The Honda Insight is more affordable, but no better than other hybrids such as the Toyota Prius

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Even in an industry as ruthless as the car-making, it’s hard not to feel a bit for Honda. Despite developing the first production hybrid car with the truly innovative first-generation Insight in the late 1990s, and before that pioneering clean and efficient petrol engines, the environmental limelight has been well and truly hogged by arch rival Toyota.

When the Insight was launched in 2009, sales of the Prius had sailed past the one million mark, whereas sales of Honda hybrids of any description languished well behind at just 275,000 units.

The second-generation Insight lacks the space-age looks of the original

Although arguably the first-generation Insight’s hybrid powertrain and unique styling made it ahead of its time, the rebirth of the Insight with this second-generation model is designed for much greater global appeal. Not least because the latest Insight is the first stand-alone hybrid in Honda’s range since the original, with its other previous hybrids having been hidden in the Civic range.

Although not as ground-breaking as either the original Insight or the second generation Prius, the Insight boasts a simpler approach to hybrid technology in a familiar five-door bodystyle and a much lower price.

The Insight is offered with just the one powertrain option – a 1.3-litre petrol engine mated to an electric motor and battery pack – although buyers can choose from five different trim options, spanning roughly £4500 in price

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When launched, the Insight was the cheapest hybrid on the market. And although smaller hybrids, including Honda’s own Jazz Hybrid and Toyota's Auris hybrid, have arrived, the Insight is still the cheapest hybrid next to its similarly sized rivals.

Honda’s thinking is that by eroding the premium, more buyers will migrate from conventional family cars. Will they? Only if the Insight’s talents extend further than this value proposition.


Honda Insight rear light

The original Insight had its fans – and indeed now achieves a cult status – partly thanks to its radical sleek aerodynamic body, but those hoping for similar daring and innovation from the Honda design department this time around will be disappointed.

Indeed, for the mass-market appeal and, in turn, sales, Honda opted to play it safe this time and offer a much less controversial design, which does away with flourishes such as the partly covered rear wheels of the original.

The Insight's slippery shape helps it deliver very low aerodynamic drag

Honda gave the Insight an initial dynamic makeover in 2010 after customer and media feedback, but the mid-life facelift wasn’t seen until the Frankfurt motor show in 2011. So the model now sports the front end similar to the one seen on the latest-generation Civic rather than the look of Honda’s fuel-cell FCX Clarity model that it sported before the changes.

With aerodynamics dictating a steeply sloped windscreen and A-pillars, the Insight’s small windows ahead of the wing mirror help with visibility. 

Key to achieving the Insight’s aerodynamic shape is the gradual, almost imperceptible transition from roofline to rear window. It’s a carefully judged balancing act, though, to ensure sufficient rear passenger headroom. View the Insight in profile and you can just see the slightest kink. The top half of the body tapers in towards the rear of the car, which helps the air pass more smoothly over the top.

Like the Prius, the Insight’s slippery shape demands a high-reaching and near-vertical tail. Although the top portion of the tailgate is glass, the joining bar that links the tops of the rear light units restricts rear visibility.


Honda Insight dashboard

If you think the Insight’s exterior style and dimensions closely resemble the Prius’s, you won’t be surprised to find that the Honda also matches the Toyota for interior space. The Insight, for example, has the same 408-litre luggage capacity and a similar-shaped boot. The rear seats can take three adults at a pinch (headroom is at a slight premium because of the sloping roof, and it’s also a tad narrow for three grown-ups), and the front is roomy.

Spaciousness aside, the Insight and Prius could scarcely be further removed. The Toyota feels totally unlike a conventional car, but Honda has gone out of its way to make drivers accustomed to regular hatchbacks feel immediately at home in the Insight.

Like other Honda interiors, the Insight’s is somewhere between futuristic and cluttered

Front seat occupants sit in a conventional, low-slung position, far back in the cabin, in a way that’s straight out of the Civic rulebook. The seats – supportive, well sculpted and comfortable – feel all but identical, too, as does the small, intricate steering wheel. There’s even a conventional, mechanical auto-style gear selector to control the CVT gearbox and a conventional key and start button. Although the Insight has the ability to run without its engine, it needs to be fired initially.

The Insight’s fascia has a similar layout to that of the Civic although it’s slightly more softly sculpted. You look through the steering wheel at the lower of two display consoles for the temperature and fuel gauges, revcounter and trip meter, and above it for the digital speedo, backed by the blue-to-green hue of an econometer.

But despite the pleasing and almost futuristic styling, the interior’s perceived quality is adequate rather than premium, even after its recent revisions.


