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Minimal Insight. Image by Dan Pullen.

Minimal Insight
Finally, the ubiquitous Toyota Prius has a proper rival - but can the Honda Insight become just as synonymous with being green?


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In 1999 Honda gave us the oddball first generation Insight. It looked silly, with its Citroen DS-like covered rear wheelarches, but it proved Honda could produce a viable hybrid. Nobody here listened, mind, as Honda flogged a mere 390 in the UK.

Then came the Toyota You-Know-What, which became a phenomenon. (The first Prius went on sale in Japan 1997, but the real success story was 2004's second generation model sold globally.) It paved the way for widespread acceptance of hybrids and has sold over 1,000,000 units. The Insight is Honda's serious attack on this green market, and it's due here in April.

In the Metal

Ok, you've seen the pictures, so let's get this out of the way: the Honda Insight looks almost identical to its venerable Eastern foe, and it has got nothing to do with the camera lens or your eyesight.

Why has Honda done this? It says it was to separate the Insight out as an obviously green car, although it also claims to have given the car a 'sporty factor'. It's a packaging thing too - the battery pack is under the boot, so the cargo floor is raised, meaning the roof needs to be high at the rear for a useable boot. Still, despite claims of a 'blank sheet of paper' design remit, the Insight is an example of Prius cloning on a Dolly the sheep scale.

Inside it's typical Honda fare. The whole thing feels as well built as a Poggenpohl kitchen, but the materials are MFI through and through - all the surfaces are hard, grey and plasticky. The Insight shares a load of its parts, inside and out, with the Honda Jazz, and that's about the standard you get.

What you get for your Money

Honda refuses to be drawn on how much it will actually charge for the Insight in the UK, despite spending much of the launch event banging a massive drum with 'most affordable hybrid ever' written on it. The reason, we're told, is because Honda itself is currently trying to figure out what to charge for it, with currency fluctuations largely responsible for the hold up. But, consider that a Prius will set you back from £17,000 upwards and you can bank on a starting price for the Insight of around £15,000. That's conjecture, obviously, but it won't be much less - and that makes it actually quite pricey for what is - pragmatically viewed - a slow, noisy and dull hatchback. More of which later.

It's relatively well specced, however, with base SE models getting climate control, electric mirrors and windows and a multi function steering wheel. Spend more for an ES spec car and you'll get alloys, heated seats, auto wipers and lights, tinted glass and a jack for your iPod. You also, of course, buy into the heady inner glow associated with joining the hybrid club.

Driving it

This is not a car you'll consider for its driving prowess. The steering feels plain weird: completely devoid of feel yet twitchy near the top dead centre, especially on the motorway. The ride is generally comfortable without wallowing, but it hates potholes with a passion (and so will you), and the racket served up by the CVT combined with the whine of the electric motor under acceleration ensures you'll never want to go fast in it, ever. Honda's IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) system backs up the petrol motor for better economy - unlike the Prius, which can be driven on electric power alone at town speeds.

The Insight also doubles as a unique and slightly patronising mobile videogame. While putting the Insight through the standard fuel economy test cycle, Honda realised that the resulting mpg figures have virtually no basis in reality. No surprise there. Still, the firm did some tests and found wildly varying fuel economy results from driver-to-driver, so it decided to combat this with the 'eco assist system', which rewards you for driving in an economical manner by way of a series of five flowers on a digital readout inside the rev counter. Whenever you accelerate or brake too harshly an adjacent gauge tells you so, and the flowers will begin to die. Kill all the flowers and you're a naughty, profligate driver, but drive like Anita Roddick and your flowers are safe - and you'll get a little trophy on the readout at the end of your journey. Hooray! A light behind the speedo glows blue when you're bad and green when you're good, too. It's all a bit distracting, though.

There's an 'econ' switch as well, which reduces torque by four percent, alters the CVT gearbox's 'shift' pattern, changes the throttle response to optimise fuel consumption by smoothing out on/off inputs, and shuts down the air conditioning when the standard engine stop/start system kicks in. On the move, the only real difference is a slacker feeling throttle calibration under mild acceleration.

Worth Noting

The BMW 116d. There's a diesel-scented thorn in the side of the Insight that will forever plague it. The Prius was such a fashion statement that no matter how many journalists pointed out that many small diesels are more economical, cheaper to buy and infinitely better to drive, Toyota could barely make them quick enough.

So if the Honda doesn't become instantly cool, it may find itself disregarded in favour of the burgeoning pack of clean and fun diesels. The 116d, when it hits showrooms in March, will emit 118g/km of CO2 and do 64.2mpg - and it's rear-drive. The Honda has exactly the same mpg figure and emits 101g/km of CO2, which although cleaner puts it in the same VED bracket. Which would you rather have?


Honda's Insight is a bit better than the current Prius because it provides a more conventional driving experience, as far as these things go, and has prettier headlamps and tail lights. However, it just doesn't move the game forward in a notable way, and in fact it's dirtier than the (smaller) car it replaces - the original Insight could muster 83mpg and emitted just 80g/km of CO2. Admittedly, that car was only a two-door coupé while the new version has space for a family.

The Insight is not terrible; it's just hard to recommend over the 'eco' versions of many much better hatchbacks - and the new Toyota Prius will trump it for performance and eco-friendliness when it arrives too. The pretence of all-encompassing mobile frugality is worthy of a premium - just ask any Prius driver - but Honda will have to do better to persuade the masses out of their Focus ECOnetics and Golf BlueMotions.

Mark Nichol - 22 Jan 2009    - Honda road tests
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2009 Honda Insight specifications:
Technical specifications for 2009 Honda Insight

2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dave Jenkins.2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dave Jenkins.2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dave Jenkins.2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dave Jenkins.2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dave Jenkins.

2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dave Jenkins.2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dave Jenkins.2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dave Jenkins.2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dave Jenkins.2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dan Pullen.

2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dan Pullen.

2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dan Pullen.

2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dan Pullen.

2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dan Pullen.

2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dan Pullen.

2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dan Pullen.

2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dan Pullen.

2009 Honda Insight. Image by Dan Pullen.


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