Climbing into the Clear Sky Blue (think Papa Smurf) 2010 Honda Insight, the first thing I noticed was the enthusiast-oriented gauge cluster, very similar to that found in the Honda Civic. The huge arc that circumscribes the entire affair is simple to read; despite the mass of eco-info presented in front of you, it's never distracting and can be programmed quickly to offer more or less info in the fuel-saving game.
The digital speedometer, identical to the Civic's (but seemingly more approriate here), is set in a hooded pocket that subtly shifts between green and blue hues. Green means you're conserving fuel; blue means you ain't. Because this color change occurs gradually and is just below the driver's line of sight (almost a sort of heads' up display), I found that a new obsession with keeping it in the green never once distracted from my attention to the road.
2010 Honda InsightEnlarge Photo
The 2010 Honda Insight has all sorts of ways to keep you operating efficiently. An ECO button retards throttle response and will let uphill cruise control speeds drift a few mph south to keep you from going into the blue zone; it also shuts the engine down more frequently at a dead stop. A small LCD display can be configured to rate the eco-friendliness of your driving, displaying instant mpg, overall mpg, and even showing a profusion (or a dearth) of little electro-leaves depending upon how miserly you are behind the wheel.
But what if you're in a hurry, and this annoyingly green, self-rightousmobile belongs to your Aunt or your significant other and you could give a damn about being green? Well, put the transmission selector in "S" mode, use the optional paddle shifters to select and hold 7 different CVT ratios, and lay on the gas. With the help of the insta-torque electric motor, you'll likely be surprised at how quickly this little Honda steps off and stays in the game. It will never pin your ears back, but neither will it feel strained or have trouble keeping up or merging with fast-moving traffic. What the Insight will NOT do is sound enticing or muscular at full-throttle: the CVT quickly shoots the diminutive 1.3-liter four to right below redline (a few hundred RPM higher with the transmission in "S") where it provides all the aural delight of a Kitchen Aid blender. However, at lower engine speeds the four-cylinder is subdued and pleasant.
2008 Paris auto showEnlarge Photo
Throw the Insight into a corner and - surprise! - the skinny tires on 15" wheels don't melt into exhausted understeer. This is a lithe, surprisingly tenacious little sedan. Traction is broken by front and rear ends at almost the same time, and a sudden lift of the throttle even provokes the tail to step out a tad. Direct steering with decent feedback doesn't feel like the electronically boosted unit that it is, and despite their strong regenerative nature, the brakes don't surge or step in their boost level though they do occasionally cause the car to stop a few feet shorter than intended. Interestingly, there was a little wander on the highway, requiring semi-frequent course corrections. Whether a function of the steering rack or the skinny tires I can't say.
In ECO mode, activated by the press of a green button, the engine is more eager to shut down at stoplights. It will occasionally use this function in regular mode, though not nearly as often. Startup is almost seamless, but of course the engine needs a split second to prep for duty. In ECO mode, a couple of times I noticed a touch of odd surging upon acceleration after engine re-start, but a good 95 percent of the time it felt like a traditional, gasoline-only powertrain.