Last year, Honda brought out the Insight hybrid to compete against the well-established, best-selling Toyota Prius hybrid. The 40-43 MPG Insight didn’t quite match the 50-plus MPG fuel efficiency of the Prius, but it was priced much more aggressively: $19,800 for the 2010 Insight vs. $22,000 for the 2010 Prius.
That put $2,200 back in your pocket – enough to buy more than 800 gallons of regular unleaded gas at current prices (about $2.70 per gallon), which works out to about 32,000 miles of driving assuming an average of about 40 MPGs.
In effect, the Honda came with three years’ worth of free gas as an incentive.
For 2011, Honda’s getting even more aggressive . The price of the Insight has been dropped to $18,200 – $3,450 less than the base price of the 2011 Prius ($21,650).
And that will buy you even more fuel – close to 1,300 gallons at current prices. Enough to travel about 50,000 miles.
Eventually, the Prius catches up. But how long do you want to wait for your savings?
You might want to take a look at the Insight if you’re in the market for a new hybrid.
WHAT IT IS
The Insight is a hybrid gas-electric five-door hatchback sedan similar in general layout and function to the best-selling Toyota Prius.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011
The big news is a big price cut for 2011. The Insight’s base price is $1,600 lower than it was last year.
All 2011 Insights also now come standard with Honda’s VSA stability control system – which was previously available only in the top-of-the-line Insight EX.
Does the same basic job as the Prius but costs a lot less to buy.
Honda dealers more likely to haggle than Toyota dealers.
Big enough to work as a “main car” for a small family. With the second row seats folded flat two people can sleep in the cargo area.
Futurama interior layout.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Like the Prius – and all other hybrids – the Insight does its best work on secondary roads at speeds of 40 mph or less. Drive it often on the highway at real-world speeds of 60-70 and real-world gas mileage (vs. the EPA Happy Talk) is within a few MPGs of what you’d get from a non-hybrid economy car like the 2011 Ford Fiesta (41 MPGs on the highway).
The Insight’s not-so-powerful powertrain sometimes really sweats to keep up with traffic
UNDER THE HOOD
The Insight’s hybrid powertrain consists of a 1.3 liter gas engine plus a 10 Kw electric motor and battery pack. The gas engine produces 88 hp and the electric motor/batteries the equivalent of 13 more for a combined total of 101 hp.
The transmission is a single-speed Continuously Variable CVT) automatic transmission.
The Insight is slow. It needs about 11 seconds to reach 60 mph on level ground with no passengers on board.
The payoff is the possibility of 40 mpg city/43 highway if you drive it slow.
ON THE ROAD
Like the Prius, the Insight can trundle along on its batteries and electric motor alone at speeds up to about 30 mph. The battery/electric motor also provide a supplemental power boost when the gas engine needs a little help.
Which is often. At least, the way I drive. Or, to be fair to the car, where I drive.
I live in the country and rarely have to deal with slow-moving, stop-and-go-traffic – the type of driving situation for which the Insight was optimized.
I do have to deal with steep grades and highways posted 70-75 MPH.
Neither is the Insight’s – or any hybrid’s – turf. The gas engine works hard to maintain 70 mph on anything other than a completely flat road; the engine will often spin to 80 percent of redline (about 4,000 RPM on a 6,000 RPM scale) and stay there until the terrain levels out or you hit a downhill section. It’s a little unnerving to listen to the engine struggling like this, just to keep up.
Real-world range when driven this way is mid-high 30s. Just ok.
Meanwhile a 2011 Ford Fiesta will deliver 41 MPG for $5,000 less up front and no hybrid equipment needed. The Fiesta’s about two seconds quicker to 60, too.
City driving is where you’ll get the most out of the Insight – out of any hybrid.
When you’re stopped at a light, the car’s computer controller will cut off the gas engine to conserve fuel that would otherwise be wasted. The Prius (and other hybrids, like the new Ford Fusion hybrid) does the same thing, but the Honda does it with greater sophistication. Even if the gas engine isn’t actually running (more precisely, its cylinders aren’t firing) its crankshaft is turning at all times – so that restarts are barely perceptible.
In other hybrids, the Prius included, you’d often feel a slight shudder/chugging sensation as the gas engine restarted.
The CVT transmission has a Sport mode and its “shift” characteristics can be controlled via F1-style paddle shifters (on EX trims) located on the steering wheel. These basically let you hold the transmission in a more aggressive setting for at least the feel of better acceleration. But with a zero to 60 time of about 11 seconds, the Insight is about 2-3 seconds off the pace of almost any conventional modern economy car.
