Rich Ceppos • From the discovery of the wheel to the launch of the iPhone, technologies that are at first revolutionary ultimately become essential tools we use to make our lives better and more productive.
Over time, the new morphs into common practice, becoming something we barely even notice. The new Honda Insight shows how that's now happening with hybrid automobiles. Nineteen years after the first, weirdly podlike Insight arrived in America, this all-new third-generation model is so, well, normal, most people probably wouldn't know it's a hybrid.
If the Insight behaves similarly to a standard car it's because, for all intents and purposes, it is a Civic sedan – one that's been modified to accept a hybrid powertrain and a 1.2-kWh battery pack. Much of the standard Civic remains, including its roof, window glass, suspension, and significant parts of its underbody structure.
The Insight rides on the same wheelbase as the Civic sedan, has an equally commodious five-seat interior, and offers the same amount of trunk room thanks to the hybrid battery's placement, nestled under the rear seat.
EDITOR'S NOTE: You're reading a story by American title Car and Driver. We're bringing you a handful of C/D stories each month, focused on vehicles we've either not yet driven, or models not offered in Australia. Where appropriate, we'll add metric measurements for reference, but grammar and terminology will otherwise remain unchanged.
Insight and Civic: Separated at Birth
The Insight does look slightly different than its fraternal twin, however – to both passersby and to the wind. The Civic's fussy skin has been smoothed below the window line, endowing the Insight with a more mature, upscale appearance. Its underside has been smoothed as well, by the addition of several flat, lightweight panels that act as a drag-reducing belly pan.
There's still a lot of Civic left in the cabin, however. The bottom half of the center console sits higher to create an underfloor nook for the car's 12-volt battery; there was no room for it under the hood along with all of the new hybrid hardware.
The reconfigured console is topped with Honda's push-button electronic shifter in place of the Civic's mechanical lever, the revised forward cubby houses a pair of USB ports and a 12-volt power outlet, and the lower section of the dash on the passenger side has been reconfigured slightly. The only other significant difference from the Civic's cabin is what you see when you fire up the Insight: an electronic TFT instrument cluster with a hybrid-power gauge in place of a traditional tachometer.
Actually, you don't fire up an Insight. You hit the start button, which, often enough, causes the car to sit there silently, ready to drive off in electric mode.
If there's enough juice in the lithium-ion battery pack, you might make it out of your subdivision without the gasoline engine lighting up – Honda claims about a mile of EV range. But if there's even a slight hill in your neighborhood, the gas engine will wake up and the revs will jump to medium-high rpm. There it will drone on until you achieve your chosen velocity, just like any small car equipped with a diminutive four-cylinder engine and a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).
A Complex Hybrid That Keeps It Simple
Only the Insight doesn't have a CVT, or any transmission for that matter. Its powertrain, which is similar to the Accord hybrid's in concept, consists of a 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four making 107 horsepower (80kW), which drives a generator.
The generator supplies power to the hybrid battery or to an electric propulsion motor that powers the front wheels. Total system output is 151 horses (112kW), and the electric motor develops 197 lb-ft (267Nm) of torque. When full power is called for, or in some highway-cruising situations, a clutch engages and connects the gas engine directly to the front wheels.
As complex as all this sounds, in the real world the Insight drives as if it were simple. It does an excellent impression of a standard Civic in both feel and performance. The Insight's test-track results proved mostly similar to those of our (Car & Driver) long-term 2016 Civic sedan, which was equipped with the top 174hp (130kW) 1.5-liter turbo four and a CVT.
The Insight is a bit slower to 60 mph (97km/h) – 7.7 seconds versus 6.9 for the feisty long-termer – but its 0.83g skidpad grip and 183-foot (55.8m) stopping distance from 70mph (113km/h) are nearly identical to the Civic's.
The Same, Only Different
More important, the Civic's sweet balance of crisp handling, accurate steering, and an absorbent ride are fully present in the Insight. The biggest compliment we can give the Insight's regenerative braking system is that you don't notice it; the firm brake pedal feels totally normal, which is not something we can say about most hybrids' stoppers.
Really, about the only notable difference between driving an Insight and a Civic is that the hybrid's gas engine revs higher more often, and it holds the revs there for longer periods. And you might not even know that's happening if you flick on the Touring's standard 450-watt, 10-speaker audio system.
That audio system points to another change in hybrid cars as exemplified by the Insight: There's nothing about it that says "fuel sipper." The top-of-the-line Touring model's standard equipment list is generous, almost identical to the Civic's.
It includes leather seating, that stout audio system, a fat leather-covered steering wheel, heated power front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, handsomely trimmed interior door panels, a glass sunroof, and Honda's latest 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with navigation and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability. The 60/40 split-folding rear seat includes a fold-down center armrest, and there's a padded, sewn cover on the passenger side of the dash that classes up the cabin.
Insights are also available in mid-level EX and base LX trims, which offer progressively more standard equipment. (The LX starts at $23,725 (AU$32,774) – $5260 (AU$7266) more than the Touring.)
All Insight models get the Honda Sensing bundle of safety features, which includes adaptive cruise control, automated emergency braking, traffic-sign recognition, lane-keeping assist, and enough warnings for lane departure and forward collision to keep even the most distracted drivers alert to impending doom.
Whatever the mix of reasons for purchasing a hybrid, the promise of mega fuel economy is the central motivator. Here the Insight does well, but others do better. The EPA estimates the Insight LX and EX at 52 mpg (4.5L/100km) combined and the more heavily equipped Touring at 48 mpg (4.9L/100km) combined. But the best of the rest, the Toyota Prius Eco and the Hyundai Ioniq Blue, are rated at 56 and 58 mpg (4.2, 4.0) combined, respectively.
Still, driving gingerly one morning on our seven-mile commute along suburban surface streets, the Insight's center-stack fuel-economy gauge rang in at 57 mpg (4.1L/100km) at trip's end. Although running at highway speeds is not a hybrid's forte and few hybrids beat their EPA highway ratings on our 200-mile (322km) real-world highway fuel-economy test, the Insight did: its 47-mpg (5.0L/100km) result topped its EPA highway rating by 2 mpg.
Our long-term (Car & Driver) Civic returned 41 mpg (5.7L/100km) on the same test. Overall, we saw a 43-mpg (5.4L/100km) average for our daily driving. By way of comparison, our long-term Civic compiled a 35-mpg (6.7L/100km) average over its 40,000-mile (64,374km) test period.
If your goal is to save not only gas but dollars and cents, there is an advantage to driving an Insight relative to a Civic, even at today's low fuel prices – but it's slight. An Insight Touring costs $1290 (AU$1782) more than a similarly equipped Civic.
Based on their EPA combined fuel-economy estimates, the current cost of gasoline, and the assumption of driving 15,000 miles (24,140km) a year, the Insight's better fuel efficiency will pay off its additional cost in a little over four years and 65,000 miles (104,607km). As they say, your mileage may vary, but you get the idea: The savings in fuel cost are slow to accrue.
We won't try to convince you one way or the other about buying an Insight over a Civic; that choice is yours. What we can say with confidence is that the years spent in an Insight driving toward its break-even point will be totally painless. No, better than painless – pleasant. For many people, not noticing they're driving a hybrid will be payback enough.