Alternative inevitably becomes mainstream. You may have noticed this trend the last time you were in a grocery store and heard the overhead music change from Neil Diamond to Nirvana. What was once cutting edge and forward-looking is now just the background noise to everyday life. Thus it is with Honda’s Insight, which contains not even the slightest whiff of teen spirit.
That is not to say this utterly conventional four-door sedan is boring. Under the hood, it has a full hybrid drive system that consistently returns excellent fuel economy, particularly in the city. Much like Toyota’s Prius, this is proven technology that’s been adopted by hundreds of owners. It’s just that Toyota thinks you want a hybrid that looks like a robot catfish, while Honda thinks you want one that looks like a Civic.
In fact, the Insight is even more conventional-looking than the Civic, both inside and out. Think of this car the way you would a microwave oven. Do you have a deep understanding of how a microwave cooks using a magnetron to convert electricity to 12 cm radio waves? Probably not, you just expect it to reheat your lunch.
The Insight takes an efficient, port-injected Atkinson-cycle 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine and pairs it with a 129-horsepower permanent-magnet synchronous AC motor, drawing on a 1.1kWh lithium-ion battery. Peer under the hood and you’ll see a nest of black and orange wiring, finned aluminium electrical components and exposed coilpacks. Ownership doesn’t require knowing how any of this stuff works. There will be no test. You just drive the Insight and it uses very little fuel.
The interior also asks very little of an owner. The trunk is 428 litres, identical to that of the Honda Civic. The cabin is spacious enough for a family. The gearshift is Honda’s push-button arrangement rather than a lever, but it’s the same as you get in a Acura MDX and it becomes second nature with use. The instrument panel is in front of the driver. The touchscreen display has a volume knob. There’s a large amount of storage between the seats and a perfect little spot up high for your smartphone.
If a lot of your time is spent commuting, then the Insight promises to be very pleasant to own. It drives just like the current Honda Civic: relatively light on its feet, quiet at speed and comfortable even on cracked pavement. The hybridized powertrain offers good initial torque, and if you push the throttle right to the floor, the combined power output is perfectly sufficient for a passing situation, even going uphill.
The first-generation Insight was an odd little three-door hatchback with spats, and has now become something of a collector’s item. The second generation was close to being a copy of the Prius, except less expensive and quite buzzy to drive.
This third-generation car feels like a more mature version of the Civic, one particularly focused on fuel economy. The Atkinson-cycle engine produce an excellent 40.5 per cent thermal efficiency (double that of a conventional combustion engine), while the regenerative brakes harvest momentum and save wear on pads and rotors. Further, in a particularly clever Honda-ish move, paddle shifters can be used to increase regeneration when you’re driving down a hill, instead of riding the brakes.
Add in Honda’s available suite of driver-assist technologies, including automated cruise control and lane-keeping assist to take some of the drudgery out of the daily slog, and the Insight becomes even more sensible. The large, clear icons of Honda’s new infotainment system make listening to your favourite podcast easy. Everything about this car is quick, efficient and effortless. And then there’s its hybrid drive, easing pain at the pump.
There’s nothing strange about the Insight. In fact, Honda should have just called it the Civic Hybrid. It’s not an alternative to normal car ownership – it is a very normal car. If you want to feel a bit more alternative while driving it, you’ll have to dig out your old plaid shirt.
- Base price: $27,990
- Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder hybrid
- Transmission/drive: CVT/front-wheel
- Fuel economy (litres/100kms; city/hwy): 4.6/5.3
- Alternatives: Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt
The current Honda Civic should look this grownup. Taking cues from the Accord, the Insight is more toned down than its best-selling stablemate and is the better for it. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard.
The only weirdness to be found in the Insight is the use of some brittle-looking smooth black plastic throughout the cabin. It’s not a deal-breaker, but looks like it’ll be easily scratched over the life of the car. You’ll see it on the dash and around the shifter.
Hybrids are more about fuel economy than spirited driving, but the Insight still has a bit of Honda feel to its dynamics. The steering is very good, and the chassis reacts well in the corners. Combined power is a useful 151 horsepower, and the 197 lb.-ft. of electric torque helps the Insight feel zippy around town.
With Apple Carplay and Android Auto standard, and a seven-inch touchscreen standard on the base model, most owners may not need to upgrade to the navigation-equipped Touring model. Adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist are also standard.
A sedan isn’t as flexible as a hatchback, so the Prius does have an advantage over the Insight. However, the Honda’s trunk is huge, and the seats fold down with a large pass-through. The 428 litre capacity is, as mentioned, identical to the Civic.
The verdict: 9.0
A good-looking, efficient and entirely sensible hybrid sedan.