Honda's Insight is a less convincing hybrid than the Toyota Prius.
Until 2012, it was Australia's most affordable petrol-electric model, priced from $29,990, before the Toyota Prius C city car came along.
Toyota has held a veritable monopoly on hybrid cars ever since the launch of the first generation Toyota Prius back in 1997. To date, they’ve notched up well over 2 million sales of this model, with little or no competition for over a decade.
Honda was actually first to market with a hybrid in Australia, however, with the original Insight - a somewhat futuristic-looking two-seater in 1999, but that car failed to gain any traction in the major car markets with worldwide sales of less than 18,000 units.
If anything it was ahead of its time, and offered little in the way of everyday practicality, despite commendably low fuel consumption and thoroughly advanced technology. It was also prohibitively expensive for most consumers.
Honda Insight is a hybrid electric vehicle, which uses a small 1.3-litre four-cylinder petrol engine as the primary source of power, but is assisted by a small electric motor with battery, which contributes close enough to 10 kW of power and 78 Nm of torque to the car’s overall performance.
The beauty of electric power is that all the torque created by the electric power source is available from the very instant you depress the accelerator. That means that pulling away from the traffic lights, or an intersection, is generally effortless and deceptively quick.
The Insight is no slouch, my colleague and I (with overnight luggage) add around 240 kilograms to the car's weight, and acceleration is decidedly zippy even when driving in the ‘green zone’ (“ECON” button on).
Switch the “ECON” button off, and not only is the power increase immediately noticeable, but there’s a sportier engine note too.
Parking the Insight in tight inner city spaces should also be a breeze, as the electrically assisted steering is particularly light, but perfectly suited for what should be its natural habitat.
I’ve been driving the car in Sport mode, which is a little too noisy under hard acceleration, and a common characteristic of all CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) systems. A far better driving experience is to be gained by using the standard automatic mode.
Engage the standard fit steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, and the fun factor increases more so, as you take advantage of all seven simulated gear ratios and relatively quick shifts, up or down the range.
In-gear acceleration on the open road is also up to the task, even when overtaking at 100km/h although, it's a little buzzy as previously mentioned.
It’s not as quiet as the Prius, but that’s partly because Honda’s hybrid system called Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) is a less complex system than Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive.
Even when the Insight is moving solely on electric power, the petrol engine, or at least the drive shaft is still spinning, so there's always a smooth takeoff whenever the petrol engine is engaged.
We’re driving in the Gold Coast hinterland at the maximum speed limit and the roads are wet and slippery, yet the Insight feels solid and grippy through the bends.
That said the rear end of the car feels somewhat light in some conditions, but it doesn’t interfere with the Insight’s dynamics, or its ability to negotiate sweeping bends at highway speeds.
Despite the rear brakes being of the drum-type (front bakes are single pot with sliding caliper) the Insight pulls up confidently, and the pedal feel nice and progressive, but with plenty of brake boost when needed.
The driving position is relatively high and neither of us could find the height adjustment lever to lower the position slightly. Overall vision though, is superb, with a commanding view all round, due to a lower than usual beltline.
Honda, generally do excellent seats, which are well bolstered and supportive and the Insight is no exception to that practice. These front pews almost encourage some spirited driving, given the above average side-bolster and cosseted feel.
While the rear seats are no less comfortable, the same cannot be said for both head and legroom. At 176cm, I’m generally considered short by today’s standards, and yet with the front passenger seat in a comfortable position (at least for me and my short legs) there was only just enough legroom. Children will fare better, of course.
Headroom was also fine for me in the rear, but anyone over six-feet will find it a snug fit. However, in the small car class, which the Insight will compete in, the overall space is perhaps better than the average player inn this segment, while a flexible load space of 408-litres is better than most.
It’s a reasonable car to drive, if not that dynamically focused, especially if you use the “ECO ASSIST” program, which is more like a high-definition video game than an instrument cluster. The centrepiece of this visual light show is the digital speedometer, which glows green when you’re driving with a light foot or blue if you need to get somewhere in a hurry.
The idea behind this system is that with practice, and a keen eye on the background colour, you can develop more efficient driving habits that will result in less fuel stops at the petrol station.
You can also earn “green leaves” on a plant stem graphic, or perhaps an eco trophy, once you have mastered fuel-efficient driving techniques over the long term, as displayed on the information display in the centre of the tachometer.
Combined fuel economy of 4.6-litres/100km is the number Honda has published although, after putting a couple of hundred spirited kilometres on the clock during our road test, I was along way from collecting a “green leaf” for fuel-conscious driving. Rather, the best reading we could achieve was 6.2-litres/100kms.
That said I have no doubt whatsoever that a city bred Insight with a certain adherence to the “green” glow, could easily achieve 4.6-litres/100kms or better (expect an eco test in the Insight in January 2011).
There’s no shortage of standard kit in the entry level VTi Insight either, with a full suite of active and passive safety features including six airbags, Vehicle Stability Assist, cruise control, ABS brakes with EBD and brake assist.
Creature comforts are well catered for too with keyless entry, security alarm, Climate control air conditioning, six speaker audio with steering wheel controls, USB and auxiliary ports, reversing sensors and luggage blind featuring on the inventory list.
The more expensive VTi-L adds items such as, auto wipers, side indicators on door mirrors, auto headlights, auto up/down front windows, 16-inch alloys, leather steering wheel, fog lights and satellite navigation with bluetooth and reversing camera.
So the Honda Insight is still a few thousand dollars cheaper than the Prius, which has seen its entry price pared in recent times but the Toyota is more refined, has more interior space and has a smarter hybrid system.