2010 Honda Insight EX (Navigation) Review
By Chris Haak
The first time I saw a 2010 Honda Insight in the flesh, I was underwhelmed. It was as the 2009 NAIAS (Detroit Auto Show), and was the main focus of Honda’s more subdued product introduction plans in light of the poor economy. At the time, I felt that the car was small, had a cheap interior, and worst of all – for a car whose whole raison d’être is fuel economy – had some relatively disappointing numbers on the window sticker: 40 mpg city/43 mpg highway. Toyota made a splash at the same auto show with a 2010 Prius that stole some of the Insight’s thunder with a 50 mpg combined number – far better than the Insight’s approximate 41 mpg combined figure. Also not good: the car looked like a cross between an original two-door Honda Insight and a Toyota Prius, and its only good angle (at least to my eyes) was the front end.
Honda doesn’t necessarily want you to necessarily compare the two cars; they are different sizes (the Prius is larger and heavier) in spite of their likely-not-coincidentally similar shapes. The Prius was engineered from stem to stern as Toyota’s environmental flagship, with maximum fuel economy as its primary mission. The Insight had a similar mission, but with the added wrinkle of bringing the entry price of hybrid ownership further into the range of affordable cars.
Honestly, my second impression of the Insight, that time behind the wheel for a few miles at a media event, also didn’t impress me. The interior seemed to be somewhat cheaply made (lots of hard plastics, minimal sound insulation, maximum noise) and the fuel economy average – after abuse by several journalists on a mountain route – was showing about 36 mpg. I decided to give the car the benefit of the doubt, however, and withhold judgment until I had the opportunity to spend a week with the car, as provided by Honda. My initial impressions for the most part, unfortunately, stand, but I also notched some surprisingly good fuel economy numbers both when trying to do so and when not trying to do so.
The 2010 Insight, unlike some hybrids, does not have the ability to accelerate or to power itself purely on electrical power. Honda’s hybrid system, called IMA (for Integrated Motor Assist) is merely a boosting electric motor sandwiched between the engine and transaxle. It is not strong enough to power the car on its own, and the system is also engineered completely differently from others, so doing so would also happen to be impossible. The electric motor does help a bit with low-end torque, as electric motors tend to do, and also allows the Insight to employ a stop-start system. The start-stop system shuts off the engine sometimes when the car is nearly stopped, and instantly re-starts it when the driver lifts his foot off the brake, and actually works pretty well.
The Insight’s hybrid system, similar in concept to the so-called BAS (belt-alternator-starter) “mild hybrid” system employed by GM in its former Malibu, Aura, and Vue hybrid models, is less expensive than “full hybrids” as are employed in GM’s two-mode hybrid system and Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system. The upshot of Honda’s IMA system is that there aren’t really any transitions between gasoline and electric power: it’s always gasoline-powered, but under heavy acceleration, the electric motor’s whine turbine-like whine is apparent. (The small gasoline engine also makes quite a racket under those circumstances; it’s a far less-refined four cylinder under acceleration than are Honda’s larger inline fours, like the 2.4 liter mill found in the Accord.)
So, blessed with pretty low expectations for both performance and fuel economy, I was at least pleasantly surprised on the fuel economy front. The performance was, not unexpectedly, lackadaisical, but driving in more or less my normal style and on my normal route – which generally gives me fuel economy numbers just above the EPA’s city ratings – the Insight gave me about 42 miles per gallon. Even better, though, when I exercised right foot self-restraint, following the Insight’s economical driving technique coach (more on that in a moment), I got 53.5 mpg on a 26-mile trip, and averaged about 51 mpg on the day when including the return trip, so about a 9 mpg improvement compared to the 42 mpg that I experienced under my normal driving style.
The driving technique coach is one of the settings available on the Insight’s trip computer, and it’s similar in theory to the offerings in many other hybrid vehicles that encourage a more economical driving technique. Toyota hybrids show a graph of consumption/regeneration over time, the Fusion Hybrid grows plants, and the Insight gives an “eco score” after your driving. The coach is in the form of a horizontal graph with grayed-out areas on the far left and far right, with a line in the center. The objective when driving is to keep a graph out of the grayed-out areas; too much deceleration will send the graph to the left-hand gray area and too much acceleration will send the graph to the right-hand gray area on the graph. Following its recommendations made the Insight even slower to the point where sometimes in the interest of safety, I had to ignore its recommendations (merging onto a highway, or a sudden red light), but it really did encourage a smoother driving style. The problem was, I also found myself paying more attention to the graph than I should have, and not enough attention to the road around me.
