2010 Honda Insight hybrid
2010 Honda Insight hybrid. Click image to enlarge
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Honda Canada

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Review and photos by Paul Williams

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2010 Honda Insight hybrid

Carefree, Arizona – Honda was quick out of the gate with a production gasoline-electric hybrid car in 1999. Its 2000 Insight was a two-door, two seat coupe that ushered in the new millennium, boasting fantastic fuel economy and a radical – if somewhat futuristic — design.

Still, the Insight was criticized for being impractical and looking odd. Consequently, the company introduced the much more conventional Civic Hybrid in 2003, and basically stopped promoting the Insight (except to acknowledge its world-leading production car fuel economy). But over the years, quirky became cute, and Toyota’s Prius garnered nearly all the celebrity attention and Hybrid press.

Honda continued to refine its Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) Hybrid drivetrain (which is a less complex hybrid system than Toyota’s, but still very effective) and has concluded that yes, many buyers, especially those making an environmental statement, do indeed want their decision to “go Hybrid” made visible.

So the all-new 2010 Honda Insight returns to its roots, so to speak, again looking decidedly “Hybrid,” but with major enhancements to practicality, safety and creature comforts. Now it’s a four-door hatch with multiple airbags, room for four adults (five in a pinch) and useful cargo capacity.

2010 Honda Insight hybrid
2010 Honda Insight hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Two models will be available — LX and EX — with pricing set below the Civic, and targeted primarily to younger buyers aged 25-34, and secondarily to older buyers aged 50-plus. The LX comes with multiple airbags, automatic climate control, power windows, locks, and heated mirrors, CD audio with auxiliary jack, and anti-lock brakes. The EX adds bluetooth connectivity, USB interface, paddle shifters, stability control and for the first time in Honda Canada’s small-car fleet, a navigation system.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it has to be said that Honda designers must like the look of the Prius, especially the first generation Prius. The Insight’s exterior design communicates Hybrid, all right, but there’s virtually nothing of the earlier model left in its execution. Instead, the familiar Prius profile seems to have been used as a template for the new Insight, albeit with a big, corporate “H” front and rear, just so you know.

To be fair, the Insight is somewhat smaller than the Prius (even though interior room is about the same). Lights, front fascia and wheels are also quite different. The platform is all-new from the firewall back. The basis for the front of the car is the Honda Fit.

2010 Honda Insight hybrid
2010 Honda Insight hybrid
2010 Honda Insight hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Inside, instruments and controls recall elements from the Civic and Fit, but are arranged differently. Seats, door panels and fabrics are unique and pleasing, although some of the plastics and the carpeting do seem a bit industrial.

The convex dashboard though, is quite the high-technology playground. The two-tier speedometer (digital) and tachometer (analogue) gauge cluster features illumination that changes colour between blue and green to help the driver maximize fuel economy (green, of course, is best). There is also a series driver selectable displays that monitor the car’s performance and reward the driver with icons (leaves, flowers) for each journey, and over the life of the car. Additional displays and symbols further assist the driver to drive efficiently (your “Eco Score”).

And lest you think this is all gimmickry, with the help of one of the displays, I actually achieved an astonishing 3.9 litres/100 kilometres (72 mpg, Imperial) in the Insight on a mixed city/highway driving run, consisting of a 35-minute fuel economy challenge, and a quick trip to the local shopping centre that took about the same amount of time. Honda estimates 4.8/4.5 L/100 km city/highway (4.7 combined), which would certainly seem possible, making this an extremely inexpensive car to operate.

So what’s under the hood? Well, the more appropriate question is, “What’s under the hood, rear seat and cargo floor?”

2010 Honda Insight hybrid
2010 Honda Insight hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Under the hood is a 1.3-litre, four-cylinder gasoline engine of extremely light weight and compact dimensions that makes 88 horsepower and 88 pound-feet of torque, and an electric motor that makes 13 hp and 43 lb-ft torque. Together the engine and motor (which operate simultaneously or independently) can generate 98 hp at 5,800 rpm and 123 pound-feet of torque at 1,000-1,500 rpm. Fuel for the engine is supplied from a 40-litre gas tank located under the rear seat. The motor is powered by a battery located under the cargo floor that is continuously charged by regenerative braking.

Specifically, when starting from a standstill, the engine and motor work together, and as you drive around, the motor supplements the engine as required. At a stop-light, the engine will shut down automatically (saving fuel and eliminating emissions) with ancillary systems (air conditioner, radio, etc.) powered by the battery. Put your foot on the gas pedal and the engine starts up immediately, and you’re on your way.

2010 Honda Insight hybrid
2010 Honda Insight hybrid
2010 Honda Insight hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Furthermore, the car can be powered by the motor only, in which case gasoline is not consumed at all (although it can’t start from a standstill on battery alone). We achieved remarkable overall fuel economy driving this way, but specific conditions would need to be in place to duplicate our excellent results. For example, driving along a flat surface at a constant speed, without requiring torque (to go up a hill, for example), enables the car to cruise along on battery power for many kilometres. You can modulate the accelerator with help from the monitoring displays to maintain your battery-only status, while using cruise control is also effective at keeping you in the green zone. When driving with less attention to maximizing fuel efficiency, the engine and motor provide good acceleration from low speeds, and can keep the car moving along briskly.

Although Insight buyers will presumably purchase the car because of its low fuel consumption and environmentally responsible operation (it is rated Tier 2/Bin 3, PZEV), there is actually an “Eco” button on the dash that optimizes its fuel saving technologies by modifying the throttle, transmission, air conditioning, cruise control, engine assist and regenerative braking. We wondered why the Insight didn’t simply default to this mode, and provide a “Power” button instead.

2010 Honda Insight hybrid
2010 Honda Insight hybrid. Click image to enlarge

On the road, the Insight is exceedingly quiet, with virtually no wind noise or tire noise (it has a 0.28 coefficient of drag, and a completely enclosed underbody). But hit the gas for rapid acceleration, and the noise is significant and unpleasant — a combination of the raspy exhaust and moaning CVT gearbox. This would be another reason to drive fuel efficiently…

Although the Insight’s exterior design is indeed distinctive, personally, I don’t understand the decision to follow Prius styling cues. Honda engineers say that the shape is a product of wind-tunnel testing, but I think the design of the current Insight is not as inventive as the original, which presumably was also informed by wind tunnels and emerged quite differently. The front fascia of the car quotes the FCX Clarity, Honda’s Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicle, but overall the Insight is too conservative and derivative for its stated goal of representing “a new era of transportation.” In 2010, Honda will introduce its CR-Z Hybrid, a higher performance coupe, which looks really exciting in concept drawings, so fingers crossed for the production version of that.

2010 Honda Insight hybrid
2010 Honda Insight hybrid. Click image to enlarge

The Insight is a significant car for Honda, which hopes to sell 5,000 units annually in Canada. A major factor in its success will be the price, which in the U.S. is expected to be below $20,000. If Honda Canada can match this for the LX, it will really get people’s attention, and I suspect the car will meet or exceed its target. If it’s priced close to the Civic Hybrid, chances are the Insight will be a tough sell. Look for the Insight to be released on April 22, 2009, which is, not coincidently, Earth Day.

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