Honda Insight

Debut: 2009
Maker: Honda
Predecessor: Insight (1999)

Second generation Insight strikes back Toyota's dominance...

10 years into the market of hybrid power cars, Honda has yet to make a significant impact. When it introduced the first Insight in 1999, we described it as an experiment and an insight into the future. The small 2-seater coupe was capable of 70 mpg on highway while delivering decent performance. AutoZine thought it was a better solution than the contemporary, first generation Toyota Prius, which was slower, thirstier and costlier. However, sales of the Insight never got beyond the crowd of active environmentalists. When the first wave of demand dried up, it cruised to a halt and let the second generation Prius to have a really big time. As of the end of last year, Toyota had sold more than 1 million Prius worldwide, while the whole hybrid fleet of Honda, consisting of Insight, Civic Hybrid and Accord Hybrid, managed just a quarter of that number. Its hybrid attempt has yet to turn a profit.

Envying the success of Toyota, Honda has developed the second generation Insight. This time it is converted to a 5-door hatchback like Prius. With its new found practicality and an unbelievably low price tag - around US$20,000 in the USA or £15,500 in the UK, or 20% cheaper than Prius – Honda set an ambitious sales target of 200,000 units per year, half of which will go to the North America.

200,000 units of sales target is made possible by an affordable price...

Frankly, I found the latest version of IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) does not present any real technological breakthrough. Its construction remains the same as before, consisting of a fuel-efficient 1.3-liter four-pot engine, a CVT and a thin brushless DC motor sandwiched between them. The battery is still conventional Nickel-Metal Hydride type, whose power density and charging time are inferior to the Lithium-ion batteries to be employed by Chevrolet Volt. However, what Honda emphasizes this time is affordability. While Volt is destined to be produced at a loss, Honda wants its new hybrid passenger car to earn real profit for the company. Therefore cost reduction was the no. 1 job in its development.

To reduce cost, Honda built the new Insight with many parts from Fit / Jazz, such as the low-cost strut and torsion-beam suspensions. Besides, the Insight is designed to be a compact car, unlike the mid-size Prius, with a 2550mm wheelbase, 4395mm length, 1695mm width and 1425mm height. This keeps its weight at a relatively manageable 1240kg. Lower weight means the motor and battery pack can be made smaller to save costs. The motor produces 13.6hp and 58 lbft of torque instead of 20hp / 76 lbft that used in Civic Hybrid. The battery now consists of 84 instead of 132 D-size battery cells.

No breakthrough in the new IMA power system....

The 1339cc engine is a simplified version of the one employed by Civic Hybrid. It continues to use 2 valves and twin-spark plugs per cylinder to favour fuel economy instead of power. Its i-VTEC system has 2 sets of cam lobes, one for normal operation and another with zero lift to shut down the cylinders during electric mode to reduce pumping loss. This contrast to the 3-stage i-VTEC in Civic Hybrid which includes low-rev, high-rev and cylinder deactivate cam lobes. The engine here produces 88hp and 91 lbft of torque. The combined output of engine and motor is 100hp at 5800rpm and 123lbft at 1000-1500rpm, enough to pull the Insight from rest to 60 mph in 11 seconds. Top speed is also reasonable at 113 mph.

Unlike Prius, the small motor of Insight cannot start the car from rest. The engine is still the main propulsion unit while the motor provides additional assistance. Once the car is rolling - at light load and below 30mph -the engine may shut down, leaving the motor to work alone to save fuel. During braking the motor recharges the battery. Low rolling resistance 175/65SR15 tires are adopted to reduce energy consumption. Honda claims its combined fuel consumption at 41 mpg US EPA and 64.2 mpg EU. CO2 emission is 101g/km. That’s a lot better than conventional cars, but not good enough to match the third generation Prius, which achieves 50 mpg EPA, 72.4 mpg EU and 89g CO2 per kilometer. Some European eco diesel hatchbacks can also easily better those figures.

Compensating the tight rear passenger room  is a large boot...

On the road, the Insight drives like a conventional car, displaying decent body control and agility, although its skinny tires do not produce a lot of grip. The ride is unexpectedly firm, translating to tight roll control but failing to iron out some road irregularities. The steering and braking feel surprisingly natural, without the artificial / discrete weighting of other hybrid cars. It is definitely more fun to drive than Prius. However, refinement is not its strongest suit. Apart from the ride quality issue, its cabin is troubled by excessive engine noise. Under acceleration, the small engine is prone to scream as the CVT keeps it running at high rev. It also sounds breathless in high-speed cruising. Prius is much more refined.

Outside, the Insight looks remarkably similar to Prius Mk2, sharing the same sleek monospace profile. Some may accuse it for copying the Toyota or lacking originality. From engineering point of view, however, this is a shape optimized for aerodynamic drag, so their similarities are not without reasons. That said, Honda did not make the best of this shape, as its drag coefficient is 0.28, more than the 0.25-0.26 we have expected.

Exterior design copied Prius, or just shaped by the same physics ?

The interior of Insight looks quite conventional except the color LCD dashboard which displays the running state of IMA system. The front seats, steering wheel and instrument readings are mounted like conventional cars, so it is immediately intuitive. You won't be pleased with its all-round hard plastics and other signs of cost cut, but at least the ergonomics are good and the seats are comfy. As you can predict from its compact dimensions and curvy roof profile, the front seats are spacious but the rear seats are short of head and knee room for 6-footers. A full family will be better catered by Prius or Civic Hybrid. Nevertheless, the Insight offers a very usable luggage space measuring 408 liters. The rear seatback can fold flat to expand the luggage area further. As the battery pack is located under the luggage floor while fuel tank is placed under the back seat, they do not intrude into the luggage compartment.

As statistics found out, driving habits are probably more crucial to fuel saving than technology. Therefore, like most other hybrids, the LCD speedometer of Insight incorporates some fancy features to encourage you to drive economically. If you are light on gas pedal and keep the engine at the middle of power band, the speedometer will change from blue to green. To enhance fuel economy further, press a green button marked with “Econ” and it will switch to economy strategies for throttle and transmission, and tune down the air conditioning. The car will become sluggish, of course, but to keep the car running in green zone is a fun challenge, just as engaging as powersliding your performance car.

To keep the car running in green zone is a fun challenge, just as engaging as powersliding your performance car...

Overall, the new Insight is a decent car to drive and to own. It has relatively little to give up in driving manner or practicality in the process of pursuing greenness. While it has not broken any new ground in hybrid technology, it succeeds to bring hybrid technology to a new level of affordability. The majority buyers of Golf or Corolla may consider a hybrid for the first time ever. This could be the most significant Honda for years.
The above report was last updated on 12 Jun 2009. All Rights Reserved.


General remarks


Front-engined, FWD

Steel monocoque

Mainly steel

Length / width / height 4395 / 1695 / 1425 mm

Wheelbase 2550 mm

Inline-4 + DC electric motor

1339 cc

Valve gears
SOHC 8 valves, cylinder cut-off (i-VTEC)


Other engine features

Max power
88 hp (engine)
13.6 hp (motor)
100 hp (combined)

Max torque
91 lbft (engine)
58 lbft (motor)
123 lbft (combined)


Suspension layout
F: strut
R: torsion-beam

Suspension features

Tyres front/rear

Kerb weight
1263 kg

Top speed
113 mph (c)

0-60 mph (sec)
11.7* / 10.3** / 10.4***

0-100 mph (sec)

Performance tested by: *Autocar, **C&D, ***MT

Copyright© 1997-2009 by Mark Wan @ AutoZine