A Ford Transit Connect is about the only thing that’s slower.
AT THE CURB
The Insight looks like a hybrid but it’s not as obviously hybrid as the Prius – nor as deliberately Geek Squad in terms of its controls.
It has, for example, a conventional key ignition and a floor-mounted shifter (the Prius has a toggle thing mounted on the center console that takes some getting used to). The digital readout speedometer has green-blue backlighting that shifts from deep green (most economical) to shades of blue (less economical) depending on how hard you’re working the powertrain – as a sort of visual cue to encourage high-mileage driving.
There is also a smaller display that you can scroll through by pressing the “i” button on the steering wheel to learn such things as instant and average economy as well as range and (like the Prius) whether you’re using the electric motor/batteries, the gas engine, or both.
The AC system is controlled by rotary knob to the right of the steering wheel, with fan speed just above that. No mice or menus to negotiate. If you want defrost or heat or whatever, you just turn the knob to the appropriate setting.
The rear doors are cut deeply into the back quarter panels and this makes them open extra wide and also creates a big opening to ease getting in and getting out. There’s not quite as much room back there once you’re in, though. On this score, the slightly larger Prius has a definite advantage, with almost three inches more rear seat legroom (36 inches vs. 33.5 inches for the Honda) and about two inches more headroom (37.6 inches vs. 35.9).
The back part of the Insight is a lot like what used to be called a Kammback layout, meaning the roof slopes gradually backward where it meets up with a fairly tall/vertical tail section – most of which lifts up when you raise the hatchback. This layout increases useable cargo space with the hatchback down, too (32 cubic feet, max) and also gives the interior a roomy and open feel.
There’s also a standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel and height adjustable driver seat.
During the week I had the Insight, the car got about 35-38 mpg driving at roughly 3,200 ft. and dealing with hilly terrain and average speeds around 50 MPH.
Mid-high 30s is ok, but if you do a little research you’ll find it’s about what an ’80s-era Geo Metro or Renault Le Car delivered – without all the complex/expensive hybrid technology. Why haven’t modern hybrids been able to outperform ’80s-era econocars when it comes to MPGs?
Modern cars – including hybrids like the Insight – are about 500 pounds heavier, on average, than the economy cars of the past – for two main reasons:
One, modern cars – including hybrid cars – almost all come standard with amenities such as air conditioning, power windows and locks, as well as more sound deadening, etc. – all of which adds weight.
Two, modern cars must comply with much stricter federal crasworthiness requirements – which requires more structural integrity, which usually means more steel – which usually means more weight. Also, new cars have to have multiple air bags, which also adds LBs.
Nothing wrong with better-equipped – and safer – cars. But it comes at a cost, both up front and at the pump. We could probably have 60 MPG economy compacts – if people were willing to drive strippers without things like AC and power options – and if the government relaxed its crashworthiness requirements. Neither is likely to happen – which is why the car industry builds $20k hybrids that can’t match the efficiency of $5k ’80s-era shitboxes.
The new base model Insight – with its much-reduced price – is a step in the right direction, though. And the car’s still well-equipped for commuter/everyday use – with standard AC and a decent CD-playing stereo with MP3 port.
All models come with ABS (with regenerative braking, which uses the vehicle’s momentum to help recharge the batteries) as well as front seat side impact and curtain air bags for both rows.
Another item: The brakes are disc/drum – which is arguably a plus in terms of service life and cost to service. Drum brakes are simpler and more durable; no expensive rotors to warp or $300 calipers to replace.Drum brake shoes often last 50,000 miles or more, too.
The Insight’s disc/drum layout is perfectly adequate for the type of driving this vehicle is likely to see.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While Toyota is still the acknowledged king of hybrids – having got the Prius to market first and having had the most success with it – the downside is that dealers are demanding – and getting – top dollar for the getting-pricey Prius.
You’ll also have to drive the Prius for several years at least to work off the difference in up-front costs.
Even a top-of-the-line EX Insight with voice-recognition navigation, upgraded alloy wheels, paddle shifters for the CVT and a premium six-speaker stereo is only $21,490 – less than the cost of the base version of the 2011 Prius.
So, if you want a new hybrid that’ll save you money as well as gas, the Insight’s definitely worth a test drive.