Honda Insight S 2011 Review

Honda’s new Insight hybrid is a little like the Terminator – a character made famous by the sci-fi films of the same name. Like the staunch film figure the Insight is here on earth to terminate something – excessive fuel usage. And like the film’s character the Insight isn’t the first model but is stronger, and more advanced than its predecessor. But unlike the Terminator we’ve seen on screen, the Honda Insight isn’t going to be killed off after two hours. The Insight represents a genre of vehicle that is here to stay and while Toyota’s Prius may be winning the battle so far, it feels like the hybrid wars are just beginning. Honda’s Insight is a machine that’s important for the future so Car and SUV enlisted for a test drive today.

The first generation Insight, a two-door coupe is a rarity on NZ roads, but is easily spotted because it looks odder than a $3 note. For the sequel, Honda has opted for a more practical four-door hatchback body shape and few of its predecessors styling cues remain.

Up front, Honda’s corporate face is accented by blue-tinted headlight lenses and a grinning front bumper with recessed fog lamps. Along the flanks, flattened wheel arches are partially filled by 15-inch 7-spoke alloy wheels – standard on our tested S spec model. At the rear an almost flattened rear windscreen works into a tinted vertical glass panel in a look that’s reminiscent of the second generation CR-X. Despite the aggressive styling, the windows are large and visibility is very good all around, including its radical rear. There are clear similarities in wedge like shape between the Insight and Toyota’s Prius caused by both cars’ designers chasing down optimum aerodynamics.

The Insight’s interior looks sharp with black, grey and silver tones swirling together in a circular design theme. The plastics are generally hard, reflecting the budget nature of the vehicle but are trimmed with textured material in places where they’ll be touched regularly. The central control stack has a simple horizontal arrangement with blue backlit display screens providing info. Instrumentation is unique with a digital speedometer raised and separated, this encourages the driver to save fuel by glowing green when the car is driven economically and changing to blue when it’s not.  Underneath there’s a traditional tacho, fuel gauge and a dial to tell you when your using battery power and when you’re saving it. There’s also a multi-info display, which can tell the driver a variety of vehicle information like fuel consumption and distance to empty. It’s a clever system, but parts of it are easily blocked from view by the tilt and reach adjustable steering wheel top.

The Insight’s seats are finished in a durable woven cloth and offer some lateral support but do feel fairly firm. Space up front is generous for driver and shotgun passenger, there’s good legroom and the tall body shape allows for ample headroom. The back seat is more restricted but will take two adults with some adjustment, but a middle passenger will have to deal with a raised and curved centre seat. Luggage space in the hatch area is a useable 350-litres expanding out to 400-litres with the use of underfloor storage compartments.

While the Insight’s interior and exterior styling is unique it’s the hybrid’s powertrain that really defines the vehicle. Power comes from Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist setup that now in it’s fifth generation combines a 1.3 litre i-VTEC four-cylinder petrol engine with a compact electric motor. Total output is 72kW with 167Nm of torque sent to the front wheels through a conventional CVT transmission. It’s a different set-up to Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive in that the electric motor can only help the combustion engine and not power the car on its own. Power is returned to the nickel metal hydride battery through a regenerative braking function on the electric motor. This helps slow the Insight and means that less load is put on the conventional brakes, explaining the old-fashioned drum brakes fitted to the Insight’s rear wheels. The bottom line with this modern set up is a quoted fuel economy figure of 4.6l/100km on the combined cycle and emissions of 106g/km. While we couldn’t quite achieve this economy number, our testing used around 5.5l/100km of petrol. But even with more spirited driving the Insight shouldn’t get too far above 6.0l/100km.

On the road the Insight feels light and agile, the power assisted steering is accurate but may be a notch vague for some tastes. The Insight is no speed merchant and will take a tardy 12.6 seconds to get from standing to 100kph. The CVT transmission can take some getting used to; it has the feel of one single gear and doesn’t really attempt to mimic gear changes. That said, it functions smoothly and helps with overall economy, if manual changes are desired there are steering wheel paddles that access seven virtual gear ratios.

City and suburban driving suits the Insight best, where it has enough zip to keep up with traffic and being based on the Jazz platform, it’s suitably small. On the open road any overtaking moves will require planning but it’s a comfortable and quiet cruiser at the speed limit.

In terms of handling the Insight has fair grip but you won’t want to push it too hard through the corners. A small amount of body roll and predictable understeer at higher speeds will keep drivers honest. It’s not that type of car anyway.

Ride quality is set for comfort and feels great around town and on the motorway. On rougher back roads you can hear and feel the surfaces more. However, the Insight cabin is fairly tranquil with minimal wind noise entering and the engine only becomes obtrusive when pushed hard.

The Insight is well covered for safety with front, side and curtain airbags all included. There are also ABS brakes, electronic stability control, active headrests and side intrusion beams.

Honda should be applauded for the Insight, it’s an impressive attempt at making hybrid motoring affordable. Our Insight S test model was priced at $35,600, a full $14k cheaper than Toyota’s low-spec Prius, highlighting Honda’s ability to produce good quality cheap cars and bring hybrid power to the masses. Dynamically it’s no rocketship but is a comfortable steer and offers substantial savings at the petrol pump. The Insight may not be able to completely terminate its hybrid competition but it’s certainly ready to fight, if you want to help save the world then take a closer look.

Price: From NZ$35,600

What we like:

  • Futuristic styling inside and out
  • Minimal fuel usage
  • Refined ride
  • Keen pricing

What we don’t like:

  • Pedestrian performance
  • Back seat space
  • Hard interior plastics

Words and Photos: Adam Mamo

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