2014 Honda Insight Review

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John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
June 4, 2014

The 2014 Honda Insight is one of the better-handling small hybrids, but it faces tough competitors who beat it on gas mileage, interior space, and features.

The 2014 Honda Insight is the least expensive hybrid car on the market, and it remains a marginal entry for Honda, which is phasing this model out after this model year. It's been on the market for five years; it's never reached the sales numbers Honda hoped for; and it's now essentially outgunned in its own category—subcompact hybrid hatchbacks—by the more fuel-efficient Toyota Prius C. And as a device for carrying people and their goods, its stablemate the Honda Fit sits right next to it at dealerships and handily outsells it, at a price that starts more than $3,000 lower.

The 2014 Insight is carried over unchanged. It was revamped for 2012 with a new battery pack, very minor styling updates, and revisions to the interior materials and instrument displays.

The Honda Insight shares the high-tail hatchback shape of the Toyota Prius, simply because it's aerodynamically most efficient. The windshield is raked at a steep angle, and the tailgate has a small second vertical window as well as the long, almost-horizontal main glass, improving visibility. Space inside is good in front, although taller drivers may find the lower cushion of the front seat too short. But the sloping roofline makes rear-seat headroom very tight indeed, despite a reshaped headliner in 2012 that added half an inch. It's strictly a two-adult seat, though three smaller kids will fit in emergencies.

Review continues below

Behind the wheel, drivers face a two-tier instrument display like that of the Honda Civic. Above the main cluster of gauges is a digital display with various status indicators and a large numeric speed reading. The center stack is angled toward the driver, and the climate controls are on a separate panel to the right of the driver--making them annoying to operate for front-seat passengers.

The Insight handles decently, not always the case with hybrids. It's no hot hatch, but it's unquestionably more of a driver's car than the traditional (and larger) Toyota Prius, and it has the edge on the more enjoyable Prius C as well. Its stablemate the Fit is still crisper than the Insight, but it's composed at freeway speeds and handles confidently in corners. It rides well despite its small size, and it's quiet inside--until, that is, you accelerate hard. Engine howl is remarkably noisy, though the 2012 upgrade added insulation in several areas to quiet the din. Still, drive the Insight hard and the engine will tell you just how hard it's working.

That engine is a 1.3-liter four-cylinder unit, with a 10-kilowatt (14-horsepower) motor sandwiched between the engine and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The combined overall output is 98 hp; torque is 123 lb-ft. The motor can't move the car on its own; instead, it supplements engine output with added torque, restarts the engine after a stop, and acts as a generator to recharge the car's lithium-ion battery pack. That pack is sited under the load floor, meaning a shallow cargo bay--in contrast to the Prius C, which managed to shoehorn its battery under the rear seat next to the gas tank, providing a full-depth load bay behind the rear seat.

Acceleration away from a stop is decent, with the engine and motor together moving the car efficiently. There's also adequate passing power around town, at the cost of vastly increased noise. On the highway, there's less reserve, which is where the Insight's relatively high weight and tiny engine come into conflict. Drivers need to plan their passing carefully.

The 2014 Honda Insight is rated at 42 mpg combined, against the 50 mpg of the Prius C--and even the 44-mpg rating of the admittedly much more expensive Honda Civic Hybrid sedan that uses the same powertrain. With hybrid buyers being more affluent than general car buyers, the Civic Hybrid's more spacious, more luxurious cabin may seem worth its $5,000 higher cost.

The base model of Honda Insight costs less than $19,000. While it includes remote entry, power windows, automatic climate control, and an audio system with two speakers, it's still fairly spartan. Most buyers will want to move up to the mid-level LX models, which adds niceties like an armrest console, map lights, a security system, and floor mats as well as a four-speaker audio system with USB interface and steering-wheel controls.

At the top of the range is the Insight EX, which adds paddle shifters behind the steering wheel that provide simulated "gears" for the driver to shift for more responsive performance. Additional features include automatic headlights, heated side mirrors, and a six-speaker stereo system with Bluetooth audio linking, and alloy wheels. Navigation is optional.

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2014 Honda Insight

Styling

The 2014 Honda Insight has a sleeker hatchback body than the Prius', and a more appealing interior, too.

As it has been for five model years, the 2014 Honda Insight has the smooth, high-tail hatchback shape pioneered a decade ago by the Toyota Prius. It's the best way to get at least four doors into a vehicle while minimizing wind resistance, though the Insight is deemed a subcompact and the Prius now counts as a mid-size car by interior volume. But the steep rake of the windshield, the high vertical tail, even the second glass panel in the tailgate for better visibility all echo that second-generation Prius.