My initial somewhat-unfavorable impression of the Insight’s interior still holds up, but the cockpit is probably best described as a slightly dressed-up economy car with an expensive drivetrain. The materials and design were no better than those in, for example, a Toyota Corolla’s interior. I found that all primary and secondary controls were easy to use and had, for the most part, a nicely-damped feel to them. The feeling that the climate controls had, for example, was on par with what a buyer would experience in an Accord. Design-wise, however, the instrument panel seemed to be overly busy, with too many shapes and far too many colors. The instrument cluster alone had black, white, red, blue, and green at one spot or another.
Like the Honda Civic, the Insight has a digital speedometer in a separate pod at the top of the dash. Although it looks a bit odd, it is more in the driver’s line of sight than a conventionally-located one. In the Insight, there is a virtual colored globe in the background behind the speedometer readout that changes color between blue and green depending upon how economically you’re driving. If you see green, you’re doing well, and if you see blue, you’re burning more fuel than you should. I found it to be practically useless, and the eco driving coach feature was much more helpful in encouraging better behavior – and therefore more fuel savings.
The 160-watt audio system actually sounded pretty good for an unbranded factory system (I preferred its sound to my old 2004 Accord’s system), though the Insight’s unfortunately lacked XM Satellite Radio as many other Honda models feature. The navigation display could show a real-time graphic equalizer, which was kind of neat to watch. When used as a navigation system, the interface is fairly easy to use, though its screen resolution was somewhat poor for a 2010 model year vehicle (I’ve had this comment about other Honda/Acura navigation systems that I’ve sampled as well), and it lacked the ability to display the map in a “bird’s eye” or 3D view. At least Bluetooth connectivity was included, and it worked great with my iPhone.
I managed to fit two forward facing Britax Marathon convertible car seats into the back seat of the Insight, and my sons were reasonably comfortable in the back seat from a legroom standpoint. As in the Prius, the roofline gets somewhat low in the back seat area, so there wasn’t much headroom clearance, but it actually seemed more spacious back there for the kids than my Cadillac CTS is, except in terms of width. The rear seat folds (nearly) flat, and there’s a reasonably spacious cargo area behind the seats even when they’re in use, thanks to the hatchback design.
Aside from the unique-to-a-hybrid aspect of the driving experience that I’ve already covered, there wasn’t much else to note about the way the Insight drove. It’s fairly slow, fairly noisy during acceleration, and the engine often turns off when the car comes to a stop. Aside from those observations, the narrow low rolling resistance tires didn’t offer much in the way of grip, and yelped when attempting any kind of aggressive cornering or braking. It was actually possible to chirp the front tires when pulling away from a stop, which is probably a combination of the electric motor’s torque assistance and the low grip of the high-mpg tires. Handling wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring, yet the car did inspire more confidence than, say, a Corolla or 2008-vintage Prius would. I’ve not yet spent enough time with the 2010 Prius to make that judgment.
My test vehicle had an as-tested price of $23,770 including destination (Honda recently increased their destination charge by $40, which brings the new MSRP to $24,810), but included everything that you can get with an Insight from the factory. You cannot get leather seats, laser cruise control, self parking, or other luxury features that you might find in some of its competitors, but you also won’t see the Insight’s competitors with those features going out the door for that kind of money.
As I found with the Prius that I tested a few years ago, the Insight was created with one primary objective: fuel economy. Everything else is secondary, including acceleration, comfort and convenience features, looks, interior materials and design – you name it. The Insight returned great fuel economy for me during my time with the car, but seemed a bit too unrefined for my taste. There were too many compromises in the name of fuel economy, and the car’s fuel economy – on paper – isn’t as good as its primary competitor. At least it gives Honda – the original seller of mass-produced hybrids in the US – a credible entrant that clearly shows its eco cred. That alone may make the Insight worth the effort for Honda.
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