By JERRY GARRETT
IN designing the 2010 Insight, Honda’s goal was to create a hybrid car that was not just practical, but would be priced within reach of eco-conscious buyers on a budget, providing a greener choice to customers who cannot afford a Civic Hybrid or a Toyota Prius.
That may sound easy, but it was perhaps a more daunting challenge than it seems. Consider that a hybrid gasoline-electric car is a fairly complicated machine, given all its batteries, electric motors, sensors, clutches and so forth. For instance, in the current-generation Prius, 370 patents cover the drivetrain alone. No wonder most hybrids are priced thousands of dollars above the equivalent gasoline models.
Also, recent gains in the Japanese yen against the dollar are putting upward pricing pressure on the Insight, which Takeo Fukui, Honda’s president, has said he wants to hold below $20,000 for the base model.
Although Honda will not announce prices until shortly before the new Insight goes on sale in early April, the numbers take on added importance as Toyota prepares to sell a redesigned Prius, which is expected to get better mileage, later in the spring. If the Insight can’t beat the Prius on economy, it will need to be a compelling value.
Honda says the Insight will go 40 miles on a gallon in city driving and 43 on the highway. Those numbers don’t seem particularly hybridlike — the gasoline-driven Smart Fortwo is rated 33/41 — especially for a car whose namesake, the 2000-6 Insight, was renowned for an economy rating that briefly touched 70 m.p.g. (Under the recently revised government formula, the 2006 Insight would have carried a combined city-highway rating of 52 m.p.g.)
“The original Insight was a fuel-economy champ,” Kurt Antonius, an American Honda spokesman said. “But it came at the expense of practicality and price, which limited its market potential.” That original Insight was a two-seater with very limited cargo space.
The 2010 Insight, like the Prius, is a functional five-door hatchback. “The new Insight could have had better fuel economy,” the chief engineer, Yasunari Seki, told me in December. “But then it would have cost more.”
Though the new Insight gets significantly lower mileage than the original, Honda has loaded it with an array of gauges and displays intended to coach drivers to be more economical. For instance, the speedometer’s background color changes from blue to green as one’s driving becomes “more environmentally responsible.” Readouts reward the frugal driver with an “eco score”; if you excel, you win a digital trophy surrounded by a wreath.
Mind the gauges and you can optimize your mileage — often, in excess of the E.P.A. ratings. In my initial testing of the Insight, at the press preview in Arizona, I failed to beat the E.P.A. numbers. This was the case even when driving solely in “Econ” mode, which counters a driver’s most wasteful tendencies by dampening the throttle response, adjusting the air-conditioning and maximizing the electric assist.
But some other journalists who drove a similar test route said they topped 60 m.p.g. In later testing, I did as well.
So, obviously, your mileage may vary.
But even before the Insight goes on sale, Toyota may have trumped Honda’s new hybrid ace. The redesigned 2010 Prius, unveiled in January at the Detroit auto show, is said to achieve an industry-leading 50 m.p.g. And while Toyota suggests that its next Prius will beat the Insight on mileage, it is likely to cost considerably more; the 2009 Prius starts at $24,095 and can approach $28,000 fully loaded.
Beyond the matter of mileage, the Insight has other issues. Styling is one, for the stubby hatchback looks, frankly, like a knock-off of the 2004-9 Prius. Even if you don’t consider that design a bit homely, as I do, you have to concede that once the redesigned Prius is on the road, the look of the old one will start to seem stale. The Insight will be stuck wearing out-of-fashion clothes for the next five years or so.
Honda insists that it didn’t have much latitude in developing a more distinctive look. “You speak of a similarity to Prius, but the fundamentals of aerodynamics and packaging will lead designers to a similar place regardless of the brand,” Mr. Antonius said. “A Ferrari 599, Corvette and Aston Martins share similar shapes based on what their packages are trying to accomplish.”
Mr. Antonius suggested that the new Insight drew some styling cues from its namesake. Its distinctive nose evokes the FCX Clarity, an experimental Honda powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
Those who opt for green vehicles seem to like making a public greener-than-thou statement. Hybrid versions of the Honda Civic, Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Malibu suffer in this regard because it is hard to tell them from conventional gasoline-only versions.
But there is no doubt that the Insight is a hybrid, or that it is a Honda. Outside and in, the Insight is engineered and equipped like a full member of the family. It seems well thought-out, is faithfully executed and feels substantial, though not as plush as the Civic Hybrid. The two cars share some content, but the company could not say how much.
Power comes from a slightly smaller version of Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist system. There is a 1.3-liter, 98-horsepower 4-cylinder engine assisted by a 13-horsepower electric motor-generator. The new Insight cannot start out from a stop in all-electric mode, but it can run on electric power alone at very low speeds.
Honda says engine tuning was skewed more toward pep and punch than maximum economy, but the Insight still feels pokey on the road. In “Econ” mode it is even slower.
The biggest enemy here is not the engine, but the continuously variable transmission — no manual or conventional automatic is offered — which sounds as if it needs a trip to Aamco. The CVT is a compromise between the efficiency of a manual and the ease of an automatic, but it seems noisy and coarse because it lets the engine race seemingly out of sync with the car’s speed.
Worse, base models lack stability control, which flies in the face of Honda’s “safety for everyone” campaign. To get this safety feature you must upgrade to the more expensive EX, which includes cruise control, multifuction display, heated mirrors and intermittent wipers. So the base model with the lowball price may not be an attractive bargain after all.
Despite a curb weight of just 2,723 pounds, the base Insight feels steady on the road; it is well-mannered, predictable and nimble if not quick. It feels not unlike the current Prius, which is to say it seems a little less sophisticated than the Civic Hybrid.
The electric power steering is just responsive enough. The Insight is a convenient, easily park-able size. And it will theoretically seat five, though three adults would not want to share the back seat. The Insight is slightly smaller outside than the current Prius, but a bit larger inside.
The nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and electronics unit is compact enough to fit under the rear cargo floor. That allows the rear seat backs to be folded down (not possible in a Civic Hybrid). In that configuration, the cargo area is a relatively cavernous 16 cubic feet.
It appears that in most specifications, Honda used the current Prius as its baseline, and it made slight improvements all around. All of which may be moot if the new Prius turns out to be a significantly better car.
Rivalry aside, if you can forget for a moment that the Insight is a hybrid — yes, that would seem to defeat the purpose — you can consider it against the standards of regular vehicles. It slots logically into Honda’s lineup above the $15,000 Fit (which gets 35 m.p.g on the highway) and the $16,000 gasoline Civic (up to 36 m.p.g.) and below the $24,000 Civic Hybrid (45 m.p.g.)
In that context, the new Insight is worth consideration as a good economy car, hybrid or not.And isn’t it better to celebrate what the Insight is, rather than whine about what it is not?