A huge success on the Japanese market since its launch at the beginning of the year, the Honda Insight will soon be available at Honda dealerships. I had the chance to drive some of the preproduction models at the launch of this vehicle last November, which took place in uncharacteristically cold and rainy Arizona. In mid-March, a few days before this hybrid entered our market, Honda organized a round table on environmentally friendly cars in Saint-Sauveur in the Laurentians. Granted, Honda was blowing its own horn, but a specialist in the subject demonstrated to us (with the numbers to back it up) Honda’s claim that its hybrid propulsion system offers one of the best combinations of performance, fuel efficiency and low emissions.
I’m not in a position to give an educated judgment on the subject, but this manufacturer’s system, which consists of placing an electric motor between the internal combustion engine and the transmission, is an economical solution that offers interesting results. In fact, the second generation Insight uses ostensibly the same mechanical elements as the first model, a two-seat coupe with a very controversial look. The second generation employs the technology of the first Insight, notably assistance from an electric motor to offset the lack of power of the gas engine. But the engineers focused on reducing the size of its battery pack and charger.
Moreover, they put significant effort toward reducing production costs, thus helping Honda to offer the most economical hybrid car on the market. In fact, sales of the new Insight in Japan have been so significant that Toyota had to scramble to develop a hybrid version of the Yaris in order to counteract the progress made by its competitor in the low end hybrid car category. We took the Insight on a short test drive on Quebec roads in order to confirm our preliminary impressions from the initial trial elsewhere in North America. This short exercise on the roads around Saint-Sauveur helped us verify if the production models behave like the preproduction models.
Shaped with a purpose
If the Insight’s front end reminds you of the Fit, you’re not seeing things: the two cars basically share the same platform. Actually, they’re similar up to the B-Pillar, at which point the hybrid model’s tail end starts to resemble that of the Toyota Prius. And this is no accident; Honda stylists purposely designed a tail end inspired by the Toyota so that people could automatically identify it as a hybrid vehicle. What’s more, this is also a practical design, since this car’s premium aerodynamics offer less wind resistance while reducing fuel consumption. The lower lip of the rear hatch is comprised of a window that improves visibility for parking and for backing up. This feature will take some getting used to at first when you are looking at your interior rearview mirror.
Despite its relatively modest exterior size, this little Japanese car is surprisingly spacious. The back seats are fairly accessible for larger people while the front seats are roomy and comfortable. In the cargo area, the floor is flat and the 60/40 split rear seatbacks fold down to create a pretty significant cargo space. This Honda is not only clean and green, it’s also practical. What about the dashboard, you ask? It’s similar to that of the Fit, except that its indicator dials are designed more to inform the driver about fuel consumption. The climate and ventilation controls are easy to access and use. There is also a button that helps to better maximize potential for fuel economy. Just push the button marked ECON to switch the continuously variable transmission and the fuel supply system to economical and environmentally friendly mode.
The fuel economy game
With its little 1.3-litre gas engine assisted by an electric motor, the Insight’s 98 horses of total power won’t exactly let you challenge sports cars. It’s an extremely versatile vehicle that is still quite pleasant to drive, and its versatility is maximized by its rear hatch and the numerous possibilities for passenger compartment configuration. In fact, it feels like a Fit when it comes to acceleration, vehicle handling, power steering and braking. I would even say that the hybrid model has slightly better soundproofing and its suspension isn’t as harsh.
Although this Honda doesn’t have an information screen like the Toyota Prius, it does offer an interesting Drive Assist System to reduce fuel consumption as much as possible. The speedometer can display three different colours. The ultimate goal is to keep the indicator in the green, which means that you are driving ecologically. Press the accelerator a little more and the indicator will become a little darker, while if you put the pedal to the metal, the screen turns dark blue. What’s more, if you push the ECON button, the engine function settings don’t just change, a warning screen situated under the speedometer tells you about your driving quality with the help of pictograms. Better still, the system analyzes your driving over many kilometres and displays a ranking. If you’re a good little environmentalist behind the wheel, you’ll be rewarded with a trophy icon on the screen.
This device is nice, but you have to watch out that it doesn’t turn into a distraction in the long run. It’s all well and good to want to save fuel, but not if it means sacrificing road safety. However, once you get used to it, glancing quickly at it to check your driving quality is easy.
I travelled a little less than 100 kilometres on the Laurentians’ back roads and I even took the Insight out for a high speed test on Highway 15, and I have come to the conclusion that this little hybrid does not disappoint. It’s fun to drive, offers respectable performances and features noticeable fuel economy, easily averaging 5.6 litres per 100 km. Furthermore, in tight turns you don’t feel the additional weight of the battery like with certain other hybrid vehicles. It’s clear that the Honda engineers put a great deal of effort into making the battery lighter and smaller.
With all of that in mind, the most interesting feature is the price. Indeed, the $23,900 price of the base model makes it the least expensive hybrid vehicle in the country.
If you’re in the market for a high performance car, the Insight is not for you. But if you want to buy a hybrid carwhich is also practical, the Insight will let you do so at a low price. And this little “green” Honda is also fun to drive. In conclusion, our second encounter confirmed the positive impression that we had when we first tested it.