By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
There are two hybrid models on the market that address what’s arguably the most persuasive argument against buying a new hybrid:
They cost too much.
Or, to put a finer point on it: Their cost to buy is too high relative to what you’ll save on fuel. A new Toyota Prius, for instance, has a base price of $24,200 and for that you get 51 city, 48 highway — which is very good. But for about $14k, you could also buy a conventional non-hybrid economy car like a new Nissan Versa Note hatchback (decently equipped, with AC and all the necessaries) and get 31 city, 40 highway — which isn’t quite as good, of course. But you’ll also have spent $10,200 less up front — the difference in price between the Prius and the Versa — which you can then put toward gas.
How many years of driving will it take before the Prius actually saves you money vs. the Versa — as opposed to merely using less gas?
Enter the Honda Insight hybrid — and its similarly budget-conscious rival, the Toyota Prius C. Both cost much less than other hybrids: $18,725 (base price) for the Honda and $19,080 for the Toyota. They also get very good gas mileage — 41 city, 44 highway in the case of the Insight. And the roughly $4,000 you save “up front” on either relative to a standard Prius (or Ford C-Max/Fusion hybrid) makes the Insight’s “down the road” economy all the more, well, economical.
But is the Insight the better choice vs. the Prius C?
WHAT IT IS
The Insight is a five-door hatchback with a hybrid gas-electric powertrain. It is a larger vehicle overall than its price-equivalent rival, the Toyota Prius C — but the C actually has more space for passengers inside (as well as a roomier back seat) and its fuel efficiency is superior: 53 city/46 highway vs. 41/44 for the Insight.
The Honda’s base price of $18,725 is however slightly lower than the Prius C’s base price of $19,080 — and you’d probably be able to wrangle a better deal on the Insight because of the Toyota’s greater popularity.
The Insight has received a few minor but worth-mentioning tweaks, including an exterior an interior cosmetic refresh (new front and rear clips, grille design, tail lights; revised gauge cluster, etc.) and slightly
wider tires — to improve the car’s handling.
Cost to buy is not too far removed from the cost of a well-equipped non-hybrid economy car — so you save money overall sooner.
Sportier-looking than either Prius.
Better mileage on the highway than in town.
Honda dealers more likely to haggle than Toyota dealers.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Prius C’s mileage stats are better — and its back seat much roomier.
Like the Prius, 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 70-plus 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 Nissan Versa Note mentioned earlier.
Not-so-powerful powertrain sometimes sweats (and squeals) trying to keep up with traffic.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Insight’s hybrid powertrain consists of a 1.3 liter gas engine teamed up with a 10 Kw electric motor and nickel-metal hydride (NiMh) battery pack. The gas engine produces 88 hp and the electric motor/batteries the equivalent of 13 more — for a combined total output of 98 hp and 123 ft.-lbs. of torque.
A continuously variable (CVT) automatic is the standard transmission. CVTs are fully automatic, but don’t shift through a fixed series of forward gears like a conventional automatic. Instead, they continuously vary the “gear” you’re in at any given moment to make the most of the engine’s power — and to maximize efficiency. This is achieved by using a pair of adjustable pulleys and a drive belt; the pulleys increase or decrease their diameter to alter the “gear” you’re in, based on how fast you’re going and how hard you’re pushing down on the gas pedal. The chief noticeable difference between a CVT and a conventional automatic is there’s no sensation of up (and down) shifts. The car accelerates forward, almost turbine-like. The downside — vs. a conventional automatic — is (usually) more noise from the engine, which (when you floor it) will typically rev to fairly high RPM and remain at that RPM until you back off the gas. More on this below.
The EPA gives the Insight a 41 city/44 highway rating — well below the Prius C’s 53 city, 46 highway. Part of the reason for the Insight’s comparatively mediocre economy is that its nickel-metal-hydride batteries are not as efficient as the latest-generation (lithium ion) batteries.
Notice that the Insight’s city mileage is actually slightly less than its highway mileage. Typically, hybrids (including the Prius C) do better in city-type, stop-and-go driving than they do on the highway — the opposite of most non-hybrid cars.The Insight is one of the few hybrids that performs better — fuel-efficiency-wise — on the highway than it does in city-type driving. This could be an important factor in your deliberations, if you do more (or even a lot) of highway driving relative to stop-and-go, city driving.
Acceleration is tepid.
It takes the Insight about 11 seconds — under ideal conditions — to reach 60 MPH. The good news — for Honda — is that the Prius C is equally lethargic. If you’re looking for something speedier — that’s also a hybrid — you might want to take a look at the Ford Fusion C-Max. Just be advised that it’s far more expensive ($27,780 to start) and it’s mileage (45 city and only 40 on the highway) is not much to cheer.
