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Green Car Guide's road test and review of the Honda Insight hybrid
Model/Engine Size: 1.3 IMA ES hybrid
Fuel: Petrol Electric Hybrid
Fuel economy combined: 61.4 mpg
Green-Car-Guide rating: 6/10
Honda is marketing the Insight as the 'affordable' family hybrid compared to its rival the Toyota Prius; so does the car suffer from the cost-cutting, and should you pay the extra for a Prius... or something else?
The Insight is a name that Honda has revived. The original Insight was the sporty-looking three-door hybrid launched by Honda in 1999. The original Insight was never going to achieve mass appeal as it was only a two-seater, with the batteries positioned behind the driver and passenger.
Honda's new Insight is a very different concept, designed 'to bring hybrids to the masses' via a five-door, five-seat family hatchback bodyshell. The Insight is a 'stand-alone' model, available only as a hybrid. As with the latest Prius, against which it will always be compared, although we’ve driven the Insight before, we wanted to review it over a longer time period.
The Insight is a hybrid because it has a (1339cc) petrol engine and an electric motor, and Honda calls its technology 'Integrated Motor Assist' (IMA) - the idea is that the electric motor 'assists' the petrol engine. It's a parallel system, so it's simpler, smaller, lighter and cheaper to produce than that in its Prius rival - but the economy savings aren't as great.
Both the Insight and the Prius can be driven in electric only mode, but the Prius - a 'full'-hybrid - can accelerate from standstill without using its petrol engine - the Honda can't do this, although it can cruise electric-only up to 29 mph under certain conditions. Both cars switch from petrol to electric power, which is all clever, efficient stuff, but the switch is more seamless in the Prius.
The overall principle of both cars is the same - any excess energy from the car, such as when braking, is captured by the battery, to be returned to be used by the engine when needed, eg during acceleration - so saving petrol.
The result is that the Insight can emit just 101g/km CO2 and achieve 64.2 mpg but this is only in SE specification. In ES and ES-T spec, due to the extra equipment, the emissions climb to 105 g/km CO2, with fuel consumption of 61.4 mpg. All other performance figures remain the same.
This is the first slightly quirky-Honda-like thing about the Insight - as Honda was so close anyway, why didn't they do whatever was needed to get the CO2 emissions under 100g/km, so they could benefit from all the PR sound bytes that this would generate - never mind the cost savings from zero road tax.
The current Honda Civic hybrid also returns 61.4 mpg (but 109 g/km CO2), so both cars are very close to each other, even though the Insight is newer and more slippier than the Civic, which, being a saloon, was primarily aimed at the North American market.
Because it's a hybrid, it qualifies for exemption from the London Congestion Charge - for the moment. Company car tax bills will also be low.
As well as offering low CO2 emissions, an important point of the Insight is that its emissions that impact on local air quality are low - especially when compared with small diesels; while the CO2 emissions of diesels are lower than most conventional petrol cars, they produce higher levels of NOx and particulate emissions.
In terms of fuel economy, our test showed that 50mpg+ is achievable if driving carefully, but mid-30s mpg can be the result if you need to get somewhere quickly. However it should be mentioned that one of Green Car Guide's main contributors has driven an Insight for over 6 months and has averaged 61mpg. Toyota decided to put a larger engine in the latest Prius, a 1.8-litre rather than the previous 1.5-litre, and this was for better economy as well as for better performance. As it is, the 1.3-litre petrol engine in the Insight really feels underpowered, especially on the motorway, and fuel consumption can suffer as a result.
Honda's Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) programme
One important word about the lifetime environmental impact of hybrids. Because of the electric motor and the additional battery in a hybrid vehicle, it's been claimed that there's a significant environmental cost to producing hybrids, perhaps even outweighing the environmental benefit of the cleaner tailpipe emissions.
Honda carries out a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) programme which looks at the CO2 emissions at each stage of a car's life cycle, including production. The results broadly match other statistics in the motor industry - ie. that the majority of emissions are in the 'use' stage of a car - most industry statistics broadly agree that around 85% of the energy used in a car's lifetime is in the fuel it uses, around 10% is in production, and around 5% is in end-of-life recycling. Thereby supporting the need for cars to be as energy efficient in their daily use as possible.
Honda also found that there's very little difference between the CO2 emissions associated with the raw material and production stages of its hybrids compared to its conventional cars.
In total, Honda's figures for Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) show that the Civic hybrid has 66% of the lifecycle emissions of the non-hybrid Civic.
The Driving Experience
For the hybrid system to work in an optimal way, the petrol engine is mated to a CVT (continuously variable transmission) - this is the only gearbox option for the Insight. This gives the control required for the hybrid system, however a CVT transmission is not to everyone's tastes. One of the main characteristics of the Insight is that under acceleration the car revs away and sounds harsh, and the noise doesn't translate to quicker progress on the ground.
A partial solution to this is the Formula 1-style paddle shift gear levers behind the steering wheel. Available only on ES models, when in 'S'-mode on the CVT transmission, you can override the transmission and change gears yourself, with a choice of 7 gears.
