I'll always remember the first time I drove the 2010 Honda Insight.
It was a late spring morning, 75 degrees, very sunny, and the ride began at the base of the proverbial twisty mountain road.
On the way up, the hybrid heeled through the curves like a small watercraft, its low rolling resistance tires screaming for mamasan as they searched for traction on the flawless blacktop, a sound equaled in its awfulness only by the one coming from the one under the hood.
By the time I got to the top, I never wanted to see the car again.
I haven't experienced a vehicle so poorly matched to a venue since Kia decided it would be a good idea to bring one of its Sedona minivans to a media drive event at Pocono Raceway...and I am not just bitter about that one because I got stuck behind it in a no passing zone during a hot lap in a Dodge Viper. If Honda itself had designed a road to highlight the shortcomings of the Insight, they couldn't have done any better.
Nevertheless, the first thing I did after I handed back the keys was schedule an Insight for an extended test.
I'm glad that I did.
In the day to day world of the urban grind and boring highway slogs, the Insight is a completely different car. Not exciting, but neither is driving in any of those conditions.
The ride quality is short of objectionable, the steering responsive, and up to around 30 mph it's quick enough to hold its own in the yellow cab grand prix. In other words, it's very much a Honda, at least within limits.
Driven without gusto, the 5-seat econobox is, in fact, economical. The EPA gives it a combined fuel economy rating of 41 miles per gallon, and I averaged 39 mpg during my time with the car. I accomplished this not through the use of any studied high-mileage driving techniques, but by simply allowing myself to reach a certain level of oneness with the car.
Mounted high on the dashboard, almost in the line of sight, is a digital speedometer with an illuminated arch of color behind the numbers. Drive in the kind of fuel efficient manner that would make a global warming activist smile, and it glows green. Floor it as if they were chasing after you with an environmentally-friendly machete because you didn't recycle your toilet paper and it shifts to blue. Shades of teal fall between the two extremes.
Unlike the usual variety of gauges and flowcharts typically found in hybrids, the arch gets straight to the point, and is a more effective coaching device than most. Of course, that didn't stop Honda from adding all of the others, and one more.
Save gasoline, reduce your emissive output, and plant icons start to appear one by one on the low-res information screen tucked into the tachometer. When you earn five, you move up a level and the buds sprout additional leaves and flowers. Keep it going and a trophy icon appears, signifying that you have won the admiration of the program's designers, but not much else.
To make it easier to score these greenie points, there is an ECON mode available which reprograms the drive-by-wire throttle to make it less responsive, and adjusts the climate control system to turn off the air conditioning compressor more frequently. I left the Insight in this setting for nearly the entire time I had it. To do otherwise in a car like this would defeat the purpose of its existence.
Acceleration is muted in this mode and merging onto highways an exercise in timing and patience, not that the Insight is much quicker when left to its own devices. The combined output of the internal combustion and electric motors is only 98 horsepower. Few vehicles are available with less.
In any event, when the gasoline engine reaches speeds over 2000 rpm you instinctively ease off the throttle anyway because of the harsh racket it makes above that mark. If you are under the age of 18, and have never ridden in a 4-cylinder car that is older than that, you have no idea what it sounds like. Cars simply don't produce this noise anymore, not even in the bargain basement. Clearly the bean counters went under the hood and pulled out some expensive sound deadening material in the name of almighty cost-savings. They also got to the doors, which are so thin that they only have two and a half dimensions, and told the interior designers they were restricted to using the cheapest plastics in the Honda parts bin.
The cabin does have a look and feel that will be familiar to Honda Fit and Civic drivers, and offers a decent amount of room for passengers, given the Insight's diminutive non-carbon footprint. Seats up, the cargo area under the hatch is a healthy 16-cubic feet that can be doubled in size by folding them down. That's a trick not often seen in the hybrid game, courtesy of a small battery pack that fits under the flat floor.
At $19,800 Insight is the lowest priced hybrid available, about two grand less than the larger Toyota Prius to which it bears no intentional resemblance, or so we're told. The Honda is reasonably well-equipped at that price, but has few configurable options, leaving the buyer just three pre-stocked trim levels to choose from. Making things simple for you also has the effect of keeping costs down on the manufacturing end.
The base LX comes standard with air conditioning, electric windows and locks, and a stereo with CD player and an auxiliary jack. Strangely absent is cruise control, which should be a no-brainer on a car that values fuel efficiency above all else. To get it, you have to step up to the $21,300 EX, which also adds stability control, a USB port, and paddles behind the steering wheel that let you pretend that the continuously variable transmission driving the front wheels is actually a 6-speed manual. Tempting, but using them can't be good for mileage.
Our test car was the top of the line $23,100 EX NAVI, with all of that, plus satellite navigation, bluetooth phone connection, and a calculator that does useful things like determine the area of an object and convert temperatures from Fahrenheit to something called Réaumur, which I understand is popular in the world of milk production, not to mention the 18th century.
It's an odd thing to find on such a forward-thinking car, but the preloaded points of interest in the navigation system also include the locations of hydrogen fueling stations. While this information is of little use to an Insight driver, it is an obvious tip of the hat to the hydrogen fuel cell-powered Honda Clarity, which is available for lease in small quantities to customers in Southern California, and represents the company's next phase in the electrification game.
Apparently, the Clarity is expected to be the aspirational vehicle for Insight owners, rather than an Accord or an Acura. Since there are only about 50 hydrogen stations in the United States, and 150,000 gasoline stations, it will likely be a while before you catch sight of one of those pie in the sky rides cruising through your neighborhood. Until then, the more down to Earth Insight will have to save the planet for Honda on its own.
2010 Honda Insight
Base price: $19,800
As tested: $23,770
Type: 5-passenger, 5-door hatchback
Powerplant: 1.3L inline-4 cylinder w/permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor
Power (NET): 98 hp, 123 lb-ft torque
Transmission: Continuously Variable Automatic
MPG: 40 city/43 hwy
What do you think of the Insight?
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