Road Test: Honda Insight Hybrid

August 12, 2009 Off By Chris Hinton

Honda’s new Insight is the second hybird car to bear that name, although you’d be forgiven for having missed the original (it was out in 1999). This Insight aims to make hybrid cars cheaper, bringing them to a wider market. Honda were kind enough to let me road test one, so how did it go?
Before we get into how the Insight is to drive, let me give you what I think is the most important statistic… fuel economy. After a week of mixed driving – town, country roads, motorway – the average fuel economy was 50mpg. Not at all shabby given that my usual car averages about 35mpg. I was determined not to be too careful with the fuel economy as I wanted to know how it would react when driven in a normal way, and I have to say I’m quite impressed with those figures. So it’s efficient, but what else?

Preparing for takeoff...

Preparing for takeoff...

Looking at the exterior the Insight is quite striking. It’s low and has a swept back look which actually makes it look longer than it is. That can make you think it would be a bit cumbersome to drive or park but once you’re inside you realise that’s not the case. The interior is a very pleasing place to be with plenty of room for passengers in the back even when the driver is stretching out in front, but the first thing that struck me when I got into the driver’s seat is that I almost felt like I was preparing to pilot the USS Enterprise! The console… sorry, dashboard, glows pleasingly and just feels very high tech.
There’s plenty of information on hand too, a gauge tells you whether the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) is using the electric motor to drive the car or recovering energy to recharge the battery. The central rev counter also houses the trip computer that can tell you how many “plants” you’ve got (an indication of how economically you’ve driven during this trip), how hard you’ve been accelerating and braking, and all the usual stuff like fuel economy, temperature etc. The setting I tended to leave it on, purely because I was being a geek, was the energy flow diagram. This tells you whether the engine is running and whether the battery is being drained or charged. Looking at the speedometer, it’s a digital readout but the background changes colour depending, again, on how efficiently you’re driving. All this information is great, but a little overwhelming to start with – I eventually learned to tune some of it out and just concentrate on driving, but if you wanted to you could spend the whole time reading the dashboard instruments (that’s not recommended, by the way – try looking out of the big window a bit more often).
There's plenty of information to hand, and the colour-changing speedometer indicates how efficiently you're driving

There's plenty of information to hand, and the colour-changing speedometer indicates how efficiently you're driving

Let’s come back to the speedometer. The changing colours are a great indicator of your driving style and, if you’re being particularly careful with your fuel, actually help you squeeze every last mile out of the tank. The only thing I’d add would be the ability to customise the colours. Why? Well, I quite liked the blue and would choose that to be the “good” colour if I had the chance. It wouldn’t add anything to the efficiency of the car, but it would be a rather nice toy to play with!
Can you tell I like the gadgets?
Driving the Insight is a strange mix of the very familiar (it is a car, after all) and the new. As soon as you turn the ignition the petrol engine kicks in which, whilst a little surprising, at least means you’re less likely to have someone walk out behind you in the supermarket car park. When coasting at low speeds the engine shuts off its cylinders and the electric motor maintains the car’s speed, making the car quiet and, of course, efficient. Put your foot down again and the engine sparks back into life to give you the extra oomph you need. Whilst you can leave the model I had in automatic, there are also a pair of paddle shifters for temporarily changing up and down a gear, or you can switch to a sequential gearbox which will let you do all the gear-changing yourself. The slightly scary bit comes when you stop at a junction… the engine cuts out altogether which made me think I’d stalled it more than once. As soon as you take your foot off the brake, though, the engine’s back and ready to go. The ride is good, dealing well with the plethora of speed bumps our local council has installed without feeling like I was going to end up with a back injury. The steering is light and the pedals very responsive – especially the brake.
The 400l boot and extra 8l storage bin ensure there is plenty of room for your luggage

The 400l boot and extra 8l storage bin ensure there is plenty of room for your luggage. Boot shown here with the floor in lowered position.

Taking the Insight out onto country roads is great, although you’re likely to spend a lot of time with the speedometer glowing blue! There’s plenty of power to deal with hills, amazing when you consider that it only has a 1.3l engine, and and it certainly handles well enough to give you confidence on winding roads. The only downside to country driving was the engine noise, but we’ll come to that shortly. Motorway driving is just as you’d expect it to be – I would have no qualms about going on a long journey in this car. There’s plenty of room in the boot for all your luggage; 400l, with an extra 8l storage bin. The boot floor can also be lowered to give you a little more room.
There are a few niggles with this car, though. The biggest is that engine noise. At town driving speeds the Insight is quiet and smooth… all is well with the world… but when you put your foot down for, say, overtaking or joining a motorway, the engine revs right up as if it’s having to work very hard to get the required power. The car never actually feels like it’s struggling – quite the opposite, it feels as if there’s plenty of power – but it sounds as if it’s having to put in a lot of effort. Whilst I saw this as a quirk I could live with (although it did feel a bit embarrassing when overtaking sometimes), my wife was put off by it to the point where it would make her think twice about having an Insight.
The second niggle is the rear window. It’s large enough, but is made up of two panels of glass with a support beam in between. The beam was in just the right place to hide any cars that were coming up behind until they were very close. Obviously different drivers will have different seat positions, but I was surprised more than once to find someone behind me I could have sworn wasn’t there a moment ago.
Finally, the car’s “skin” which when tapped sounds very tinny – almost as if the aluminium panels were very, very thin. This is weird, though, because when you’re inside the car it’s all very well built and feels of very high quality.
The real question for me is, “would I have this car?” Yes, I would. I’d be more than happy to drive an Insight and Honda have done a good job at making hybrid technology slightly more affordable. Despite there being some niggles this feels like a quality car and, if you’re in the market for a hybrid, it’s certainly worth heading down to your local dealer for a test drive.