First Drive: 2010 Honda Insight

January 9, 2009

Hypermiling champ Wayne Gerdes (of took the new 2010 Honda Insight out on a 16-mile driving loop and checked in after a first run with more than 70 mpg on the trip computer.To those who don't know hypermiling, it's a set of driving practices that, if followed, will almost certainly provide a big boost to your fuel economy. Some of these practices—like drafting semis—are downright dangerous to you and to other drivers, but others like conserving momentum, avoiding prolonged idling, and turning accessories off unless you need them are smart for all of us.

Even using the sometimes-counterintuitive, gas-saving hybrid driving techniques that hybrid fans have introduced me to—including, ahem, pulse and glide but avoiding the extreme techniques that might clog traffic and incite road rage—I returned 64.5 mpg in that same loop. A couple of others on the media event we attended were into the high 60s, and just about everyone got more than 60 mpg.

In the real world, nearly all owners are likely to see results above 40 mpg, no matter what type of driving. On a longer driving loop earlier in the day that included rural two-lanes, plenty of suburban stoplights, and some 70-mph cruising, in a style of driving aimed at staying with the flow of traffic (along with a couple of full-throttle runs)—and not always using the new ECON button, which we'll explain later—we still averaged 44 mpg.

Not bad, eh, for a car that bears EPA fuel economy figures of just 40 city, 43 highway?!

That's right, the new 2010 Honda Insight actually has a lower overall mpg rating than the Civic Hybrid's 40 mpg city, 45 highway, and the EPA rating might prove a slight hurdle. To shoppers who look at those big numbers on the window sticker, the Insight's 40-mpg city rating is also much less impressive than the 48 mpg the Toyota Prius gets. But beware, in real world driving, the new Honda Insight will likely get better mileage than the Prius; in our last spin in a Prius Touring, we saw around 42 mpg overall in similar driving.

The new Insight does away with the impractical two-door coupe design (and vulnerable feeling) of its forebear and instead has four doors, space for five (in theory), and a shape that's...well...very Prius-like. At first glance, the Insight's profile looks a lot like that of the Prius. But that's not necessarily the intent. According to company officials, the shape was chosen for optimal aerodynamics while also considering functionality. The Insight also does better with the details than the Prius; the snout bears hints of the new corporate look, with slim, well-detailed projector-beam headlamps and distinctive LED lamps in back. Smooth lift-up door handles are a nice break from the chunky, trucky ones that have become expected even on small cars. And the CRX-style window in back serves a real role in aiding visibility.

While the profiles are similar, much of the rest is different. The 2010 Honda Insight has a shorter wheelbase while the Prius has its wheels places more outward. The Prius (and the Civic Hybrid) has a wheelbase of more than 106 inches—nearly six inches longer than the Insight's 100.4-inch wheelbase. The Prius is about three inches longer than the Insight, and just an inch wider, but it's 2.5 inches higher—mainly the product of a lower roofline.

If you do happen to be cross shopping the insight and the Prius, headroom and legroom are good in front, with the instrument panel quite far forward and a nice driving position, with the low front beltline much appreciated as it is in the Fit. But the roofline slopes down just enough in back to severely limit back-seat headroom for average-height American men. Trust us here, the extra couple of inches in the Prius could save some neck cramps for taller back-seat passengers.

Just as the previous Insight and the Civic Hybrid, the new Insight comes with Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system (IMA), which involves a 10 kW electric motor—about the size and thickness of a short stack of diner pancakes—attached to the flywheel. The system helps out the engine when accelerating or in some cases cruising, and it can engage regenerative braking when decelerating or braking, to help recharge the battery system; and it's much simpler while achieving real-world results that are similar to Toyota's gee-whiz arrangement.

There are several key differences in the Insight's powertrain, versus that of the Civic Hybrid. In the Insight there are only 7 battery modules, versus 11 in the Civic Hybrid; but the power output per module in the Insight has been boosted by about 30 percent. The 1.3-liter VTEC four-cylinder engine, while being essentially the same as that used in the Civic Hybrid, incorporates some changes aimed at more economical operation—including an expanded range for the Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) system, which opens up valves to essentially eliminate pumping resistance while coasting or running on electric power alone. And it's been detuned versus the Civic Hybrid, with power and torque ratings down to 88 hp and 88 lb-ft respectively. Altogether the system produces a tractor-like 123 lb-ft at 1000 rpm (up to 1500 rpm), while peak power is 98 hp—compared to 110 hp for the Civic Hybrid.

The IMA system in the 2010 Insight can maintain a cruising speed of up to about 30 mph on electric power alone at on level ground, according to Honda.

For those who have driven the Honda Civic Hybrid, the powertrain response of the Insight feels much the same—which is to say that it feels like a torquey but conservatively-tuned four-cylinder with a CVT, and the IMA/hybrid system is very much in the background, if it weren't for the dominant dashboard displays to remind you that you're in a hybrid. There are only faint hints—if you have the sound system off and the windows all the way up—of the whines and whirs that were ever-present in the original Insight coupe. At full throttle or close to it, the gasoline engine becomes raucous—more so than we remember it in the Civic Hybrid. Overall, the driving experience is unobtrusive and perky.

Honda has made an effort to bring more responsive handling to the Insight when compared to the Prius, and it does deliver on that count, but don't expect the handling of a sporty car. Though the 2010 Honda Insight borrows much of its front end, and frontal structure, along with the suspension design (front struts, H-shaped torsion beam in back), from the Fit, the Fit's unexpectedly crisp turn-in and go-kart feel get a little muddled in the translation; it plows more aggressively when pushed hard into tight corners than the Fit but feels quite pleasant and balanced.

Hybrid buyers have come to expect some sort of glitzy display interface so that they can see where the power is flowing and how economically they're driving. Honda delivers here with three new displays. First, there's Eco Assist, which changes the background of the speedometer display depending on how efficiently you're driving—a cool blue corresponds to inefficient driving while a forest green means that you're especially efficient. There's also a bar indicator; as it grows to the right of center, you're becoming less efficient while accelerating, and the opposite applies to braking, where the bar grows to the left of center. The goal is to drive gently and keep speed down to keep the bar as narrow as possible. System two is something called Eco Guide. Much like the system used in the new 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, this one uses an “Eco Score” display in which you earn leave based on economical driving. A bar at the bottom accumulates a “lifetime score,” turning it into a sort of game.

New to the Insight is a big green ECON button located to the left of the steering wheel. Pressing it affects a number of different variables, including the throttle, CVT, air conditioning, cruise control, and how often it makes idle stops. The mode might improve your mileage if you're already driving for best fuel economy, but if you're zipping along with traffic it might not make that much of a difference.

The 2010 Insight has a pretty appealing package, but we have a few cautions. First, because the battery/power unit is located under the cargo floor, the cargo space isn't as wondrously deep or versatile as that in the Fit. The back seats don't quite fold all the way flat either, although the space is respectable compared to other hatchbacks. The second complaint is that electronic stability control—a lifesaving feature that strongly recommends—isn't even optional on the base model. To get it, you have to upgrade to the EX. Other safety bases are covered, with active front head restraints and front, front side, and side-curtain bags all on the standard-equipment list. Anti-lock brakes (drums in back) are also included.

Essentially, what the 2010 Honda Insight has to offer, versus the Civic Hybrid, is a lower price and a more versatile hatchback body style. And versus the Prius, it might satisfy your need for a very fuel-efficient, green vehicle at a lower bottom-line price.

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