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Honda Insight: A hybrid sucker punch to Prius

honda-insight-frontCould the Honda Insight be the sucker punch of hybrid cars?

After a four-day test drive, I’m ready to give it pretty good odds.

It was just a few years ago that hybrids — cars powered by both electricity and petrol — were perceived mostly as the preferred mode of transportation for smug LA celebs and hardcore tech-heads. Since then, however, hybrids have become more widely available to, and accepted by, the masses.

Still, say “hybrid” today and many people will immediately think “Prius.” It’s almost as reflexive a response as “Muhammad Ali” might be when someone says to you, “heavyweight champion.”

But where there was Ali there was also Joe Frazier, known for his vicious left hooks against his rival. In hybrid car terms, the Honda Insight is Joe Frazier.

The Insight’s left hook? Its price. Sold for around £2,000 less than the Prius, the Insight could — in these tough economic times — emerge as the next heavyweight contender of hybrid cars.

If the price is right, though, the appeal is lacking somewhat. The Insight has a combination of good luxury technology options — many as standard — but it also comes with scratchy (dare I say it? — cheap) interior materials, which makes the car more of a vehicle simply to drive rather than something to drive in.

(Like it or not, you know any car you buy automatically becomes an exterior embodiment of yourself. And while hybrids might have started out having boxy, plain and even boring skins for their high-tech guts, they’re now as sharply designed as any other car — perhaps even moreso as buyers want to show off their green credentials.)

“We wanted the car to be widely accepted,” creative chief designer Motoaki Minowa says of the Insight. “If we just created an environmentally-friendly car it could have looked dull, or boring. We wanted to insert a sporty factor to make the car more appealing — and after all, sportiness is in Honda’s DNA.”

honda-insight-rearIn reality, however, Honda has just half-succeeded at that goal. The front of the Insight looks good — genuinely stylish for a hybrid. The back, on the other hand, is frankly nondescript and “hybridish.” Yes, designers face special challenges with environmentally friendly cars due to the aerodynamic constraints of keeping the vehicles as “slippery” as possible. But it seems Mr. Minowa’s team fell asleep at the design table while crafting the rear end of the Insight.

And as for “sporty”? That was one of the last words to come to mind when driving this new Honda.

Still, maybe the designers were more focussed on the Insight’s new ECON switch. Now that’s essentially a software kidney punch to the Prius.

When activated by the driver, the ECON switch changes the car’s “brain” to adopt specific settings to improve fuel consumption. It does this by adjusting the gearing to be smoother and easier, managing the air conditioning and softening the throttle response. Better yet, it’s easy to use.

The ECON switch not only makes for more efficient driving, both fiscally and environmentally, but makes the driving experience itself generally better: you don’t drive the car hard enough to make the hard ride unbearable, or to hear the noisy engine when passing into the higher revs.

On my four-day Insight test drive, I averaged 52 miles per gallon on a weekend trip through both city and motorways … which is good in anyone’s book. But this car also gave me an automotive education in efficiency.

How so? Well, the ECON feature offers a visual guide with five trees — the more recklessly you drive, the more leaves the trees shed. I tested the system by driving like a looney in an attempt to machete all the trees down. After deforesting my LCD display, it took a good hour of driving in the green illuminated zone on the speedometer to replenish the leaves … and I felt a better man for it. It was like Jeremy Kyle or Doctor Phil had cured all my driving problems. The only disadvantage of this computerised LCD game is that your eyes tend to fixate on the animations and not the road, potentially killing more wildlife than you save.

Overall, the Honda Insight proved itself to me as a good entry-level hybrid car. And the stats show that plenty of others agree: in fact, the Insight was the first hybrid model ever to top the new car sales tables in Japan. The vehicle could probably gain even more customers if the designers took a few additional steps to appeal to the design-conscious cynics. With features such as ECON and a bit further development, the Insight has more than enough potential to knock out the Prius.

2009 Honda Insight

Price: From £15,890.00. (Price tested £20,915.00)
Engine: 87HP 1.3 I-VTEC petrol engine and 14HP electric motor
Max speed: 113 MPH
0-62 MPH: 12.5 sec
Combined MPG: 61.4
Emissions CO2(g/km): 105


  • Rob Ashwell
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 8:24 am

    80mpg, really? From a car that size… really?

    In reality, it’s not so much a sucker punch to the Prius, but instead further evidence that lightweight and aerodynamic car driven in the correct way will deliver greater gains in efficiency than hybrids – see VW’s BlueMotion Polo (64mpg) and Seat’s equivalent as well as Top Gear’s Prius vs. M3 fuel efficiency race.

    Also, from what I understand, the process to create a hybrid battery system is a truly nasty one and probably not worth the gains in CO2.

  • John
    Posted August 4, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    I can’t say that 52mpg sounds very impressive to me – I usually get around 60mpg in my Skoda Octavia diesel (this drops to 50 if I – as you say ‘drive like a looney’ – and goes up to 80 if I stick behind a big truck on a motorway trip.)
    I suppose this reaffirms what one of your other stories today says: there aren’t big environmental benefits if hybrids replace other efficient small engines.
    If hybrids give a ~50% efficiency gain over a straight petrol engine, bringing it up to diesel mpg levels, why is no-one building small diesel hybrids (perhaps 100mpg?)

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