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2010 Honda Insight: This Year's Hot New Hybrid…Or is it Just Really Hot Inside?

Honda_2010_Insight_rear34.JPGTo me, it’s actually amazing that it’s taken this long for someone to come up with another “dedicated” hybrid considering the runaway success of Prius. Much of Prius’ success is directly linked to the fact that it is immediately recognizable as a hybrid. The car’s looks make a huge statement; simply driving one makes a statement about your priorities and values.
So, enter the similarly distinct new Insight, which once it’s common enough, will also be immediately recognizable as a hybrid. Not to be confused with the dinky two-seater of the same name (which was actually the first hybrid sold in America), this new Insight invites inevitable comparisons to Prius. They both have five doors and have similar proportions. And of course, both are dedicated hybrids. However, both Toyota and Honda are quick to point out that their hybrids are different types of cars that have different missions in life. It’s easy to dismiss that as marketing-speak, but having now spent considerable time behind the wheel of both the Insight and the brand-new third generation Prius, I can definitely say that these are in fact apples and oranges we’re talking about here.

Honda_2010_Insight_interior.JPGFor one, there’s a significant gap in terms of price. Insight starts at $19,800, and it’s specifically meant to be an affordable hybrid. Prius on the other hand starts at $22,000. Our fully optioned Insight stickered at just under $24,000, but a fully loaded Prius can top $32,000. Also significant is the difference in size. They may look superficially similar, but the Insight is actually a much smaller car. The Insight is also devoid of the sort of gadgetry we associate with Prius. You have to start the car with a key, there’s a mechanical handbrake sprouting up from between the front seats, and there’s no backup camera or self-parking feature. Oh, and unlike Prius, Insight cannot move on electric power alone. The engine shuts down at stoplights, but otherwise, the gasoline engine is always running.
Ok, so we get it: the Insight is a simpler, cheaper, and perhaps more sensible way to join the hybrid masses. But how well does it work?
Honda_2010_Insight_side.JPGIn terms of the actual drive experience, it’s not bad. I did find it underpowered and noisy when accelerating hard, but I can forgive that to some degree because it’s decently fun to hustle around corners. Over the course of a week under the hands of VehicleVoice drivers, our Insight achieved 44.3 mpg. That trumps the Insight’s official EPA fuel economy figures of 40 city and 43 highway. But it’s still a bit less than my typical results from either the second or the new third generation Prius models.
While Insight may cost $2,300 less than Prius, I would say that it’s $2,300 less car too. The rear seat is very tight on headroom whereas the Prius happily swallows back seat drivers. The interior looks like a conventional econobox interior as opposed to the starship deck styling of the Prius’ cabin. And as I already mentioned, Insight can’t match Prius’ fuel economy despite being smaller and lighter. That certainly negates at least some of the up-front savings that Insight offers.
Honda_2010_Insight_dashboard.JPGHowever, my biggest gripe is its lack air conditioning that works while the gasoline engine is stopped. Because conventional air conditioning runs off the gasoline engine, early hybrids would start blowing warm air through the vents when the engine shut down. Most modern hybrids now have air conditioning that can run on electricity alone in order to keep occupants comfortable even when the engine is stopped. But the new Insight does not have this feature despite the fact that Honda’s own Civic Hybrid (not to mention Prius) does. Again, this is likely to keep the cost down, but as a Southern Californian, the lack of this feature would be reason enough for me to pony up the extra cash for a Prius. Daytime temperatures during the weekend I had the car were in the low seventies, but during extended city driving I actually broke into a light sweat. Not good.
So in the end, the Insight is a pretty good car, but you do get what you pay for. I applaud the idea of making hybrid technology more accessible, but Insight ownership does entail quite a few compromises in terms of size, comfort, and even fuel economy – which is the whole point of getting a hybrid in the first place. Stretching a bit to get a Prius or even Honda’s Civic Hybrid (which actually gets slightly better fuel economy than Insight) could be worth it to many would-be buyers.

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