Honda’s hybrid redesign is a stylish bargain for green gays
Honda is polishing a familiar name, attached to a familiar-looking design, but mixing gas and electricity in an entirely different brew.
A quick decade ago, Honda was the first automaker to introduce a gas/electric hybrid in the U.S. with the original two-seat future-tech Insight. I drove that car to a restaurant in Dallas and almost caused the valet to faint as he peered at the Martian blob. George Jetson’s car delivered an astounding 61/70-MPG city/highway, but had limited passenger and cargo space. Toyota made the smarter bet with its four-door Prius, proving envirogeeks would give up a little econ in exchange for space.
Lesson learned. Honda accompanied the Insight with two generations of Civic Hybrids that were fantastic cars, but never had the green cred enjoyed by their famous rival. A hybrid Accord with a V6 engine never made much of a splash despite its excellent fuel economy and performance. Sporting fluid styling based on the next-century Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell sedan, currently being tested in California, a new 2010 Insight is here to take on an all-new 2010 Prius.
Styling follows the standard hybrid tradition with a low nose, wedge profile, Kammback tail and 5-door profile for maximum interior space and minimum aerodynamic drag. Further enhancing aerodynamics are a flat underbody, strakes near the wheels, and a contoured rump. Low-rolling-resistance tires attached to light alloy wheels keep friction to a minimum while LED taillamps and projector beam headlights brighten nighttime roadways. Everything in and on the Insight was scrutinized to maximize utility and reduce fuel consumption.
Insight’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system is based on a 1.3-liter 4-cylinder engine and 10-kilowatt electric motor. As in most hybrids, the motor assists the engine during acceleration and cruising, and transmits energy from the braking system to the batteries during deceleration. A continuously variable transmission is seamlessly smooth and always finds the right gear ratio, lending a sense of sprightly performance. Fuel economy is rated 40/43-MPG city/highway, allowing up to 400 miles of driving range on a 10.6-gallon tank.
To help drivers get the most out of their hybrid, Honda engineered an Ecological Drive Assist System (Eco Assist). Pressing the ECON button tells the Insight’s powertrain computer to maximize the throttle, transmission, air-conditioning, cruise control and idle stop (which shuts down the engine during stops to save fuel) for maximum economy.
To keep drivers entertained, the car has a speedometer that changes color depending on how you drive. It also tracks your driving habits and either "grows" or "kills" leaves on the multi-function display; up to five leaves can be earned for good deeds.
Honda may finally have found its Goldilocks for interior styling. The first Insight was very futuristic, and while the two Honda Civics that followed had pleasant cabins, they were not much different from standard models. This Insight makes you feel like you are driving a concept car, but never makes you feel like a total geek-nerd. There are cool round air vents, a Civic Si-style sport steering wheel, and in-dash NAV screen. Large cubbies and a 60/40-split/fold rear seat provide space for a laptop, digital camera and enough camping gear to tackle the Himalayas. iPods can be connected to the 6-speaker audio system through a USB interface that allows one to roam menus through the car’s controls. Voice recognition and a Bluetooth HandsFreeLink systems let passengers call friends and change radio channels by voice command.
Toyota tries to virtually re-invent the automobile for each generation of Prius while Honda has kept things simple, affordable, and economical — allowing those with less robust trust funds a shot at electric driving. The Prius is a great car, but the Insight takes hybrids mainstream in a form you won’t need an engineering degree to understand.
Prices start at a recession-friendly $19,800 while well-equipped versions will retail for under $25k. Besides the Toyota Prius, competitors include the Nissan Altima Hybrid, Mercury Mariner Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 17, 2009.