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The new Honda Insight hybrid is shown at the Detroit auto show

Sun, 11 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0800

The new Honda Insight was unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show

To hear Honda tell it, the new 2010 Insight coming to market this April is all about making hybrid technology available to Gen-Y. That's because it's smaller and less expensive than the class-leading Toyota Prius or Honda's own Civic Hybrid.

We drove the Insight in Arizona recently and found it also more fun to drive than most hybrids, another attribute that ranks high among young buyers. Depending on who's doing the defining, Gen-Y, also known as Millenials, is comprised mostly of people in their 20s or late teen years--Honda says they're age 20 to 29, significantly younger than today's crop of hybrid-car owners, predominantly in their 50s.

But Insight is a five-seat compact sedan, a practical, mainstream car that--given current economic circumstances--is likely to find a market among older consumers, up to and including the baby boomer parents of those Millenials. Honda hasn't set a firm price yet except to say it will be cheaper than the Civic Hybrid, but the expectation is that it will be significantly under $20,000, perhaps in the high $18,000 range.

The new Insight gives Honda a dedicated hybrid model again, which it has lacked since dropping the original two-seat Insight in 2006, but the new car dumps the whole hair-shirt routine.

Its front structure is shared with that of the Fit, the sub-Civic model that sits at the bottom of the company's U.S. car range. By reducing the size of the battery pack (seven nickel-metal hydride or NiMH cell modules vs. 11 in the current Civic hybrid) and the electronic control module so that they now fit below the rear floor behind the 10.4 gallon gas tank, Honda gave the car a useful rear cargo area, folding rear seats, and enough rear seat room for average-size adults.

Where the tiny original two-door coupe prioritized weight savings with its costly all-alloy structure (built alongside the S2000 and NSX), the new one is more conventional but lighter than most sedans. The curb weight of the new Insight is less than 2,800 lbs (2,733 for the base LX model, 2,785 for the tricked-out EX), or 200 pounds lighter than the '09 Prius and 100 pounds less than the Civic Hybrid. Overall, the Insight is shorter, about 10 percent smaller inside, lighter and will be less expensive than the Toyota Prius, the big dog of dedicated hybrid models, which itself sees a new version revealed in Detroit, but one that's not going on sale until fall as a 2010 model.

Styling of the Insight resembles that of Prius, both being shaped to accommodate five passengers with minimal aerodynamic drag. Honda claims Insight is significantly slipperier, but that factors in the lower frontal area of its smaller car. To these eyes, there's a nicer curve to the Insight's roofline, which peaks a little farther back than the Toyota's and doesn't look so humpbacked.

If there's a styling cue that says "hybrid" to Americans, it must be the lower window in the back of the rear hatch, a feature of the original Insight and Prius. It's here, too, while at the front the Insight borrows the signature face of the FCX Clarity fuel-cell car.

Inside, Insight is a bit more Spartan than a Civic Hybrid or Prius, but not punishingly so. The base LX model, like Honda's own subcompact Fit, has good interior appointments for its price class, including automatic climate control, power windows and locks, tilt-and-telescope steering column, rear window defrost and a cargo light. The EX, distinguishable from outside mostly by its alloy wheels vs. the full-cover steel wheels on the LX, adds cruise control, paddle shifters, steering wheel controls, vanity mirrors and map lights, heated side mirrors, variable speed intermittent wipers and such, but the big addition comes with optional navigation system with voice recognition and Bluetooth.

Even without the navi system, the instrument panel steps up to give hyper-milers the information they want about fuel and power usage, and using those we were able to post short-range fuel economy readings into the high 50 mpg range, and even bettered 62 mpg on a 16-mile test loop incorporating significant up- and down-hill portions.

This was not a creep-and-crawl exercise, though we did moderate our driving style for the test and engage the "econ" button to call up functions that enhance fuel mileage. This driver-selectable mode (there's a green button the dash, left of the steering column) engages the idle-stop function at higher speeds, uses recirc mode on the a/c more often, reduces the climate control system's peak fan speed, and adjusts the drive-by-wire throttle programming to optimize the driver's inputs in concert with how it operates the CVT. Peak power is also restricted by four percent, unless you floor it, in which case you get the full output. On a longer test route where we drove normally, the dashboard readout was in the 45 to 46 mpg range using Econ mode, and slid into the 41-43 mpg range without it.

The more compact electronic package, despite having fewer battery cells than the Civic Hybrid's, doesn't sacrifice much power--each module makes 30 percent more power than before, so the Insight's package is rated at 5.75 Amp-Hours vs. 6.0 for the Civic Hybrid version. Peak output of 100.8 Volts is low vs. the larger battery pack, but unlike the circumstance in many earlier Honda hybrids, the Insight sometimes moves under electric power alone--we saw this at steady low speed operation (25 to 30 mph) on level or downhill terrain when we drove it in Arizona, as indicated on the dashboard display.

The 1.3-liter inline four-cylinder gas engine makes 88 hp on its own and 98 hp combined with the electric supplement (vs. 110 for the 1.5-liter in the Civic Hybrid). On its own, the electric motor produces 13 hp at 1500 rpm (vs. 20 for Civic's) but, more importantly, its 58 lbs-ft torque output contributes to an overall rating of 123 lbs-ft., for lively acceleration.

As ever, Honda's IMA (integrated motor assist) approaches hybridization differently than does Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system. Where Toyota's approach tends to excel in stop-and-go city driving, aided by its stronger electric motor's ability to accelerate from a standstill under electric power alone, Honda's system does best on the highway cycle. The current Prius is rated by the U.S. EPA at 48 mpg city/45 highway for a 46 mpg combined. The new Insight is rated at 40 mpg city, 43 mpg highway and 41 combined--that's for a lighter, smaller car, but one that feels livelier when driven back-to-back with the Toyota.

Another reason this is so is that the Insight may be the best-handling hybrid sedan yet. Like other mpg-conscious cars, it still rides on tires designed for low rolling resistance, but these aren't the hard narrow sort found on the original Insight, but ones we could live with--175/65 R15, with an all-weather compound. Front suspension is McPherson strut, rear by torsion beam, and the overall balance is improved by mounting that heavy electronic module low in the chassis.

Honda, ever mindful of criticisms, has also done a masterful job of tuning its electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and the electronic braking system (discs front, drums rear, with ABS and the regen feature for the drivetrain) for smooth, responsive operation with better feel than before.

You'd never mistake the new Insight for a sports sedan, but as hybrids go, it goes well. For a livelier package, look to Honda's promised hybrid versions of the Fit subcompact and the upcoming CR-Z coupe. We think those cars, more than the Insight, are likely to find the younger crop of buyers Honda seeks to bring into the hybrid fold.

Detroit Auto Show News

By Kevin A. Wilson