When the current generation Honda Insight was introduced in March 2009 as a 2010 model it was hailed as a “Toyota Prius fighter.” Making the best use of the most cost-effective Honda hybrid technology, the Insight was touted as a 40-mpg-plus compact car for less than $20,000 – a figure designed to undercut the least expensive Prius by about $2,000. But Toyota countered with a lower priced Prius. With around $1,500 difference in price, combined with the Prius’s 51 mpg city and 48 highway versus the Insight’s 40 city/43 highway, the projected Insight sales of 70,000 per year didn’t happen.
Last year, to be more competitive and jump-start the sluggish sales, Honda added a new entry level Insight hybrid model to its 2011 lineup. Named simply the Honda Insight, the $18,200 price gave it a walloping $4,610 price advantage over the base Toyota Prius II. (Toyota relegated the Prius I for fleet sales only.) The result? The same as the previous year – Honda’s little hatchback hybrid never came close its yearly sales goal. In fact, since its March 2009 introduction Insight sales have tallied only 57,083 units.
For 2012 It’s Try, Try Again
Like the little hybrid that could, Honda’s 2012 carries over with updates in hopes of increasing sales. The company has given the car minor changes to the exterior styling, interior and a slight increase in fuel economy. Traditionally, these changes – what the industry calls a refresh – come after a vehicle has been on sale for three or four years, but the Insight’s situation called for faster action.
The sub-model designation nomenclature, however, is still the same as it was in 2011. The lineup begins with the base Insight starting at $18,350, a $150 increase over 2011. Next is the LX with a $225 price bump to $20,125. The top EX trim starts at $21,815, $325 more than the 2011 model. There’s also the EX with Navigation, which is priced at $23,540, a $275 increase. Of note, the 2012 Insight’s price increases are relatively small compared to the 2012 Toyota Prius’s $480 to $1,045 jump.
Under The Hood
Increasing the fuel economy of an existing vehicle is not an easy task, particularly one that is already one of the most fuel-efficient available. But that’s what Honda accomplished on the 2012 Insight, with some tweaks under the hood plus an exterior nip and tuck. This latest edition posts EPA mpg numbers of 41 city/44 highway and 42 combined; a one-mpg increase in each category.
The design tweaks start with a change to the aerodynamic shape of the engine bay underbody cover. Next, minor revisions to the engine and transmission cut friction to reduce fuel consumption.
The Insight continues with the hybrid system that Honda calls Integrated Motor Assist (IMA). It’s an apt name since the electric motor assists the gasoline engine rather than working in tandem with it. The assist occurs when passing or climbing hills and in certain situations, namely low-speed driving, it can even move the car on its own, though the engine always turns.
The Insight’s IMA system is comprised of a 1.3-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor paired with a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The gas engine generates 88 horsepower and 88 pound-feet of torque, while the electric motor chips in 13 horses and 58 pound feet. Due to varying torque peaks, the maximum combined output is 98 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. Power is directed to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which provides infinite ratios to keep the engine operating within its most efficient range.
On the upscale EX model, Honda offers paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel that give the driver the experience of a seven-speed gearbox. A CVT doesn’t actually have gears, so the system uses electronics to direct the transmission to up- or downshift in specific ways when a driver hits a paddle.
For the Insight’s design, Honda uses a shape that’s coming to define hybrid and electric vehicles: a four-door hatchback with a smooth front and a high, abrupt tail. You can add the Insight to a list of similarly shaped cars that begins with the Toyota Prius and includes the plug-in Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle as well.
The nip and tucks of the exterior include a new grille design that introduces a thin, blue accent bar, blue light surrounds inside the headlamp casings and a restyled front bumper. The rear bumper is also redesigned with diffusers added to smooth airflow while the aerodynamic strakes forward of the front wheels have been extended. These two changes, along with the engine bay’s underbody cover, reduce the drag coefficient by two percent, helping to improve highway fuel mileage.
