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What’s the biggest obstacle to mainstream adoption of greener cars? Cost. The new generation of super fuel-efficient high-tech vehicles—including hybrids, clean diesels and electric cars—carry a higher price tag compared to their conventional counterparts. That’s why Honda designed its latest hybrid, the 2010 Honda Insight, with affordability as the main goal. With a base MSRP of $19,800, Honda achieved its objective. The Honda Insight’s marketing tag line is, “The Hybrid for Everyone.”
When the Insight was introduced in early 2009, the automotive press gushed with praise. Reviewers claimed that the Honda Insight is more compelling and fun to drive than the quintessential gas-electric car, the Toyota Prius, which is bigger, faster, and uses a more sophisticated third-generation of hybrid technology. The Los Angeles Times’s Dan Neil described the Insight as “impeccably constructed, well planned and honeyed with high-tech surfaces and materials. Nothing feels cheap or compromised.” Road Track’s Dennis Simanaitis wrote, “The Insight will make a significant contribution to sustainable mobility.” Edmunds.com reviewers said, “Given its impressive talents and attractive price, it’s hard to fault the 2010 Honda Insight.”
But in the past few weeks, a number of critics have found it quite easy to find faults with the Insight—harshly criticizing the car for the very traits that have allowed Honda to keep down the price.
1The Honda Insight doesn’t feel solid.
David Champion, senior director of the Consumer Reports auto test center, said, “The Insight is a noisy, stiff-riding car with clumsy handling that is nothing like the Fit on which it is based.”
2The Honda Insight is underpowered.
Scott Burgess of the Detroit News, wrote, “The Insight can feel underpowered at times, especially on the highway…There are paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel, which can help a driver improve the car’s pickup but can also make the engine scream like a toddler.”
3The Honda Insight’s engine is buzzy.
UK reviewer, Jeremy Clarkson, wrote, “The Honda’s petrol engine is a much-shaved, built-for-economy, low-friction 1.3 that, at full chat, makes a noise worse than someone else’s crying baby on an airliner. It’s worse than the sound of your parachute failing to open. Really, to get an idea of how awful it is, you’d have to sit a dog on a ham slicer.”
4The Honda Insight is too small.
Edward Loh of Motor Trend explained, “While the Prius qualifies as a midsize car, the 2009 Insight is a compact: shorter by 2.7 inches overall and 5.9 inches between the wheels. The Insight is also 1.2 inches narrower, with a roof height 2.5 inches lower, which is why Honda tells you its Prius-fighter is the more similarly sized Civic Hybrid.” Dan Edmunds of Edmunds.com, wrote, “Those approaching 6 feet in height will feel the roof and wish for more legroom [in the backseat]. The Insight’s 100.4-inch wheelbase needs an additional inch or two. This, above all, reminds us that the Insight is indeed a compact car.”
Did early praise leave the Honda Insight open to hatchet jobs by contrary reviewers seeking dramatic headlines? Did the initial euphoria about an affordable hybrid wear off? Or did it just take time for the press to narrow in on the Insight’s shortcomings?
In the end, the look and feel of a car is subjective. Consumers shopping for a fuel-efficient hybrid will have to get behind the wheel and pass their own judgment on the feeling of solidity, the sound from the engine, and the ability of a compact car to provide enough space to meet their needs. Meanwhile, the hard numbers speak for themselves: $20,000, a long list of cutting-edge features, seating for five, and average city-highway mileage of 41 mpg.