ON THE ROAD
Like the Prius C (and the regular Prius) the Insight can trundle along on its batteries and electric motor alone for about a mile or so on a full charge at speeds up to about 30 mph . . . if you accelerate very gingerly and the road is absolutely flat. Anything more than eggshell pressure on the pedal — or an uphill climb — and the gas engine will automatically kick on to keep you moving.
It will just as automatically turn itself off again when the vehicle is stationary — with accessories (the radio, fan, etc.) powered electrically. The gas engine comes back on once again whenever throttle pressure (or depleted battery charge) demand additional power — including electrical power. The gas engine — in addition to propelling the vehicle — does double duty as a kind of onboard generator, juicing up the batteries as you drive. The mechanical energy of forward motion (and braking) is also captured and transformed into electrical energy, which is fed to the batteries as you drive. It’s a closed-loop system, which has one very big benefit relative to an electric car: You will never run out “juice” (electrical power) so long as you don’t let the car run out of gas.
The Insight’s 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 the car’s 11 second-to-60 performance is about 2 seconds off the pace of almost any current non-hybrid economy car.
Handling — especially cornering — is pretty good, though. As hybrids go, anyhow.
This is probably because the Insight is a Honda — and Hondas (all of them) have more athletic responses than Toyotas. The steering feels quicker and less vague (In the Prius, it feels — to me — overboosted) and the suspension’s calibrations are firmer, which ties the car down better when you dive into a curve at a speed above the typically dumbed-down speed limit. There’s less heaving (that sensation of weight hurling itself toward the outside of the curve) and also less early-onset tire squeal (a Prius characteristic).
No one — well, not many people — buy a hybrid for its cornering prowess. But the Insight does give you more as a car as opposed to an appliance.
AT THE CURB
The Insight looks like a hybrid but it’s not as obviously a 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 Game Boy-esque 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 Prius C has a definite advantage, with 2 inches more rear seat legroom (35 inches vs. 33 inches for the Honda) and about half an inch more backseat headroom (37 inches for the Toyota vs. 36.4 for the Honda).
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 (31.5 cubic feet, max) and also gives the interior a roomy and open feel. Up front, there’s a standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel and height adjustable driver seat — all of which help make the most of the available space.
During the week I had the Insight, the car consistently returned an average of 35-38 mpg driving at roughly 3,200 ft. and dealing with hilly terrain and average speeds around 50 MPH. This is very good — keeping in mind the “average” aspect. A conventional (non-hybrid) economy car such as the Versa Note mentioned earlier can almost match the Insight’s mileage on the highway — but its overall average mileage is about 5 MPG less. Over time, that difference can save you a not-small amount of money — especially in relation to the not-very-great price difference between the Insight and a car like the Versa Note. It is much harder to make the economic argument in favor of the pricier Prius (not the C) whose efficiency advantages are quite possibly not enough to “work off” the thousands of dollars in higher up-front costs.
I’d still like to see Honda re-introduce the original (2000-2006) Insight — a two-seater coupe that came with a manual transmission and which could (I know, because I did) hit 70 MPG if driven hyper-mile style.
But the coupe came out before everything went to hell. When the housing bubble was still bubbling — and when gas was still under $2 a gallon. It didn’t sell well — for obvious reasons — and Honda cancelled it.
Today, with gas still well over $3 a gallon — and the economy (despite all the Happy Talk) still as dead in the water as it was last year (or the year before that) a 70 MPG scooter like the original Insight would probably sell like — well, hotcakes.
Maybe Honda will oblige.
The current Insight is well-equipped for commuter/everyday use — with standard AC and a decent CD-playing stereo with MP3 port.
Another item: The brakes are disc/drum — which is arguably a plus in terms of service life and cost to service. Drum brakes are more durable; there are also no expensive rotors to warp or $300 calipers to replace. Drum brake shoes often last 50,000 miles or more, too. Pads usually wear out sooner.
Disc-disc layouts do usually provide better (shorter) stops, but the Insight’s disc/drum layout is perfectly adequate for the type of driving this vehicle is likely to see.
Final point of order: Because it’s not got the Prius Halo — and because its gas mileage isn’t quite as good as the Prius C’s — it’s very likely you’ll be more successful whittling down the sticker price of this car than you would the Toyota. The success of the Prius has made Toyota dealers pretty insolent about charging full MSRP — because they can get away with it.
Honda dealers know they can’t — and that’s something to consider. If you can knock say $1,500 off sticker — while your neighbor pays full sticker for his C — the mileage advantage he has over you is ultimately irrelevant. You both end up paying about the same.
And it’s very possible you could end up paying less.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re looking for a new hybrid that’ll save you money as well as gas, the Insight’s definitely worth checking out.