Unlike the better-known full-hybrid Prius, the mild-hybrid system in the 2013 Honda Insight doesn't move the car away from a stop solely on electricity. Instead, the motor provides added torque to 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 tiny nickel-metal-hydride battery pack stores energy recaptured from braking and engine overrun, and delivers it to the electric motor on demand. While Honda says the Insight can maintain its momentum solely on electricity at speeds up to 30 mph, we've rarely seen this happen for more than a few seconds in our various road tests of Insight models.
The 2013 Insight uses the company's well-known Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system. The 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine is paired to a 10-kilowatt (13-horsepower) electric motor sandwiched between it and the continuously-variable transmission (CVT). Together, the two power sources produce 98 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque.
That combination gives the Insight plenty of torque for eager acceleration from stoplights, along with adequate power for passing, especially at lower speeds. The CVT is mostly unobtrusive, but still provides some rubber-band-like lag when full power is demanded--at which point engine noise rises sharply. The sporty Insight EX version provides paddles on the steering wheel that let drivers "downshift" and "upshift" the "gears" in a simulated seven-speed transmission, for more responsive performance.
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. And the Insight's handling is as good--largely better than--that of the larger Prius. The Insight feels confident in all but the tightest and curviest corners, and its cruising at highway speeds is unexpectedly poised, as long as you don't need to pass in a hurry. The brakes (discs in front, small drums in back) are up to the task--and the regenerative braking provides a little extra slowing effort when the driver lifts off too.