This helps to avoid the normal CVT situation of the revs climbing away under acceleration, but the 1.3 petrol engine can still sound harsh when going through the gears.
When not under enthusiastic acceleration, and with the transmission left in the Drive setting, as most people will leave it, the Insight is a much easier car to live with.
In terms of the rest of the driving experience, the Insight feels lighter and more agile than the Prius. The suspension is firmer, which could be a good or a bad thing. As it turns out, the body movements are not particularly well controlled by the firm suspension, and it judders over potholes, so the suspension is not the most comfortable. Added to this, the steering is light, and doesn't have much feel.
The dashboard features Honda's Ecological Drive Assist System (known slightly more succintly just as 'Eco Assist'). The background colour behind the digital speedo display glows green rather than blue if you drive smoothly, and the more economical you are, you gain a collection of green trees.
The detailed fuel consumption readout on the Prius (especially on the previous generation model) does genuinely encourage you to try and beat your previous mpg best; however in comparison the green trees on the Insight strike you as slightly gimmicky.
There is also an 'ECON' button - this is 'super economy mode', and it generates another green tree symbol. This limits the output of the petrol engine, increases regenerative charging under deceleration, and makes the air conditioning operate more efficiently.
The dashboard as a whole appears rather grey, plasticky and cheap, and at night the effect is one of lots of blue or green everywhere, so much so that it's very difficult to spot if the blue main beam light is on amongst all the blue everywhere on the dash.
Honda Insight Equipment
In terms of equipment, the SE comes with 15-inch alloy wheels, climate control air conditioning, electric folding door mirrors, front and rear electric windows and steering wheel audio controls.
The ES grade (the best seller) includes 16-inch alloy wheels, auto lights and wipers, cruise control, front fog lights, heated front seats, leather steering wheel and gear knob, paddle shift, privacy glass and USB port over and above the SE grade.
The ES-T model comes with DVD Satellite Navigation and Hands Free Technology for your mobile phone.
The similarities with the Prius don't end with the hybrid system. The Insight has also ended up looking remarkably similar to the Prius, in particular around the rear end. Rather than being due to any form of industrial espionage, this is the result of the need for both cars to achieve optimal aerodynamics in the quest for maximum fuel economy (the Insight achieves a drag coefficient of 0.28 whereas the new Prius wins with a figure of 0.26).
The Insight also shares styling influences with the FCX Clarity, Honda's hydrogen fuel cell car, currently in limited use in America.
One other minor issue is the rear visibility on the Insight, which suffers due to the bar that joins the two areas of glass at the rear of the car obscuring a key portion of the rear view.
The Insight range starts from £16,338 for the SE model, but the ES model tested starts at £17,668. The top of the range ES-T starts from £19,303. In comparison the Prius range starts from £19,504 and rises to £22,610. So the Prius does cost around £3000 more, but the third generation Prius does address most of the weaknesses of the previous model to result in a very refined overall package, and it distances itself further from the Insight. So £3000 may be seen as a fair price to pay for a better quality of motoring life.
Review of the Honda Insight 1.3 IMA ES hybrid
The Insight has a place in the market. If you want a car that says you are into technology, concerned about the environment, are prudent with your purchasing, and you don't mind revvy CVT transmissions, this is a car that should be considered. It's fine for pootling slowly around urban areas when it will be efficient, it can seat five, and has a practical hatchback. It's cheaper than the Prius, and is likely to be as reliable as most other Hondas. So there are good points, but this is quite a limited market.
Yes it is a more affordable hybrid, and Honda should be applauded for this aim, but you would have expected it to achieve more progress in lowering emissions compared to the Civic hybrid, at least to under 100g/km, and perhaps that should have been more of a priority than the focus on green trees. Honda set out to produce an 'affordable hybrid', and to achieve that, some corners have to be cut. It's unfortunate, although predictable, that the motoring media is bound to focus on the corners that have been cut.
A key area for improvement has to be stopping the revs climbing away via the CVT transmission under acceleration. It will be interesting to see how the forthcoming CR-Z hybrid sports coupe drives with its manual gearbox.
If you want a car similar in size to the Insight that will deliver similar or possibly better fuel economy, but want more of a driver's car, then a Volkswagen Golf or a Ford Focus diesel will meet your needs better, although be aware that the Insight does remain significantly cheaper than the Focus ECOnetic.
Car details and fuel economy data
Fuel economy extra urban: 62.8 mpg
Fuel economy urban: 60.1 mpg
CO2 emissions: 101 g/km
Green rating: VED band B - £15
Weight: 1240 Kg
Company car tax liability (2009/10): 10%
Price: £18,078 (From £16,236 to £19,303)
Insurance group: 6
Power: 88 bhp (petrol) / 14 bhp (electric) / 102 bhp combined
Max speed: 113 mph
0-62mph: 12.5 seconds
- Paul Clarke