But the Insight is clearly a Honda, echoing design elements from other models in the range. The front end is meant to remind you of the FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle--if you know what that looks like--and thin projector-beam headlights wrap around the corners of the car. The entire Insight is scaled small, with doorhandles notably less huge than those on other makers' small cars, and aero themes are everywhere. The bumper corners have molded flat "blades" to ease the airflow off the sides of the car, and both a prominent rear air diffuser and LED taillights underscore the efficiency theme.

The interior will also be familiar to Honda owners, with a two-tier dashboard much like that used for years in the Civic. The goal is to site driving and powertrain information at the base of the windshield, further forward than the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel, so drivers can easily glance at it with less refocusing.

Audio and navigation controls are in the center of the dashboard, but climate controls are in a sort of pod to the right of the steering wheel--meaning the front passenger has something of a reach to change the temperature or redirect airflow.

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2014 Honda Insight

Performance

The 2014 Honda Insight handles decently, but runs out of power quickly under heavy loads.

The 2014 Honda Insight is what's called a "mild hybrid," meaning that unlike all of Toyota's growing number of hybrid vehicles, it cannot move itself on electric power alone. Instead, a small electric motor simply assists the gasoline engine, adding torque as well as restarting the engine when it switches off as the car comes to a stop.

The drawback to this setup is that for creeping, stop-and-go traffic, the engine is constantly switching on and off, and the Insight is continually slightly delayed in moving forward as that happens. Honda says the car will maintain its speed on electricity alone up to 30 mph, but we've seen this happen only rarely--and never more than for a few seconds--in our Insight road tests.

The Insight's powertrain uses the well-known Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system, which pairs a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine with a 10-kilowatt (13-horsepower) electric motor. The engine and a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) sandwich the motor; total output for both is 98 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque. The high-end Insight EX model includes paddles behind the steering wheel so drivers can "upshift" and "downshift" simulated "gears" to mimic a seven-speed transmission, for more directly controlled performance.

There's plenty of torque for eager acceleration from stoplights, and the Insight has adequate power for passing at lower speeds. But when full power is needed, the CVT displays some rubber-band-like lag and engine noise rises remarkably.

The electric motor also acts as a generator, recapturing energy from braking and engine overrun to charge a small nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. The Insight now remains the sole hybrid Honda that uses this older battery technology; the 2012 Civic Hybrid and the 2013 CR-Z sport coupe both switched to a more compact lithium-ion pack.

Handling and roadholding is far better than that of the numb, remote driving feel of the classic Prius. The Insight handles winding roads decently, though it's not as linear and crisp as the Fit subcompact hatchback it shares the showroom with. But it's confident enough in all but the very curviest, tightest corners, and highway cruising is unexpectedly poised. Just don't expect to pass anything in a hurry. Brakes (discs in front, drums in back) work fine, with extra slowing effort provided by the regenerative braking once the driver lifts off the accelerator.

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2014 Honda Insight

Comfort & Quality

The 2014 Honda Insight is noisy when driven hard, and more spacious up front than in the rear seats.

The 2014 Honda Insight has never lived up to the company's sales expectations, and its life got a lot tougher with the launch of the 2012 Toyota Prius C, a similar subcompact hybrid hatchback with higher fuel-efficiency ratings, more interior space, and a much deeper load bay (due to locating its battery under the rear seat, rather than below the cargo floor as Honda does).

Up front, the Insight is comfortable, though long-legged drivers may find the lower seat cushions somewhat short. Headroom is generous. But the dropping roofline means rear passengers lack headroom, despite Honda reshaping the rear seats in 2012 and carving out a bit more headroom from "sculpted" recess in the headliner. Three adults simply won't fit in the rear, and even threw kids will be tightly packed.

While the Insight has 15.9 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat up, the load floor is higher than you'd expect. And the 60/40 split rear seats don't fold fully flat. It's all brought into sharp relief by the uber-flexible "Magic Seat" in the Honda Fit, still the most adaptable and versatile subcompact on the market.

Interior materials in the Insight are about average. The seat cloth is grippy, and there are some soft-touch surfaces, though the recent Honda trademark of vast swathes of textured hard plastic remains. The graining looks good on them, however, and build quality is very high. But elements of the interior feel flimsy, a result of minimizing weight wherever possible: the headliner is notably thin, and the doors close with a tinny sound.