The low nose, swept-back windshield, and long, gently arched roof let onlookers know that the Insight is a gas-electric car. That’s a message that is important to many hybrid buyers.
Despite the small platform, the Insight feels spacious, airy, and somewhat futuristic. Like the Honda Civic, there’s plenty of forward space and a clean, multi-level dash. Standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel and manual height-adjustable driver’s seat assures a comfortable driving position.
In response to owner input, for 2012 the center-console beverage holders have been reshaped to accommodate larger drinks and the front armrest (not available on the base model) is more supportive. The available navigation system now includes a rearview camera and a 16-GB flash memory system replaces the 4.7-GB DVD-based system used on the prior model.
In back, changes to the rear headliner shape and deeper sculpting of the rear seat cushion result in 0.6 inches more headroom. (Hey, every 10th of an inch helps.) The 15.9 cubic feet of cargo room behind the rear seats is sufficient – maybe not for a family of four, but certainly for a couple taking a road trip. When more carrying room is required, the 60/40-split fold seats can open up to a fairly generous 31.5 cubic feet.
Driver Controls And Feedback, For Max MPG
The electronics in the control system let Honda offer what it calls the Eco Assist system, which tells the driver how economically he or she is driving by changing the background color of the speedometer. Green means good, blue means you’re a lead-foot. There’s an ECON mode that enhances fuel economy further by resetting the control logic, so the car accelerates more slowly and backs off the gas engine quicker.
The dashboard Eco Guide accumulates data on driving patterns, so hypermiling drivers can analyze their history to improve driving strategies. Honda even shows up to five green leaves in the display – similar to graphics in the Ford Fusion Hybrid – to reward drivers who display the most economical behavior over time. Wilted leaves means more practice is required for driving economically.
On The Road
The Insight can feel labored when accelerating rapidly off the line or overtaking fast-moving traffic. In ordinary driving conditions, however, the powertrain absolves itself well enough and the car is stable on the highway. Our take is the Insight’s handling leans toward its cousin, the Honda Fit – which is to say, it is fairly nimble and responsive. Steering feel is good and contributes to a generally rewarding drive. The ride is firm and reasonably well damped but the suspension’s tuning makes known even the smallest road imperfections.
Cabin noise intrusion has been an issue with the Insight since day one. The low-rolling resistant tires have been singled out as the major noisemaker – as they are with all hybrids – and a bit of buzziness from the engine during periods of stronger acceleration is another contributor. Interior noise sees improvement for 2012, thanks to thicker noise-insulation materials and additional insulation panels in the cargo area.
If you are a prospective hybrid car buyer, there’s no question that the price of the 2012 Insight will get your attention, plus until the Prius c arrives, it has the highest fuel economy rating of any vehicle under $20,000. Additionally, even the entry-level Insight is well equipped with standard features that include: automatic climate control; remote keyless entry; power windows, door locks and outside mirrors; tilt-and-telescoping steering column; manual driver’s seat height adjustment; AM/FM/CD audio system with two speakers; auxiliary audio input; and unique seating fabric.
And when it comes to standard safety features, the Insight has all the biggies: front, side and curtain air bags; front active head restraints; four-wheel anti-lock brakes with electronic brake distribution; and electronic stability and traction control.
The 2012 Insight has lots of compelling reasons to place it on or near the top of hybrid shopping lists. But, it will soon be overshadowed by the 2012 Prius c when it arrives in March. Slightly smaller than the Insight, Toyota says the Prius c will start under $19,000 with an estimated mileage rating of 53 city/46 highway and a combined 50 mpg.
If fuel economy and price are important criteria in the new car purchase, there are a host of gasoline-powered alternatives with fuel-economy ratings in the mid 30-mpg range in city driving and an even 40 on the highway. That’s within sniffing distance of the Insight at lower prices. Might be worth checking out the Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Accent or Mazda3 before committing to an Insight.
Still, the Insight has something the others don’t have – it’s a Honda.
Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.