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Honda has announced several small but noticeable tweaks for the 2012 editions of its Insight hybrid. Combined fuel economy for the hatchback will increase to 44 mpg, 1 mpg more than the current model. The exterior will be updated with new front and rear bumper styling and a slightly refined grille, contributing to a 2-percent improvement in aerodynamics. The interior will be reconfigured for added leg and head room, with Honda promising more premium materials and “a more technically sophisticated appearance” for the gauge cluster in the LX and EX models. But will this tweaking bring the Insight any closer living up to its billing as a “Prius fighter?”
In 2009, Honda brought the Insight back after a four-year absence from the market, poised to challenge competitor Toyota’s best-selling hybrid. The second-generation Insight grew from a 2-seat subcompact to a 5-seat compact, and its price was cut to less than $20,000 in an attempt to undercut its rival. (Fuel economy also shrank from a combined 53 mpg to just 41 mpg.)
Honda had high hopes for the Insight, projecting sales of 70,000 units per year in North America. To date though the car has failed to live up to those hopes, with annual sales topping out at little more than 20,000 units for its first two years, and last month’s numbers barely eclipsing the 500 vehicle mark.
So what prevented the Insight from mounting a true challenge to the Prius? For one, the overall hybrid market still hasn’t matured to the levels Honda anticipated when it set its ambitious 70,000-unit sales goal. Hybrids are still a relatively niche purchase in most parts of the country and so far, gas-electric shoppers have shown that they’re willing to pay a little more for the added amenities, roominess, and fuel economy of the Prius.
Toyota also helped make that decision easier when it lowered the price of the least expensive Prius model to just $1,500 more than the Insight, shortly after the car’s release. Last year, Honda countered by introducing an even more affordable version of the Insight that starts at just $18,200—$4,600 less than the Prius II. For 2012, Honda will increase the base price of the Insight by $150, to $18,350.
So will these new tweaks help the Insight reach its Prius-fighting potential? Probably not. But many reviewers and Insight drivers would point out that that doesn’t make the it an inferior car. With sound fuel-efficient driving techniques, the Insight is capable of posting Prius-like fuel economy numbers in real-world situations, at a price thousands of dollars lower than the world’s best selling hybrid. For shoppers looking for an affordable new hybrid that gets them where they need to go while providing significant fuel cost savings, the Insight is a very compelling option—and added refinements certainly won’t hurt that equation.