The 2019 Honda Insight is a very normal-looking car, which is kind of strange.
It’s a far cry from the 2000 edition, which was a tiny, two-seat, streamlined suppository with skirted rear wheels that was America’s first hybrid and is still the most efficient car without a plug to putter down her highways at 61 mpg. (It’s EPA combined rating of 53 mpg was only surpassed last year.)
Sales were much lower than its fuel economy, however, with a high of just 4,700 in 2001. So the Insight was put on hiatus a couple of years later, but rebooted in 2009 as a four-door hatchback that looked like a bad copy of the Toyota Prius it was trying to be. Unfortunately, it arrived at a time when Honda was off its game, delivering cars with refinement far below what was expected of the brand. Popular in its Japanese homeland, not even a perfect storm of The Great Recession and the highest gas prices in a generation could turn it into a hit here. Honda put out of its misery at the ripe old age of five in 2014.
Since then, the Insight badges were left sitting on the shelf at American Honda as the Civic and Accord and CR-Z hybrids did their best to take on Toyota in the gas-electric space. Without much luck.
But now, staying true to its decade or so lifecycle, the Insight is back, and you’d never recognize it. It’s based on the platform of the Civic sedan, but has a more sophisticated style than its sibling and none of the visual quirks of its previous generations.
The interior is even more distinct from the Civic and has a high-end feel. There are large puffy inserts in front of the passenger and on the doors, and the driver is treated to an instrument cluster that pairs an analog speedometer with a multi-functional digital display. As with the Civic, the Insight is spacious for a compact and has a low and wide stance.
Priced at $23,725, the Insight falls between the similarly subdued $23,085 Hyundai Ioniq and odder-than-ever Toyota Prius at $24,395 in the hybrid price hierarchy. But its true position among them is tougher to peg.
The Insight’s ride quality is unsurpassed by any car at this price point, regardless of what’s under the hood. It’s smooth around town, composed in curves and sportier than most, if not exactly sporty. It’s also quiet, at least when it’s operating under pure electric power. Which is often, but not often enough.
Honda uses an uncommon drivetrain layout that combines a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine with a unit comprised of a generator and electric drive motor. The motor draws its energy from the lithium-ion battery tucked inconspicuously under the rear seats until the charge gets too low, then summons the four-cylinder to crank the generator. As there isn’t a conventional transmission, there also isn’t any annoying vibration when the engine starts up as there is in most hybrids, which is a boon in stop and go traffic.
There is noise, however. Sometimes lots of it. The engine, which is a little gruff, sets itself at whatever rpm it deems necessary to meet the power demands and just sits there groaning. Going uphill, it’s as if you have your foot to the floor and need to change gears, but don’t. No hybrid is perfect in this regard, but the Insight isn’t even close.
It’s much better suited the Midwest than the mountains. On flat terrain, the engine is used less frequently and runs slower when it is. The payoff for any pain is at the pump. I hit 50 mpg in the top of the line Touring I tested, which has an EPA combined rating of 48 mpg, while lower trims are listed at 52 mpg. That’s short of the Prius and Ioniq, which max out at 56 mpg and 58 mpg, respectively, but both are less powerful than the 151 hp Insight.
All Insight models are well-equipped, and even the EX comes with a standard safety package that includes automatic emergency brakes, lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control, but without Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. The mid-level LX gets those, along with the camera-based Lane Watch passenger blind spot monitor and a 60/40 rear seat pass-through to a large flat trunk made possible by the modern slim battery pack design. Leather upholstery, premium audio, heated seats and those automatic windshield wipers that I know you must have kick in with the Touring at a max price of $28,985.
You’ll spend thousands more on a loaded Ioniq or Prius, so the efficiency advantages are pretty much a wash for your wallet. You’ll have to decide about saving the planet, not to mention your hearing.
2019 Honda Insight
Base price: $23,725
As tested: $28,985
Type: 5-passenger, 4-door front-wheel-drive sedan
Engine: 1.5-liter 4-cylinder with electric motor
Power: 151 hp, 197 lb-ft
Transmission: Direct drive
MPG: 51-55 city/45-49 hwy