With the entry of Honda's latest generation of Insight on to the market earlier this year, the hybrid wars appear to be heating up.
Any manufacturer not putting forward a hybrid vehicle of some type these days risks creating an image problem for themselves, and this former "bridge technology" is clearly here to stay. The Insight, with an under-$25,000 base price, is in the thick of it, and comes with one of the best fuel consumption ratings in Canada.
The majority of Insights will likely see much of their duty in an urban situation; to and from work, schlepping to the mall for groceries, running the kids to hockey practice and so on. But people do go on driving holidays, and if the Insight is going to be regarded as a true rival to the Toyota Prius et al, it's got to be as comfortable on the highway as it is around town.
I recently took an EX model on a 600-km jaunt - mostly on two-lane back roads and, with a couple of caveats, it did what I asked of it.
It's not a corner-carving Acura TL or BMW 3-Series, but, on the other hand, it spends much less time at gas stations. In fact, we didn't spend any time at all at the pumps; filled it up when we started out and refilled it when we got back. Total distance travelled: 590.6 kilometres; amount of fuel used: 34.16 litres.
This translated into an average fuel economy of about 5.8 L/100 km, according to my calculations, which, I concede, are far from perfect. And I should add that we travelled through every kind of driving condition imaginable, from 120 km/h highway cruising, to stop-and-go city traffic, to multiple elevation changes, to twisty mountain roads. About the only thing we didn't do was take it off-road.
On the highway, the Insight cruises comfortably at around 120 km/h, keeping up easily with traffic. However, reserve power isn't exactly abundant, and overtaking another vehicle - especially a large one - requires a little planning.
After a certain engine speed - usually around 4,500 rpm - there's more noise than motion coming from the power plant, and this is definitely a vehicle that has its limits on the highway.
If you're really concerned with squeezing every drop of fuel economy out of the Insight, you can choose the Economy performance setting, which will definitely help, but at the expense of usable power. It takes most of the fun out of highway cruising and, although we dabbled with it briefly, we ended up staying with the regular setting.
We also tried to drive with all the "leaves" on the dashboard-located driving performance graphic, staying in the "green" via the Eco-Assist coloured background indicator, but, frankly, that got pretty old after a while.
For most of the trip, we just drove the Insight as one would a conventional automobile and ignored the kaleidoscope of bells and whistles.
The EX version comes with a voice-actuated GPS system, which worked okay until we got on the ferry and drove into uncharted territory. After that, it got sort of discombobulated, and couldn't seem to figure out where we were. When we got to our final destination, it triumphantly informed us that we were there, but we did most of the work ourselves.
Other features separating the EX from the base LX include steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles, which I ended up using quite frequently - especially through the mountains - a vehicle stability assist system with traction control, which I honestly didn't pay much attention to, and steering wheel-mounted audio controls, which I used a lot.
All these extras, plus a few more such as lightweight alloy wheels, illuminated side mirror signal indicators and various interior bits and pieces, add some $3,600 to the price tag and, all things considered, you can probably do without them.
The basic driving experience of the new Insight is the same regardless of trim level, and one-touch-power windows, climate control system, tilt/telescoping steering, cruise control and all the usual modcons come standard on both models.
A few other notes from the trip:
The front bucket seats proved to be kind of skimpy after we got a few kilometres under our belts. As far as I'm concerned, they need to be a couple of centimetres wider, with better lumbar support.
The Insight makes a surprising amount of racket on the highway - NVH suppression is not one of Honda's strongest areas, it seems, and I've noticed this on Civics and some of the company's other models.
The CVT transmission can be kind of snatchy during low-speed driving - parallel parking and such - and the overall feel of the Insight is not as refined and seamless as the Prius, for example.
On the other hand, the Prius is considerably more expensive and both models offer the best fuel economy numbers in the industry.
2010 HONDA INSIGHT EX
Type: Five-passenger hybrid sedan
Base Price: $27,500; as tested, $28,810
Engine: 1.3-litre four-cylinder with integral electric motor
Horsepower/Torque: 98 hp/123 lb-ft
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 5.0 city/4.6 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Toyota Prius, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, Saturn Aura Green Line, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid
- Fabulous fuel economy
- Reasonable sticker price
- Seats needs a redesign
- Kind of loud on the highway
- Snatchy transmission