On the road, the ride quality is good and the Insight is mostly quiet. The exception is when the driver needs acceleration: Demanding maximum engine power causes the sound level to rise to a raucous, nightclub-like howl. Mash the throttle, and you may not be able to hear either your audio system or the person next to you.

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2014 Honda Insight

Safety

The 2014 Honda Insight is an IIHS Top Safety Pick, but it hasn't been rated for crash safety by the NHTSA.

The 2014 Honda Insight gets good ratings from the one organization that's tested it for crash safety, and it has the expected set of electronic safety systems. It doesn't offer any particularly innovative or advanced features beyond that, but outward visibility is good.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) names the Honda Insight as a Top Safety Pick. The car earns the top IIHS rating of 'Good' in all categories: moderate-overlap frontal, side, and rear impacts, and also for roof strength. Earlier 2010-2011 Insight models did not do as well on roof strength; they were only rated 'Acceptable' for roof crush strength.

On the other hand, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't tested the Insight since it established new and more stringent frontal and side crash tests. The agency gives the Insight four out of five stars for rollover safety.

Outward visibility from inside the Insight is good--increasingly a Honda trademark. The window line is lower than in many cars with rising tails, and even the rear seats have a decent view out. Like all split rear windows, however, there's a bar across the middle of the view in the rear-view mirror that takes some getting used to. Honda redesigned and moved the rear window wiper in 2012 to improve visibility.

The list of safety features in the Insight includes anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, front, side, and side-curtain airbags, and active front head restraints. That's all good; however, the Insight doesn't include any of the active-safety items that are becoming more widely available (and sometimes expected) on hybrids and advanced-tech models.

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2014 Honda Insight

Features

The equipment on the 2014 Honda Insight is only average, with few high-end electronic options.

The 2014 Honda Insight hybrid starts at a bit more than $19,000 including delivery, which puts it within $500 of the more fuel-efficient Toyota Prius C, its most direct competitor. And it's squeezed from below by the more spacious and flexible non-hybrid Honda Fit, whose base price is more than $3,000 lower.

The Insight lineup is pleasantly simple, with only three trim levels: base, LX, or EX.

The base Insight model comes standard with automatic climate control, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, power locks and windows, remote entry, and a two-speaker 160-watt audio system that includes a single-disc CD player. It's missing a few features that you might expect, including cruise control.

Most Insights sold will not be the base model, but either the mid-level LX or the top EX trim. At just above $21,000 with delivery, the mid-level LX adds the missing cruise control, plus steering-wheel audio controls, a center console that includes a storage container under the armrest, map lights, and a four-speaker audio system with USB jack.

The Insight EX sits at the top of the range, and includes alloy wheels, automatic headlights, paddle shifters behind the leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated side mirrors with turn signals integrated into them, and a six-speaker stereo system and Bluetooth link. There's an additional model called EX With Navigation, which adds not only in-car navigation displayed on a 6.5-inch display, with FM real-time traffic alerts, and maps stored on 16 GB of flash memory, but also voice recognition and a rearview camera.

Other than these models, the Insight doesn't offer high-tech options: no parking assist, lane-departure warning, crash avoidance, etc. Those systems are now offered on more expensive hybrids--the Prius and also the Ford C-Max--but the Insight forgoes fitting them to maintain its position as the least expensive hybrid sold in the U.S.

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2014 Honda Insight

Fuel Economy

The 2014 Honda Insight is rated above 40 mpg--in the top tier--but several Prius models do much better.

The 2014 Honda Insight continues to be rated at 42 mpg combined (41 mpg city, 44 mpg highway). Any car at or above 40 mpg is among the most fuel-efficient sold in the U.S., but the competition is stiffer now than it was five years ago.

There are now four separate Toyota Prius models that match or beat that combined rating, and even Honda's own compact Civic Hybrid comes in at 44 mpg combined. And while the Ford C-Max has been reduced from a combined 47 mpg to 43 mpg, it is larger, more powerful, and better equipped (at a higher price) and still gets a higher rating.

The Honda Insight seems to do well in real-world mileage achieved by its drivers, however--notably unlike the C-Max in particular--so the effective difference in fuel consumption may be higher than the EPA ratings would achieve. But in the subcompact category especially, the Insight's price premium of several thousand dollars over conventional gasoline entries that are now as high as 33 or 34 mpg may make the numbers a hard sell.

So while the Insight hangs onto the laurels as the cheapest hybrid sold in the U.S., it faces a growing list of competitors--especially among the affluent hybrid buyers who are willing to pay about $5,000 more for a larger car that still gets better gas mileage.

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