2010 Honda Insight hybrid is mostly agreeable
By James R. Healey, USA TODAY
CAREFREE, Ariz. — Honda's 2010 Insight gasoline-electric hybrid isn't the substantial, comfortable car that its Civic hybrid is, nor does it deliver the 50 miles per gallon promised by Toyota for its update of chief rival Prius.
But if Honda prices it low enough, Insight finally could make full-fledged hybrid technology available to car buyers with tighter budgets.
Insight goes on sale April 22 — Earth Day, in case you need a reminder of why to save fuel.
Generally, the Insight preproduction test cars driven here proved to be nice machines — mostly agreeable and easily capable of hitting the mileage ratings — with a few annoyances.
Honda officials here pitched Insight as a clever, handy, affordable small car that just happens to use hybrid technology for good fuel economy. It's a complete gas-electric hybrid system, not a so-called mild hybrid, but scaled down from the similar setup in the Civic hybrid (Test Drive, Jan. 9), so it doesn't perform as well.
Expect Insight to be rated 40 mpg city, 43 highway, 41 combined. Civic hybrid's rated 40/45/42.
It's hard to call 40 mpg disappointing, but in this case it is. The smaller, lighter Insight, using a smaller-displacement gasoline engine, seems to be an underachiever. Honda says that's partly because Insight's tuned for a little more punch, to make driving more fun, at the expense of fuel economy.
Honda's given no clue about pricing, so it's hard to say if Insight's a good value. Civic hybrid and the 2009 Prius both start at about $23,000. The less-lavish and smaller Insight should be considerably lower if logic is part of the pricing formula.
Toyota hasn't disclosed the price for the redone 2010 Prius — to go on sale in about six months — partly because it first wants to see what price tag Honda puts on Insight.
Here are Insight's salients, based on a day driving the two versions of Insight that Honda expects most people to buy, along with a 2009 Prius and 2009 Civic hybrid. The Insight is:
•Sporty, firm. Insight is more agile than the 2009 Prius; less so than the Civic hybrid. The 2010 Prius is an unknown quantity.
•Small and feels like it. Back-seat users have to duck and twist to avoid head-whacking when they get in or out. Headroom in back is limited. Expect your head to rub the ceiling if you're close to 6 feet tall, or are average height and wear a hat.
•Not especially comfortable on the rump and back. Despite what Honda said was considerable effort to make Goldilocks seats (juuust right), front seats lack lumbar adjustments.
•Pretty smooth. If the preproduction test cars were representative, drivers will feel fewer subtle but annoying shimmies and jerks that are an unfortunate signature of most hybrid drivetrains.
•Driver-friendly. The "econ" button, which changes the drivetrain programming to trade a little better fuel economy for less-lively performance, stays off if you turn it off. It doesn't reset, nanny-like, to the econ mode when you next start the car.
"Attaboy" driver feedback is plentiful but delivered subtly. If you consistently drive smoothly enough for best mileage, the instrument panel starts awarding you figures of leaves, growing into a wreath if you're really light-footed. It takes into account whether you're driving in mountains, on the plains or in between, so Insight drivers in flat states don't necessarily get the eco eye candy sooner.
Lighting in the digital speedometer glows green when you're driving most efficiently, blue when you're driving hard, blue-green in between.
For those not good at taking hints, a moving bar in a modest-size gauge directly shows if you're using up the battery's charge or replenishing it.
•Feels like a hybrid. The continuously variable automatic transmission has the unpleasant slipping-clutch sound and feel found in most hybrids. Hit the throttle, and the CVT lets the engine rev fast and stay there while the car accelerates at a pace out of sync with the roaring engine. Eventually, the car's going fast enough that the engine slows and everything's peaceful. Until you need immediate power again.
If the complaints seem insignificant on your auto barometer, then all you need is for Honda to set a price. Too close to Prius or Civic hybrid and Insight's a bad buy. If it's down in true economy-car territory, the car's appeal grows considerably.
About the 2010 Honda Insight
•What? New compact, four-door, front-drive hatchback model sold only as gasoline-electric hybrid.
•When? On sale April 22 (Earth Day).
•Where? Made in Japan.
•Why? Honda needed a Toyota Prius fighter, a hybrid-only model, unique and recognizable as such.
•How? Scale down the Civic hybrid's drive system.
•How much? Honda won't say until closer to sale date, but promises it'll be priced as an economy car.
•How potent? Not very. Four-cylinder, 1.3-liter gas engine rated 98 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, 123 pounds-feet of torque at 1,000 rpm. Electric motor: 10 hp, 53 lbs.-ft. Continuously variable automatic transmission.
•How lavish? Base LX is surprisingly deficient: no stability control, center storage or map lights. Honda expects 65% of buyers to take the fancier EX. Navigation, Bluetooth optional on EX.
•How big? Compact, smaller than Prius, between Honda Fit and Civic. 172.3 inches long, 66.7 inches wide, 56.2 inches tall on a 100.4-inch wheelbase, 2,723-2,734 lbs.
Passenger space: 85 cubic feet; cargo, 15.9 cubic feet behind rear seat, 31.9 cubic feet when seat's down.
•How thirsty? Honda expects federal ratings of 40 miles per gallon in town, 43 highway, 41 combined. Preproduction EX tester got 48.8 mpg on Honda-selected route including hills, curves, highways and suburbs, but no stop-and-go.
Regular (87-octane) gas specified.
•Overall: Not refined enough if priced near Civic hybrid or Prius. Worth a hard look if priced as economy car.