2012 Honda Insight LX Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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Back in December 1999 when Honda introduced the original two-seater Insight hybrid to North America, it had the distinction of being the first mass-market hybrid car available on this continent, and for years it was also the most fuel efficient of the hybrids. But despite these apparent triumphs, Honda has always ended up playing second fiddle to Toyota when it comes to hybrid success.

The reason for this, of course, was that seven months after Honda introduced its Insight coupe, Toyota introduced its more practical five-seat Prius sedan. The Prius was an immediate success, and became positively iconic four years later when it was redesigned as an aerodynamic five-door hatchback. Meanwhile the Insight withered away to become little more than a footnote and a technology donor vehicle for Honda's far more successful Honda Civic Hybrid, which is North America's number-two bestselling hybrid.

Honda set about to revive the Insight in 2009 with the introduction of the second-generation 2010 model year Honda Insight, which was redesigned based on an all-new dedicated hybrid platform with Honda Fit underpinnings. Although not as fuel efficient as the original Insight, the new five-passenger, 5-door hatchback Insight competes directly with the Prius in terms of space, practicality and performance, while boasting a lower price tag.

As anyone who has ever played sports, started a business, or applied for a job knows, however, success isn't always a slam dunk. The new Insight starts things out right, with a $4,000 price advantage compared to the Prius (the base MSRP for the Insight LX is $21,990 compared to $25,995 for the Prius). The Insight also closely mirrors the Prius on many important counts: Acceleration is only a couple tenths of a second slower, fuel efficiency is within the right ballpark (the Insight achieves city/highway consumption of 4.7 / 4.4 L/100km, compared to the Prius at 3.7 / 4.0 L/100km) and passenger and cargo space are roughly comparable, although the Prius does hold the advantage in terms of rear seat room. For all this, though, the Insight still can't catch the Prius in terms of sales numbers, and with the new compact Prius C now on the market and starting at $20,950, Toyota is taking a run at Honda's price advantage, too.

With all this as background, Honda has refreshed the Insight for 2012 with redesigned front and rear bumpers, a new grille and headlights, slightly wider tires and some mechanical tweaks that have reduced friction and improved fuel economy by a fraction. Inside there's a smidgen more rear seat headroom (1.25 cm more) and a redesigned gauge cluster. To my eye the exterior cosmetic changes are all good, with the blue-tinted headlight covers and the chromed, blue-accented grille giving the car a look of cool, high-tech sophistication. A chrome strip across the back adds a touch of class while unifying the overall look.

Mechanically, the Insight is a simpler beast then the Prius, and some may find this to be an advantage while others may consider it a disadvantage. In a nutshell, where the Prius uses electrical and gasoline engines that work cooperatively yet semi-independently to power the car, the Insight uses an electric motor that is attached directly to the 1.3-litre gasoline engine's crankshaft to assist the gasoline engine, so they always work directly together to power the car (hence Honda's description of the system as "Integrated Motor Assist"), producing a combined 98 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque. Power is transmitted through an automatic CVT (continuously variable transmission).

On the road, this means that driving the Insight is much more like driving a regular car than the Prius is. Indeed, other than the automatic shutdown of the engine at traffic lights and such, there's very little indication at all that you're driving a hybrid. Sure, there's a charge/assist gauge to indicate whether the electric motor/generator is busy supplying power or storing it, and the speedometer backlighting shifts from green to aqua to blue in order to indicate whether you are driving economically or not, but in most other respects the Insight feels utterly conventional, with none of the transitioning from electric power to gasoline-electric power and back that you get in the Prius, and no opportunity to glide along under electric power alone like the Prius. I found myself missing this last feature, especially in stop-and-go traffic. This is one area where the Prius really shines, gliding silently forward on electric power alone when traffic creeps forward just a little, and sitting quietly when traffic is stopped. The Insight also sits quietly when traffic is stopped, but if you release your foot from the brake, even to creep forward two metres, the engine starts up and runs for a few seconds after you stop before shutting down again. Depending on the frequency of traffic creep this constant starting and stopping can become somewhat jarring.

Inside, I found the front seats comfortable, but I also found myself missing a couple of features that are available on the Prius, namely Bluetooth telephone connectivity and map lights. Bluetooth is apparently available in EX models if you add the satellite navigation option, but that's an expensive way to get what is really a basic feature, and anyway it's unavailable in Canada, where we only get the LX trim. The back seats, despite having better headroom than before, received criticism from my admittedly picky (and very long-legged) teenagers for being "lumpy and cramped." Climbing into the back seat myself, I didn't think the seats were so bad, but the cushioning does indeed seem to be sculpted in a slightly unusual manner.

Overall, the Insight is an interesting proposition. You could argue that the driving experience is a little more engaged than the Prius, but with its Honda Fit underpinnings it's still not exactly supremely engaging. It is at least comparable to the Prius in terms of practicality and performance, and it does have a price advantage. But for those who are set on the ultimate in hybrid efficiency and functionality (including EV-mode driving), the price difference is likely to be beside the point. For those who are looking for a price-conscious hybrid, on the other hand, the Insight remains a civilized, simple solution. Whether it can woo enough of those cost-conscious hybrid buyers from the new Prius C - or even from Honda's own Civic Hybrid, which at $24,990 undercuts the Prius by $1,000 - remains an open question.
©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Hatchback, Hybrid, HEV, Honda, 2012, Insight, $20,000 - $29,999,

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