Honda Canada is waiting until Earth Day, April 22, to put its new 2010 Insight on sale, but back in Japan, it's on sale and demand is soaring for the cheapest hybrid on the market. Honda received more than 5,000 orders in less than a week once the Insight began rolling into Japanese showrooms on Feb. 6.
The gas-electric Insight starts at ¥1.89-million ($24,500), but is likely to have a base price closer to $21,000 in Canada - not taking into account various provincial sales tax rebates for hybrids that can save you up to $3,000.
So the whole hybrid equation changes and that's exactly what Honda has in mind. Honda set out to create a hybrid for the masses, not just the early-adopting ecoheads. If you are tight-fisted with your money but also concerned about the planet, Honda thinks it has a hybrid for you.
By the way, Honda is also doing an in-your-face to Toyota. The Insight launch should make a gigantic splash in hybrid-land and go head-to-head with the Toyota Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid and arguably the iconic symbol of the Toyota brand.
Honda officials are convinced that it's all about the price. And they're not alone. Aaron Bragman, a research analyst with HIS Global Insight, expects the Insight - a dead ringer for the 2009 Prius - to have an impact on sales of the Toyota Prius, currently the world's best-selling hybrid by far, with nearly 300,000 sold around the world just last year.
"I don't think having a competitor that's so close in shape and abilities, and is undercutting it by several thousands in any way helps Prius sales," says Bragman, adding that cost of ownership is critical these days. "Right now, people are so price-sensitive for vehicles."
It is worth noting that Toyota Canada dealers will have the all-new, third-generation 2010 Prius on their lots by June.
Honda's price advantage flows from using much simpler technology than Toyota. Simpler, but not simple. The Insight, like all hybrids, is still a complicated machine. Aside from its gas engine, there is also the usual hybrid fare - battery pack, electric motor, sensors and so forth.
The whole package should add up to dramatic fuel economy gains and emission reductions. Here's the fuel economy number from Honda: 4.8 L/100 km city and 4.5 highway, with a combined rating 4.7 L/100 km.
Not bad, but not as good as the "old" 2009 Prius at 4.0 city/4.2 highway, and even further away from the coming 2010 Prius, which Toyota Canada rates at a combined 3.8 L/100 km.
In a nutshell, the Insight can't beat the Prius on fuel economy, but it will sell for thousands less than the expected $27,000-$28,000 starter sticker for the 2010 Prius.
And just like the Prius, the 2010 Insight is a functional four-door with a hatchback at the rear. There is comfortable seating inside for four adults, a decently roomy cargo hold and, perhaps most important of all, Honda has loaded it with an array of gauges and displays for coaching drivers to be as frugal in their driving as possible.
Take the speedometer or I should say its background. The colour changes from blue to green depending on how you drive. Green, of course, means you are driving in a more environmentally responsible way. The instrument becomes your conscience, in other words.
Do well, and you are rewarded with a good "ecoscore," signified by little leaves. The more, the better and, if you are excellent, you win a digital trophy surrounded by a wreath.
Honda also allows drivers to choose "Eco" mode. This is for the most socially conscious of us. In Eco, your wasteful tendencies are controlled by dampening the throttle response, adjusting the air conditioning and maximizing the electric assist. Over all, the Insight's emissions are graded at an ultraclean Tier II Bin 3.
All this just so-o-o-o Honda. That is, the hallmark of a good Honda is the way engineers grind out the details. Honda has rightfully built a reputation for making vehicles that are well thought-out and faithfully executed.
The gas engine by itself makes 88 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque. But it seldom runs alone. The electric motor provides up to 13 hp and 58 lb-ft of torque and, all told, the combination is good for 98 hp at 5,800 rpm and 123 lb-ft of torque from 1,000-1,500 rpm.
This is Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system. It's really simple in design, obviously trickier in execution. In a nutshell, there is the small and efficient gasoline engine, a conventional continuously variable transmission (CVT) and a thin, brushless electric motor sandwiched between the two.
Look for 0-100 km/h in about 11 seconds, which is about what you'll get in a Honda Fit Sport, but faster than the Honda Civic Hybrid by about two seconds. The Insight has an estimated range of 640 km on a single tank of regular gas.
However unlike the Prius or, for instance, vehicles with General Motors' Two-Mode Hybrid system, the new Insight cannot start out from a stop in all-electric mode, although it can run on electric power alone at very low speeds. Regardless, the Insight feels pokey on the road and in "Eco" mode it is even less lively.
It could be that the CVT - no manual or conventional automatic is offered - is to blame here. At times, it seems noisy and coarse, with the engine out of sync with the car's speed. But at other times, this is not so.
Nonetheless, the Insight feels solid and steady at highway speeds and, in city driving or on country-like roads, the handling is well-mannered and predictable - like a Honda Fit hybrid.
No surprise there. The Insight borrows heavily from the strut-based Fit, and the entire chassis and suspension from the firewall forward is pure Fit. The spring and damper calibrations are specifically optimized for the Insight, of course, but the geometry and many of the hard parts are identical. And while the rear suspension isn't a direct carryover, the twist-beam rear axle is the same.
All in all, the Insight is a very nice grocery-getter. The fuel-saving electric power steering is responsive enough and the regenerative brakes - designed to help recharge the battery - are surprisingly smooth, rather than grabby.
As an everyday driver, the Insight is practical, too. The nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and electronics unit fit neatly under the rear cargo floor, so the rear seat backs can be folded down to make room for bigger cargo. You can't do that in the current Civic Hybrid, which shares much of its mechanical and electron wizardry with the Insight.
The exterior design is not what I'd call gorgeous, but it's sensible. Still, there are some design issues. Back-seat users need to duck and twist to avoid whacking their heads when getting in and out and, once in there, head room is tight for grown-ups.
The steering column tilts and telescopes, but the front seats lack lumbar adjustments and they are not terribly comfortable after more than an hour.
In the end, Honda has built a clever and fuel-efficient hybrid, one priced to reset the thinking about this technology and one that is a clear shot across the bow of Toyota.
2010 HONDA INSIGHT
Type: Compact hybrid four-door hatchback
Price: $21,000 (estimated)
Engine: 1.4-litre, inline-four-cylinder, (DOHC)
Horsepower/Torque: 98 hp/123 lb-ft (combined)
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 4.8 city/4.5 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
- Smart engineering that makes the most of relatively straightforward technologies
- Incredibly affordable price for a hybrid
- Useful city car in every way
- Hatchback design is totally versatile
- Very low emissions
- Gas engine is coarse when pushed hard
- Old Prius, though more expensive, gets notably better fuel economy
- Rear-seat room is tight
- Noisy at higher speeds
- Front seats not terribly comfortable