The 2012 Honda Insight uses the company's well-known Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system, featuring a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine that's supplemented by a 10-kilowatt (13-horsepower) electric motor. Together, the pair of power sources produce 98 hp and 123 pound-feet of torque.
Unlike the better-known Prius, which is a full hybrid, the Honda mild-hybrid system can't move the car away from a stop solely on electricity. Instead, the tiny nickel-metal-hydride battery pack recaptures wasted energy from braking and engine overrun, and stores it so the motor can supplement the gas engine when more power is needed under heavy loads. It also restarts the engine, which switches off every time the car comes to a stop. The 2012 Insight can maintain its momentum solely on electricity at speeds up to 30 mph, though we've seen this happen relatively little in our various road tests of Insight models.
The electric motor provides the system with plenty of torque for eager acceleration from stoplights, along with adequate power for passing. The 2012 Insight uses a continuously-variable transmission (CVT), which is mostly unobtrusive but still provides some of the rubber-band-like lag when full power is suddenly demanded. The sporty Insight EX version includes paddles on the steering wheel that simulate a seven-speed transmission, allowing drivers to "downshift" and increase engine speed for better performance.
The Insight's handling is as good or better than that of the larger Prius. Eco-minded drivers who encounter winding roads won't be tortured by the Insight, though it's still not as crisp and linear as its similarly-sized Fit hatchback sibling. The Insight feels confident in all but the tightest and curviest corners, and its high-speed cruising is unexpectedly poised. The brakes (discs in front, small drums in back) are up to the task, and of course regenerative braking provides a little extra slowing effort when the driver lifts off as well.