Insight fails to impress

I Was really looking forward to driving the Honda Insight. I had never driven one before – indeed I have never driven a hybrid from anyone other than Toyota (including Lexus). So, when I saw it on the road test list, I was eager to see how it compared.

What’s the thinking behind it?

I had assumed that Honda produced the Insight to try to carve themselves a slice of the Prius action. To do that, I assumed the Insight would be an ‘aspirational’ car, projecting a technological image and providing a strong appeal to sophisticated types (like the Hollywood actors who have been falling over themselves to buy the Prius, in an attempt to parade their green credentials).

Honda Insight

Does it appeal?

The first impression was not good. The door handle emitted a horribly unsophisticated clang as I opened the door. Stepping inside I was in for another shock. In place of style and sophistication the insight offers large areas of rather unattractive hard plastic.

Worse still, the square aftermarket-style sat-nav and audio sticks out like a sore thumb against the beige and browns of the interior. To make matters worse, it floats on an organically shaped panel of sparkly (I kid you not!) black plastic.

The rather garish instruments are obviously inspired by the Honda Civic, but are a lot less successful, with the honourable exception of the neat display showing what the power units and regeneration.

I was now totally confused. The insight appears to have been pitched at the budget end of the market, rather than the aspirational image-conscious market I had expected. So, just who is Honda targeting with this car?

Does it go?

Like the Prius, the Insight has two power units – a conventional petrol engine and an electric motor. With the Insight the engine, at 1.3-litres, is quite about half a litre smaller than the Prius.

Also like the Prius, I was expecting the Insight to simply tell me it was ready and wait before using the electric motor to waft silently away from standstill. So, I was surprised when turning the Insight’s starter instantly brought the petrol engine to life. I wondered if this only happened from cold, but, no, the petrol engine started immediately every time.

Power output from the 88PS petrol engine can be augmented by the 14PS electric motor when you want maximum power. However, I reckon most people will not want maximum power too often. The trouble is that it assails the eardrums.

Yes, under maximum acceleration the Insight is downright noisy. In any case, getting the maximum performance requires a determined right foot. Acceleration 0-62 takes 12.5 seconds.

How green is it?

So, with its smaller engine, presumably the Insight beats the Prius in the economy stakes?

Umm... no.

At 61.4 mpg, the combined fuel economy is almost nine miles per gallon shy of the figure for the Prius. I found that this gap was reflected in the real-world economy over the time I drove the Insight.

My actual best mpg was 46, again some nine miles per gallon worse than the Prius. Given that there are many non-hybrid cars that will achieve these sorts of figures, or better, I have to say that the Insight again proved a disappointment. All that technology for this?

In the emission stakes the Insight also fails to make the grade. Carbon dioxide emissions are 105 g/km, leaving the Prius to take the accolades once again, with free road tax against an admittedly small £35 for the Impulse.

What is it like to drive?

The Impulse is certainly easy to drive. You just press the throttle and, like the Prius the car will chose the right motive power for your demands.

But, just as the cabin ambience doesn’t flatter, neither, I’m afraid, does the driving experience. There is a little annoying slack in the take up of drive from rest. The result can be an uncomfortable split second of rolling back, before forward motion commences. Rather unsettling.

The one thing the Insight does do better is that it at least has gears. The transmission is constant velocity, meaning that the gearing is constantly varied without actual cog shifting. But there are various presets in the system that you can use, like conventional manual gears.

So, with a quick flick on the steering wheel paddles, you can select a lower gearing to stabilise the car into a corner. On the Prius, you have no option but to accept an unsettling higher gear on a trailing throttle.

You have already gathered that refinement is not a strength, but the ride quality is also far from ideal, sometimes proving a bit lumpy. It may just be the test car, which had clearly had a long and hard life, but I was disappointed to note a number of rattles.

How easy is it to live with?

The insight offers good accommodation for both passengers and driver. But, like the Prius, the visibility is compromised by the split rear window, with a bar across the middle. Again, the wiper is mounted on the left and leaves sections on the driver’s side unswept.

The lower section of this window has an unusual “squashy” net panel that can be popped in or out to provide privacy for the boot’s contents, Although the boot floor is quite high, due to the electronics, there is a remarkably deep cubby below the boot floor.

How much does it cost?

The Honda Insight 1.3 IMA ES-T Hybrid CVT costs £18,890, which makes it £615 less than the cheapest Toyota Prius. But – if I was persuaded that a hybrid really was the best way to save the planet – I would find that extra money and choose the Prius.

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