Two Takes on Honda’s $23,900 Insight Hybrid

By dancurranjr On May 9th, 2009

insightHonda marks Earth Day Wednesday with the arrival of its much-hyped Insight hybrid at dealerships across North America.

Here are two takes on the car by two Canwest auto writers, the first by Keith Morgan, the second by Pedro Arrais.

Keith Morgan’s take:

The launch of the revived and redesigned gas/electric-powered sedan also marks the manufacturer’s return to the battle for eco supremacy with Toyota, producer of the iconic Prius.

The two-seat coupe version of the Insight was the first dedicated hybrid launched in North America in 2000. However, though it performed well in the gas consumption stakes, it failed as a practical vehicle.

The Prius was available in Japan from 1997 but didn’t arrive here until a year after the Insight. It was an entirely different story: The Prius was a “real” car, practical and very economical. For those anxious to demonstrate their green consciousness, it soon became the car to be seen driving, Honda Canada announced earlier this week that the base LX model of the five-seat, five-door hatchback sedan would sell for $23,900 making it the cheapest hybrid in Canada. The new Prius due soon is expected to bear a price sticker of around $28,000.

Honda boasts the Insight fuel consumption has a combined city/highway rate of 4.7 L/100 km/h but Toyota counters the new Prius will sip gas at the rate of 3.8 L/100 km/h.

Let the battle commence for your eco-bucks.

The Looks

Apparently, the guiding words used in the design of the car were “Aero Athlete,” which caused a chuckle, as the Insight is no low-slung sports car. That said, it does feature a sleek, aerodynamic wedge shape and clearly the original model inspired its design. Nevertheless, the front-end looks forward taking its cues from the Honda FCX Clarity fuel-cell car, which is currently undergoing road testing by a select group of drivers — movie actress Jamie-Lee Curtis among them.

The Inside

The cockpit does not look back in any way: It has a contemporary-looking, almost futuristic two-tier instrument panel with multi-information display — the EX tester also featured a navigation system.

A 160-watt AM/FM/CD audio system with MP3/auxiliary input jack, four speakers, speed-sensitive volume control is standard fare, with the EX adding two more speakers.

Both trims have jacks for MP3 players, while the EX also includes a USB audio interface. The latter works very well with lower volume players enabling the listener to control music selections through the system controls (my 180-gig iPod overwhelmed it in that I could only select music, not Podcasts).

It seats five adults comfortably and the 60/40 split fold-down rear seats dramatically expand the cargo space, which is already large enough for three large suitcases. Seats are firm and supportive and the driver side easily adjustable.

Lots of glass provides good views of the road though the divided rear hatch does take a little getting used to.

Safety Equipment

Dual-stage/dual-threshold front airbags and front-side airbags, with front passenger occupant position-detection system, anti-lock braking system with electronic brake distribution, pedestrian injury-mitigation design elements in vehicle front, vehicle-stability assist (exclusive to EX).

The Drive

Trying to achieve maximum fuel economy in the new Honda Insight will earn you dirty looks from fellow drivers. Reducing the need to call at the pumps requires smooth acceleration when the light turns green, guaranteed to annoy antsy city drivers behind, who would prefer you make a Formula One racing start. I drove the dedicated gas/electric hybrid for a week and if the looks frequently sighted in the rear view mirror could have killed, I would be a dead man.

However, I found myself scowling at folks who drive erratically, braking unnecessarily and failing to maintain speed or get up to speed when entering the highway. They forced me to brake and thus drive less efficiently.

I drove around town for four days, doing errands that are typically gas-guzzling trips, through stop-start city traffic. The auto-stop feature at the lights surprises at first, causing a momentary fear that it won’t start up again at the green or will just stall as you press the pedal. It does obey and it is a great gas-saving feature.

Then I headed to Kelowna, scaling the mountainous Coquihalla Highway/Okanagan Connector route. I let the cruise control take charge where appropriate, setting it at the posted speed limit. It performed admirably and the electric/gas combo powertrain did not disappoint no matter how challenging the terrain was.

In seven days, I covered a little more than 1,000 klicks of combined city and highway driving. The car averaged about 5.4 litres per 100 kilometres driven, a little more than half a litre more than advertised by Honda and confirmed by Transport Canada. In real conditions, rarely does one match the published fuel-consumption numbers. They are an excellent guide, but driving conditions — road and weather — have a dramatic effect on fuel economy though perhaps the biggest determinant is the driver’s habits.

When people complain their new hybrid has disappointed when it comes to fuel savings, I wonder if they ever checked to see if their old gas-powered cars mirrored the advertised numbers for that model. I doubt it but if they had, I suspect they might have been equally disappointed.

Eco Assist helps drivers achieve better fuel economy. Pressing a dash-mounted ECON button enhances the efficiency of vehicle systems, including throttle control, CVT operation, idle-stop duration, air conditioning and cruise-control operation.

