Hybrids making headlines has become almost commonplace these days. Even so, with its claim of being the most affordable vehicle in the gas/electric genre, the 2010 Honda Insight has raised -- or lowered -- the bar to an entirely new level. Save for also using a variation on the firm's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, the latest Insight shares little in common with petite two-seat coupe of the same name that Honda sold here from 2000 to 2006. Compact-sized, this new iteration comes in three trim levels: a well-equipped Insight LX at $20,470, an even-better appointed EX at $21,970 and the top-line EX with Navigation that we drove, which commands $23,770.
Exterior styling of this four-door, five-passenger hatchback displays several styling cues seen on Honda's even-more-advanced but limited-production FCX Clarity fuel-cell car. Inside, the Insight's unique design offers a mixed bag of elements where positives outweigh negatives. Slightly smaller and less flashy than its closest natural rival, the Toyota Prius, the Insight possesses adult-friendly space in its front quarters, but those inching closer to six feet may find getting into the rear seats a limbo-like experience with their head ultimately touching the roof. Firmish but well-formed buckets are paired with a 60/40 split-folding bench that can convert its generously scaled 15.9-cubic foot truck into a 31.5-cubic foot cargo bay. We were somewhat disappointed by the dearth of soft-touch surfaces; and the Insight's center-positioned emergency brake handle pushes cupholders and open cubbies too far forward while seriously compromising the size and utility of its covered center console bin. However, those modest dings were more than countered by basic switchgear and control layouts with a typical Honda driver-centric orientation and standard features like a high-efficiency auto climate control system, 160-watt AM/FM/CD audio and tilt-/telescoping steering column.
One feature deserving a special shout out is the Insight's slick multi-information Ecological Drive Assist System. Eco Assist for short, it permits easy access to a comprehensive array of fuel-use and IMA-related info using steering-wheel-mounted buttons. But the real star of the show here is the digital speedometer readout with its color-shifting background. Located in an eyebrow ridge directly above the tachometer/info display, it transitions from blue to green in response to more restrained throttle inputs. While it initially seemed like a gimmick, we soon found that its constant but low-key presence in your peripheral field of view served as a real-time interactive coach that really can help maximize mpg.
All Insights share a common Honda IMA powertrain that pairs a 1.3-liter/98-horsepower SOHC in-line four with a 13-horse electric motor/generator linked to an ultra-compact Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack located under the rear seat. Driving the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT), this matchup earns 40/41/41-mpg city/highway/combined marks from the EPA, stats borne out by the 41.7 mpg we recorded in our 313 miles of mixed-mode driving. Helping get the most from each gallon, the engine employs both conventional start/stop shutdowns as well as cylinder deactivation on deceleration. The battery is replenished via regenerative braking, and in addition to providing limited boost under acceleration, the IMA setup permits the Insight to motor in pure EV mode under light to medium load conditions.
On the road, the Insight proved a bit more engaging than a Prius, but it's still an urbo-cruiser at heart. Paddle shifters on the EX that change seven "virtual gears" when you slip into Sport mode aside, the residual "by-wire" feel of the steering and brakes combined with its low-rolling-resistance tires will do little to win favor with enthusiasts. While the Insight can effortlessly zip in and out of city traffic, aggressive freeway overtaking is best approached with some deliberation. Despite those caveats, this new Honda matches package, performance and price in a way that should appeal to lots of folks who've never before contemplated traveling down the hybrid highway.