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.