It also provides feedback about driving style on a 3D background within the speedometer. The background changes colours from blue to green to reflect how efficiently you accelerate or brake. The fuel-economy ratings are shown in the form of plant-leaf graphics that appear in the display. Up to five leaves can be “earned” as the driver demonstrates a fuel-efficient driving style. Ahem, I’m pleased to announce I scored all five leaves, but the folks behind me at the light didn’t share my joy.

The Score

Though it appears to be inferior in fuel consumption to the Prius, its reduced base sticker price may make the difference in the race for sales.

Pedro Arrais’ take:

It seems appropriate that Honda will officially launch its new 2010 Insight hybrid on April 22, Earth Day. This annual celebration is intended to inspire an awareness of a healthy environment and a greener planet. Picking that day to introduce the successor to the world’s first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle is a no-brainer.

The original Honda Insight was the first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle sold in North America. Introduced in 1999, it signalled the birth of a new, greener era in automotive history. The original car was a real-world test bed for hybrid technology. But Toyota, who introduced the Prius hybrid in 2000, eventually overtook Honda in popularity. Honda is confident its new Insight will recharge the company’s position as the premier hybrid manufacturer and short-circuit the popularity of the Toyota Prius.

Honda is confident it can induce buyers away from Toyota showrooms by offering the five-passenger Insight with a starting price of $23,900, which is $3,810 less than a 2009 Prius (prices for the 2010 Prius had not been released at press time). We drove an upgraded EX model, which retails for $27,500.

While both the Insight and Prius are hybrid cars, the two companies employ different technologies to lower emissions and improve mileage.

The Insight uses a 10-kilowatt brushless electric motor located on the crankshaft. During acceleration, the battery provides energy to the electric motor, which provides supplemental power to the gasoline engine. During deceleration the motor acts like a generator and recharges the battery using a process called regenerative braking.

The gasoline engine will switch off once the car decelerates to under 10 km/h with the foot on the brake. But once the brake is released, the gas engine starts up again. Honda claims the Insight can operate exclusively on electric power under certain low-to mid-speed cruising conditions, but I was not able to confirm that.

On the other hand, the Prius can be powered solely by the battery at low speeds.

In stop-and-go traffic the gasoline engine may not engage at all. This ability to run purely on electric power makes the Prius more fuel-efficient in an urban environment.

A fuel mileage comparison bears out the advantage. While the Insight is rated at 5.0 litres per 100 kilometres in the city and 4.6 on the highway for the EX model, the Prius beats those numbers, with 3.7 in the city and 4.0 highway (preliminary figures for the 2010 Prius).

The first thing drivers getting behind the wheel of an Insight will notice is the Eco Assist system. This feature is meant to educate drivers on how to drive in the most fuel-efficient manner. It keeps a record of driving history, with the last three trips saved in memory. The background of the speedometer will change colour to give a quick visual indication of how efficient the operator is driving.

A multi-function display keeps track of economy on a lifetime basis, awarding a frugal driver with virtual leaves on a plant and ultimately, an electronic trophy.

It’s almost like playing a video game — the difference being the outcome. In the real world winning at this game can save an owner money and save the planet from pollution.

For the most economical operation, drivers can press a dash-mounted green ECON button. Once activated, this changes the way the Insight operates, from throttle control, shift points on the CVT transmission, idle-stop duration, air-conditioning and cruise-control operation.

There are a few gripes. The multi-function display has to be activated every driving cycle. There is no way to just unlock the driver’s door. There is no power outlet in the small centre console. There is no mute button for the radio, although it does automatically mute when a Blueberry-enabled telephone call comes in.

The Insight is powered by a conventional 1.3-litre engine and continuously variable transmission. It strikes me as strange that a hyper-economy car would feature a Sport setting on the transmission and paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel. When moving out of park it is possible to inadvertently put the car in Sport mode if the button on the shift knob is kept depressed a second or so longer.

The front seats are comfortable and supportive. The back wasn’t bad, but a sloping roofline makes rear headroom tight. Some passengers have complained the low roof caused them to bonk their heads when getting into the back. The top of the rear door is disproportionately long. I found I had to step back when opening the door before I could get in. The back seats fold down 60/40.

A high tail aids aerodynamics but means the back window is almost horizontal. A smaller rear window aids rear visibility and makes it easier to parallel park. There is no rear camera offered.

While it is easy to lump the Insight and Prius together, it is important for shoppers to understand the fundamental differences that set the two cars apart. The Prius is larger, more expensive but more fuel-efficient. The Insight has the advantage of a much lower sticker price and the innovative Eco Assist system.

But regardless of whichever hybrid the consumer chooses, the bottom line is a greener planet, and that’s something worth celebrating on Earth Day.

SOURCE: Ottawa Citizen

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