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    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Jul 2006
    The Land of The Edentulites

    2010 Honda Insight hybrid

    Toyota has been building its Prius hybrid for a decade - and until this year, it had no real direct competition.

    There have been other hybrid vehicles, it's true - but they were pretty much all "mild" hybrids that used their electric motors and batteries to supplement the gas-burning engine. What made the Prius special was that it could move on pure battery/electric motor power alone - all the way up to 30 mph or so.

    Now there's another hybrid sedan that does a similar trick - and for thousands less than the cost of a new (and getting pricey) Prius.


    The Insight is a hybrid gas-electric five-door hatchback sedan similar in size, general layout and function to the best-selling Toyota Prius. But its base price of $19,800 (for the LX) is $2,200 less than the $22,000 base price of the 2010 Prius.


    The Insight name has been used before - back in the late 1990s, when Honda tried it out on a two-seater hybrid commuter - but other than this distant association, the 2010 Insight is an all-new model for Honda.


    Does the same basic job as the Prius but costs a lot less to buy. 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. Simple/functional - but sporty-looking - interior layout.


    Like the Prius (and all other hybrids) the Insight does its best work on secondary roads at speeds under 55 mph. Drive it often on the highway at real-world speeds of 70-ish or so 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 ... and the Insight's powertrain is really working to keep up.


    The Insight's powertrain consists of a small, 1.3 liter gas engine plus an electric motor and battery pack. The gas engine produces 88 hp and the electric motor/batteries the equivalent of 13 more (plus almost 60 additional lbs.-ft. of torque).

    The transmission is a single-speed CVT - Continuously Variable Transmission.

    The Insight 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 with a light foot.


    Like the Prius, the Insight can trundle along on its batteries and electric motor alone at speeds up to 30 mph or so. The battery/electric motor also provide a supplemental power boost when the gas engine needs a little help - as when accelerating (or trying to).

    When you're stopped at a light, the car's systems will typically cut off the gas engine to conserve fuel that would otherwise be wasted. The Prius 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 previous hybrids, the Prius included, you'd often feel a slight shudder/chugging sensation as the gas engine restarted).

    The CVT transmission, though it doesn't have 4-5 forward gears to run through, nonetheless 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 (on flat land at sea level with just the driver on board) of about 11 seconds, the Insight is about 2-3 seconds off the pace of almost any conventional modern economy car.

    With passengers on board or on the highway, the Insight's ability to get going is often iffy. To maintain 70 mph, for example, 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 scream like this, just to keep up.

    Mileage suffers, too.

    I was averaging about 40 mpg driving at roughly 3,200 ft. and dealing with hilly terrain and speeds around 60-ish. That's 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. Reason? Modern cars (including hybrids like the Insight) are on average much heavier (by about 500 pounds) than the economy cars of the past, to a great extent because the government requires that new cars achieve a certain level of crashworthiness and come with things like multiple air bags, etc.

    Nothing wrong with safer cars, of course. But safety has its price. We could easily have 60 (and perhaps even 70 mpg) economy compacts with conventional internal combustion engines if the automakers were allowed to build cars like the '80s-era Geo Metro and or LeCar again but updated with modern engine management technologies. They'd be less "safe," it's true - but in exchange for a possible increased risk of injury if you got into a serious wreck, you'd get the guaranteed, every day benefit of extremely high fuel efficiency.

    Unfortunately, Uncle Sam has made that choice for us.


    The Insight is sleek and futuristic but not as far out as the Prius. 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 a little 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 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.

    The AC system is controlled by a superbly simply 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.

    A blessing!

    There's also a standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel and height adjustable driver seat.


    Hondas are generally very good bets - both quality and safety wise. They tend to be well-engineered and (historically) free of major defects. Resale values tend to be high; depreciation rates better than average. The Insight seems to fit the pattern, with the exception of a few small and hard-to-notice areas of cost-cutting such as the lack of clearcoating on the paint inside the door jambs (and the underside of the trunk), etc. That doesn't hurt anything - and it helps the Insight undercut the Prius on price. It's just not as appealing as perfect, high-gloss paint in every nook and cranny.

    The base LX doesn't come with traction control (it's standard on the higher trim EX) but the truth is with barely 100 hp on tap it's really not needed anyhow. You'd be hard-pressed to spin the tires on anything but a sheet of black ice.

    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.

    The brakes are disc/drum - which is arguably a plus in terms of service life and cost to service (drum brakes are more durable; no expensive rotors to warp or $300 calipers to replace). The Insight's disc/drum layout is perfectly adequate for the type of driving this vehicle is likely to see.


    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 top dollar for the getting-pricey Prius (which can come close to $30,000 when fully equipped with all the bells and whistles). The Insight starts out some two grand cheaper, a difference it would take years to amortize in the Prius, despite its better EPA mileage ratings. Even a top-of-the-line EX Insight with navigation is only $23,00 - barely more than the cost of the base version of the 2010 Prius.

    Now, the Prius is a little larger - which will matter if you need to carry adults in the back seat. And it's noticeably quicker - which will be important if you like a little performance with your economy.

    But the Insight's combination of comparable efficiency and a much lower asking price will almost certainly steal away some sales from Toyota.
    Last edited by Eric; 07-13-2009 at 01:38 PM.

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