, arrives at a very similar answer. The Prius is actually more aerodynamic than the Insight (.26 Cd vs. .28), despite the latter's slightly smaller frontal area, overall size and a significant effort invested by Honda in areas like the partially flat undertray. If anything, the Honda's the better looking car, benefiting from its five year younger age, sharper lines and more refined detailing.
In that South Park episode people drove Hybrids because they wanted to feel "like they were doing something." No one seemed to have any idea what that meant. They didn't want to make any sacrifices to achieve whatever that "doing something" was, but they sure wanted their discretionary purchases to reflect their willingness to do it. What the Insight seeks to do is give people a way to be "a part of the solution, not the problem" for less sacrifice.
As you'd expect, a significant portion of that reduced sacrifice comes from the pricepoint. Honda hasn't yet released an official price, but its own hints and informed speculation pegs it somewhere in the $18,500 neighborhood. That's a reasonably large difference from the current 2009 model Prius, which starts at $22,000. If Honda can maintain that price differential, or maybe even increase it when the 2010 Toyota Prius is launched, it'll have a significant advantage over the segment leader.
But does the Honda offer less due to the lower price? Yes and no. The big question is fuel economy. In this, the Honda appears to fail. The Insight hasn't been EPA tested yet, but Honda estimates the results will be 40 MPG city, 43 highway, 41 combined. The 2009 Prius is officially EPA rated at 48/45/46. It'll be interesting to see how big that gap is when the 2010 Prius is revealed. Of course, the $2,500 price differential will buy an awful lot of gas.
But neither is the Toyota Prius is the most economical vehicle on the block. According to hypermiler Wayne Gerdes from CleanMPG.com, Honda's own European Civic I-CTDI is capable of returning significantly better fuel economy than either hybrid. Wayne managed to get 69.9 MPG out of the Insight while driving through a suburban area without using any of his extreme hypermiling techniques like massively over-inflated tires or coasting with the engine off. We're hypermiling neophytes with barely a fleeting interest in fuel economy, yet last year we saw 73 MPG from a Honda Civic I-CTDI.
Honda's decision to offer the less fuel efficient Insight in America as opposed to the Prius-killing Civic diesel can only have been made for one reason: Americans wanted the less efficient vehicle.
That's not to say that the Insight isn't a good car. It is, and that, in our minds, is its biggest success. Drive a Prius for any reason other than decent mileage and you'll be massively disappointed by the experience. It's not all that slow, but it is unresponsive and wallowy. The brake pedal feels weird due to the regenerative system and the whole thing is just sorta lacking. In contrast, the Honda is actually somewhat fun to drive. I mean, we're not talking Civic Type-R levels of hoonage potential, but imagine a little bit heavier Honda Fit and you wouldn't be far off. The Insight actually weighs 2,723 Lbs, the current Prius weighs 2,921 and the Fit weighs 2,359. Initial strangeness comes from the CVT, which, due the minimal amount of lightweight sound deadening used, leads to a raucous engine. Put your foot down and the tinny sounding note invades the cabin at a steady rate, it doesn't sound like normal acceleration. Honda doesn't quote a 0-60 time yet, but expect it to be in 11-12 second range.
Other than that, the fancy powertrain is virtually unnoticeable. Honda has gone to great lengths to seamlessly integrate the 1.3-liter i-VTEC gasoline engine and 10-kilowatt electric motor, you'll have to be paying attention to the gauges to tell when one is working and the other's not.
The Insight is also a remarkably practical vehicle given its overall size and low roofline. The giant hatch lifts to nearly vertical, revealing a capacious trunk and 60/40 seats that fold nearly flat. Rear legroom is a little cramped for adults and a little smaller than the Prius, but the Insight has 1.5cubic feet more cargo room than the larger Prius. All the hybrid gubbins are cleverly integrated and stowed under the spare tire, which is under the flat cargo floor. The fuel tank is under the rear seats.
The Insight's other big trick is the Eco Assist system. Like Ford with its Fusion Hybrid, Honda has acknowledged that drivers are the biggest determining factor in its vehicles' ability to sip gas. The Eco Assist system helps drivers drive more economically by giving them the information and encouragement to do so, but also employing an Econ mode that provides a little help on the way. That gauge set isn't quite as informative as the Fusion Hybrid's Smartgauge system, nor a sexy, but it is more intuitive, using a simple speedo backlight that glows green when you're being responsible, fading to dark blue as you use more fuel. There's also a complicated, and somewhat tacky system of growing leaves that help track your overall performance.
The Econ button is capable of making the Insight about 10% more efficient on its own. Think of it like Prozac for cars, evening out the peaks and valleys of your throttle inputs, turning the engine off earlier when coming to a stop, running the A/C more efficiently and telling the cruise control to use less throttle. It's a welcome aid for when you don't want to pay attention to driving slowly, while the gauges should train drivers to do exactly that in the long term.
Unlike that South Park episode, we don't think this hybrid is going to lead to a Smug attack capable of destroying the world. Rather, it's going to allow people who want to be seen to drive a hybrid a cheaper way to have their supposedly green credentials immediately recognized by like-minded hypocrites while giving buyers a better driving, more practical vehicle than they likely bargained for. Is it going to save the world? No. But it is going to cash in the well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided desire a lot of people have to do so in a big way.