- What’s Good: Styling, interior space, smart hybrid system
- What’s Bad: Certain ergonomic bugaboos
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but one of my most anticipated drives of the year was…a hybrid. And no, I’m not talking something crazy and exotic like a BMW i8 or Ferrari LaFerrari; far from it.
Indeed, “my” hybrid was pretty much the most traditional body style when it comes to hybrids – the four-door sedan. The only reason why I dropped the “pretty much” in there is because it’s not a mid-size sedan like the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, hitherto the body style when it comes to hybrid. It’s more of a compact, although considering the vehicle with which it shares some of its bits – the Honda Civic – this particular compact is a little more.
It’s called the Honda Insight, and while that name may be familiar – it graced the rear deck of one of the first mass-market hybrids, after all – this is a big departure from what it’s traditionally been. I’m a fan of the Civic as well as Honda’s all-new Clarity PHEV, and I was very much looking forward to seeing what Honda was able to do with a vehicle that’s kind of a mix of the two; a hybrid powertrain on one hand, and a more compact, even sporty shape on the other.
The biggest change, in my eyes, is that it looks nowhere near as extreme as it once did. The original was quite fashion-forward what with its covered rear wheels, flat aero rims and huge rear bumpers. The next gen was a little less wild – the covered wheels were gone, but the triangular taillights remained, and the front end was a bit of a harbinger of what Hondas look like today. I tested the previous-gen Insight a few years back and while I admired the effort, there was much to be desired especially in the form of interior fit and finish, which had my wife exclaiming that certain aspects – the seats, sun blinds, others – reminded her of her Acura Integra. Her oft-driven, 1992 Acura Integra.
If the Insight could talk it would likely say “don’t you call me ‘Civic’”, but there’s no denying the connection. The grille treatment is a little different; slightly less chrome and more blacked-out, perhaps, but the headlight lens shape is a spitting image, while the taillight lenses are a little classier, actually, not so obviously wrapping around the trunk gap as they do in the Civic. In profile, though, its almost identical, if slightly longer and sitting a couple of millimeters closer to the ground. Overall width is the same, which is good because that means you have the same room in the Insight as you do in the Civic sedan, which is to say, a lot. There aren’t any roomier cars in the class, so even bigger folks like myself should have no problems getting comfortable in the Insight. Better still, you lose no trunk capacity over the Civic, and the fold-down seats remain. In previous years, hybrids have lost this feature because they needed to fit a battery back there, but that’s simply not the case with the Insight.
Inside, the gear select buttons instead of a shift lever make for an airy, uncluttered cockpit while the a digital gauge cluster is a futuristic touch that fits well with the Insight’s hybrid ethos. There’s also a wireless charge pad made much easier to reach thanks to the gear select buttons, and a big touchscreen display with a proper volume knob with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support. The steering wheel is pretty much a direct lift from the Civic, but otherwise the lines and surfaces have been made less busy, and a little higher class thanks to the use of high quality materials.
I’m less enamoured with the centre storage bin; it’s directly lifted from the Civic, which means it keeps the strange sliding cupholders and storage shelf. It looks cluttered—kind of like if Helter Skelter were an in-car storage bin—and I don’t really see the point. As in, how long would it take owners to grow tired of always having to slide the cupholders to access something they’ve stored under there? Took me about five minutes. Maybe ten. I’ll take my cupholders molded into the transmission tunnel, please, as I don’t mind sacrificing a little space in the central storage bin if it means stuff won’t slide around so much in there.
The driver’s seating position is right on – this is a Honda, after all, and Hondas tend to do well in this department – but the real kicker is that back seat. My gosh, it’s roomy back here, feeling much more akin to a mid-size sedan than a compact. The fact that you can expand the trunk space via fold-flat rear seats is the cherry on top of it all.
Power-wise, the gas-only portion of the powertrain – a 1.5L four-banger – is good for 107 hp and 99 lb-ft of torque. Not huge numbers, to be sure, but this is a hybrid after all and once you start talking combined figures, you’re looking at 151 hp and just under 200 lb-ft, as long as you have the requisite battery charge to get there. In that circumstance, the Insight is a properly quick thing that gets let down not by the engine, but by the transmission. It should come as no surprise that the Insight gets a continuously variable automatic, a transmission type that tends to not lead to an engaging drive. Worse still is that with the Insight, Honda has decided not to bother putting in artificial shift points, to at least try and make it feel like you’re driving something with a traditional transmission. That may not seem a big deal, but many manufacturers – from Subaru to Toyota – have done so because they say their customers ask for it.
The CVT does make for smooth progress, though. When it’s all said and done, the Insight is a car that drives a little bigger than it is; it’s slightly softer riding than its Civic connections may otherwise suggest, but don’t think that it’s lost the steering response and handling that small Hondas have always been known for. You can still turn-in with gumption and have the front-wheel drive Insight snap you through corners, demonstrating just a little bit of a performance attitude.
A note on performance: don’t make the mistake of thinking the paddles mounted to the steering wheel are for shifting gears – oh no. They’re actually to lower or raise the amount of power-regen drag on the powertrain; the idea is that as you approach a stop, you want to flip the “-“ paddle a bunch to help you slow down and recoup more energy in five preset levels. Once you start again, it gets knocked back to neutral position, unless you’re in “Sport” mode. Then, it stays locked to its highest setting. I get that part. What I don’t get as much was the “+” paddle, to reduce drag. I used the left-hand side paddle quite often, but never the right-hand “+” one. I used the “-“ to slow down, and never really saw the point of backing it off, especially since I knew it would get re-set again anyway.
Of course, with the Insight – with most hybrids, generally – it’s all about efficiency, and much of that relates to how much you can drive it in EV mode. It’s easy enough to get it there; assuming you have enough charge, you will start out in full-EV if you’re easy with your throttle inputs. Full-EV then sticks around until about 40 km/h, at which point it decides that speeds have exceeded the EV’s ability. You can also activate “EV mode” with the press of a button mounted just below the charge pad, alongside “Econ” and “Sport”. Activating “EV” forces the powertrain to keep the EV motor on for longer, allowing for slightly more aggressive throttle inputs. EV mode cannot be activated if the system senses that there isn’t enough charge, however. Econ and Sport work pretty much as advertised – Econ deadens throttle inputs and will modify your climate system, while Sport does the opposite – but I don’t see many using Sport in their Insight. Personally, I left it in Econ most of the time, and was pleased with the 5.5 L/100km of fuel usage I saw in the combined cycle.
In fact, I was pleased with my Insight experience as a whole. It looks classier than the Civic – some would argue it look classier than does the Clarity, too – and overall, it gets the hybrid thing right. Some may argue that a hybrid powertrain isn’t as crucial in a small, light car like this as opposed to large sedans or SUVs, but if you can pull it off without overly affecting the drive, the fun stuff that makes smaller cars such a big draw, I say why not? I have no problem saving a little fuel in the process.