At first I had no idea what this all-new 2019 Honda Insight was supposed to be. Was it an Accord? Why would Honda re-use the name of a car nobody really liked? And would it bring any joy to drivers? But I found out what it is. It’s a hybrid for the Normals among us.
(Full Disclosure: Honda wanted us to drive the 2019 Insight so bad that it lured us to Minnesota with a ride in a HondaJet. To be totally honest, I didn’t really want to drive the Insight. It seemed fine. And it was. But I took the bait. Honda flew me in on a regular jet so that I could drive the Insight in the morning and then hell yeah I got my ride in the HondaJet. The HondaJet went faster than the HondaCar.)
Most importantly, the Honda Insight is a Honda Civic. Really, it is. It’s got the same wheelbase, much the same interior, even the same chassis. So why not name it the Honda Civic Hybrid, since, you know, there’s already been one of those too? It doesn’t even have the same depression associated with it as “Insight.” The first generation Insight, if weird and teardrop shaped, wasn’t as bad as the one of most recent memory, which even one Honda rep sheepishly agreed was sad and frumpy.
But Honda focus group’d the hell out of it, and discovered that despite whatever connotations “Insight” may have, people at least recognized it as A Thing more than “Honda Civic Hybrid.”
Instead of trying to make an oddball, or creating a dowdier Prius, Honda’s tried to go a third route with this third Insight. In fact, Honda took one look at the current-gen Prius, which looks a bit like it was styled by the design team of the Covenant from Halo, and decided there was room in the market for a hybrid car that looks like, well, A Car.
If you’re looking for Civic DNA, though, you’re going to have to squint a bit. Honda says that the only body bits the Insight and the Civic share are the roofline and the rear quarter panel, so that pretty much everything else you’d notice–the doors, the hood, the trunk, the face–are all different.
The end result of all this body-swapping is, however, that it’s all very inoffensive. Which is probably what Honda was going for, judging from the section on focus groups (yes really) the company made us sit through during the car’s presentation
If you spring for the top-trim Touring model everything’s all nice on the inside, too. There’s leather on the seats and a nicely-sized 8-inch screen, which, in a departure for Honda models of late, comes with actual buttons and dials(!) to press and turn. A revolution, surely, perhaps encouraged by those focus groups swatting away at a ridiculous touchscreen every time they just wanted to change the volume. There’s even a space that’s intentionally sized for your phone, even though it’s not a charging pad or anything.
If you get the base LX model, though, the leather goes away, replaced with fabric. The big navigation screen shrinks, replaced by a smaller, sadder one. The single LX that Honda had on hand for us to try wasn’t bad in any way. It was just supremely Point A-to-Point B transportation, which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for. Whereas the Touring model felt nice, the LX somehow already had faint whiff of rental car, or the scent of the car that you’re weirdly hippie friend with all the bumper stickers and yurts drives.
But that doesn’t mean Honda skipped on the whiz-bang tech.
Even if you get the base model, the Insight is surprisingly loaded at its starting MSRP of $22,830. Every Insight comes with active noise cancelling pouring out of the speakers, along with adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist (which turns the wheel slightly if it feels you’re going out of lane), and a camera that can actually read traffic signs to let you know what the speed limit is. Plus all the regular safety stuff that comes on new cars nowadays, such as automatic emergency braking and a backup camera. And if you spring for that top-of-the-line model, you get another camera to help you change lanes to the right and a navigation system.
And all of that is fine, but what’s really got the interest of the geek in me is the drive system, which mostly works as a series hybrid like a diesel locomotive, or the old Fisker Karma. Which means it has no transmission.
Let me repeat that – Honda says the 2019 Honda Insight has no transmission at all.
The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine up front only works as a generator, powering the batteries, which then use electricity to power electric motors, which drive the wheels. Until the car reaches 65 mph, at which point the engine is connected to the wheels, but solely in lock-up with said wheels. Which, in effect, doesn’t mean jack squat to the average Honda Insight buyer, but hey, interesting.
Which is more than can be said about driving the car from an enthusiast’s perspective.
Honda took great pains to basically say that if you’re the sort of person who considers yourself to be a Driving Enthusiast, then maybe you should be looking at a Civic Type R instead. Or maybe a McLaren P1, if you insist upon a hybrid because it’s *eco-friendly*. While the regular Civic is not what I would consider an “uncomfortable” car in any sense of the term, Honda went out of its way to make the Insight even more comfortable.
Which doesn’t mean that it floats and wafts along like some sort of old Lincoln. It’s just comfortable, and instead of encouraging you to push fast, it sees you getting a little antsy and goes “how about you relax, buddy? I think there’s a lemonade in the cup holder.” And lo, a lemonade appears in the cupholder.
(Please note: you must supply your own lemonade.)
Truth be told, it’s fine. Driving it is fine. The end result of having no transmission and a direct link to the wheels is that it feels like a slow-ish CVT transmission. You’ll be fine. You won’t Truly Live, but you’ll be fine.
The 151-horsepower, 197 pound-feet of torque engine/electric combo gives you more than a Toyota Prius, though that’s not saying much, even considering the yardstick. It’s not that it’s unsafe in any way. In fact, it’s very safe. You’ll get up to highway speeds without fear of being run down by a Mack, and the overly-boosted steering doesn’t ever put you astray.
It gets you 55 miles per gallon, which is impressive in a car that just feels totally normal. Like a Civic would.
There’s a kickdown pedal, which I suppose is okay, and a sport button, which sharpens up the throttle and pipes more noise into the cabin (seemingly through the speakers) and also there are weird paddle shifters.
Yes, I know I said it had no transmission. But there are paddle shifters. Honda’s product people said that the paddle shifters adjust the regeneration level of the electric motors, and were put in as paddle shifters as they seek to emulate a “downshift” effect. But they didn’t. I could barely tell they were changing anything at all. You just hit the “downshift” paddle and then it... slows, ever so imperceptibly? And then you hit the upshift paddle under HARD ACCELERATION, and then nothing seems to happen whatsoever.
It’s not a vehicle for fast driving enthusiasts, that much becomes apparent the first time you try to smoke the thing’s high efficiency tires. But if you get enthusiastic about efficiency, the Insight might almost seem exciting. For everyone else, it’s just a fine and compliant and reasonably comfortable way to get from one place to another.
And you know what?
It’s fine. The Honda Insight was fine. It’s a fine car for fine people who are just doing fine. It’s a hybrid for people who just want a car that’s fine, that doesn’t look weird or drive weird, that won’t be amiss in a sea of Civics.
And I guess that’s fine, too.