Friday, July 13, 2012

Insight Into the Honda Insight

The Honda Insight is a hybrid car that represents something automotive analysts understand to be true: the car is as much innovative as it underscores a missed opportunity by Honda.

Honda introduced the two seat Insight to the U.S. market just ahead of the Toyota Prius in 1999. Both cars had been on sale in Japan for a few years, but the Insight beat the Prius to the market by a matter of months. This would be the only time that the Insight finished ahead of the Prius as the latter now is the best selling hybrid model in the world.

Ultra High MPG

That first generation model was sold from 2000 to 2006 and offered outstanding fuel economy, even better than what the Toyota Prius offered. However, with a polarizing body style and room for just two passengers and cramped room at that, not enough people embraced a car despite its 60 plus highway mpg rating.

The original Insight was powered by a 1.0-liter three cylinder engine paired with a five-speed manual transmission. Later year models also offered an automatic transmission, but that option dropped fuel economy considerably, by at least 10 mpg on the highway. Throughout its first model run, the Honda Insight featured a nickel-metal hydride battery system.

Crash Concerns

In an effort to save weight, much of the original Insight's body is made of aluminum with plastic used for its front fenders. This car met America's rigorous crash test requirements, but it barely afforded occupants the protection needed to withstand a crash with a large vehicle. Some common concerns with the car is that it fell short in the handling department when crosswinds were present, a concern of any driver passing over a bridge or being passed by a semi for that matter. Still, if you managed the car right, upwards of 70 mpg on some trips was possible enthusiasts contend.

To compensate for the Insight's shortfalls, Honda brought to the market a pair of additional hybrids including an Accord hybrid and a Civic hybrid, the latter which is still available. The Accord Hybrid delivered 31 mpg on the highway, which isn't much to talk about, but it also retained all of its power as offered in its 3.0-liter V-6 engine. The Civic hybrid managed 45 mpg on the highway and offered room for five. No wonder the Insight did not survive beyond 2006.

After a gap of three model years, Honda decided to bring to the market an all-new dedicated hybrid, a sub-$20,000 alternative to the pricey Prius. This car, offering seating for up to five, rolled out in 2010 and was given the Insight name. And that is where the similarity ends.

Insight Generations

The current generation Honda Insight is as much as $5,000 less than the Toyota Prius, but city and highway fuel economy are lower, by as much as 10 mpg lower around town. Still, with a 1.3-liter four cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission, the current Insight is light years ahead of the original model in terms of performance, interior room and handling.

This model also uses a nickel-metal hydride battery pack, offering a maximum 98 horsepower up from the 73 horsepower offered in the 2006 Honda Insight. Of interest, this car automatically shuts off the air-conditioning at red lights or extended stops to conserve energy. But, it also features a cheap interior, sub-par handling, cramped headroom for rear seating passengers and higher levels of road noise than what many would find acceptable.

Is the Honda Insight a good deal? Perhaps if you do a lot of driving around town. But, on the road, its fuel economy is barely above the Hyundai Elantra, a model that can be had for thousands less. The Insight is a missed opportunity for Honda, a company that usually has plenty of foresight to anticipate and understand consumer trends.