Honda Insight hybrid engine

Honda keeps it simple with the Insight: just one powertrain is offered. It is known as Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) and comprises an 87bhp 1.3-litre petrol engine assisted by a 14bhp electric motor.

As hybrid systems go, IMA is one of the more simplistic, with a permanent connection between the petrol motor and transmission. If the wheels are turning, so is the engine. Whether it is using any fuel is a different matter.

Honda has repositioned the vents for the battery pack from the rear parcel shelf to the outside of the rear seat bolster, which is where they are in the Prius

Although the Insight will not move off from standstill on electric power alone, once moving it can run on just electric power. But because it still has to turn the engine, it is less efficient than the more complex system found in the Prius, which allows the engine to disconnect completely. Drive is channelled to the front wheels through a CVT transmission.

With the combined force of the electric and petrol propulsion, which together produce 97bhp, the Insight took 11.7sec to go from rest to 60mpha touch quicker than Honda claims.

In the real world, though, the manner in which the Insight delivers its performance is less satisfactory. On anything but light throttle applications, the engine is pretty vocal, and not in a pleasant way. The problem is exacerbated by the CVT transmission, which under full throttle keeps the engine spinning at constant high revs. It requires a committed approach to get the sort of performance suggested by the headline numbers, and especially to pick up speed on the motorway; effortless it is not.

In less pressing driving, the Insight is a quieter companion, but still the transmission isn’t the smoothest. The action of the petrol motor cutting in and out is more noticeable than in the Prius. Switching to Econ mode, which reduces power slightly and smooths out the throttle map and CVT operation, improves matters marginally.


Honda Insight cornering

Since their introduction, we’ve become accustomed to hybrid cars – Lexus models aside – not riding that well. It’s disappointing to report that the Honda Insight continues this theme, being notably worse in back-to-back driving than even a previous-generation Toyota Prius, let alone a current model.

Both of the model's facelifts have seen improvements in ride and handling, so that the Insight is still jarring over most surfaces is something of a surprise. The Insight is a development of the platform that underpins the current Honda Jazz, including the same suspension modules, namely the basic and inexpensive layout of MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear.

The Insight's ride is firm, but it is surprisingly agile

But this isn’t unusual in this segment and other manufacturers manage to endow their cars with superior suspension control.

The problem isn’t so much the general softness of the ride but the fidget and crash that sometimes accompanies it. The Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, for example, are no firmer riding than the Honda, yet body movements are better controlled, combined with a suppleness that allows them to brush off minor surface imperfections and potholes without the shakes to which the Insight subjects its occupants.

It’s not quite as bad as before the 2010 changes, when the car could be described as uncomfortable over the worst surfaces. Given that the Insight runs on tall, 65-profile tyres, it’s even more surprising that it’s less comfortable than it ought to be. That said, Honda listened to the initial complaints and addressed the ride faults. 

If there is a pay-off, it’s that the Insight turns out to be surprisingly agile for a car of this kind. It turns in crisply and has accurate steering (although light and devoid of feel), and although its overall grip levels are low, it feels nimble and, dare we say, even mildly responsive. As enthusiasts, we appreciate that, even if we’re not so sure the target audience will.


Honda Insight

Honda is making a song and dance of the fact that its entry-level SE model, priced barely above an expensive supermini, makes Insight is the cheapest hybrid in its class – by a margin of at least £4000.

But for the time being, if your primary reason for choosing a spacious hybrid is for its exemption from city centre congestion charging, the Insight’s price advantage is a persuasive argument.

Honda reckons its Eco-Assist coaching system is like a Tamagotchi pet. Isn’t the cost of fuel more of an incentive to be economical?

Its running costs are less so. The 43.0mpg we achieved on our touring route is much less than the 56.0mpg we recorded in our road test of the Prius. At least Honda has finally addressed one of the Insight’s biggest failings: its CO2 rating, which now finally drops below 100g/km and brings with it an exemption from road tax in the process.

To insure, the Insight sits in group 15 in its most basic form, a figure matched by the Prius. 

The bigger worry for the Insight (and Prius), though, is the new breed of efficient diesels, such as the Golf BlueMotion and Focus Econetic, which for a similar price will, on paper, offer better economy and emissions.


3 star hybrid Honda Insight

At heart, the Honda Insight is similar to any other small Honda. The ergonomics are first rate, and the Tokyo-by-night theme to the interior is top-notch. Interior materials are not exactly sumptuous, but they’re inoffensive.

Has Honda moved the hybrid game on with the Insight? Not like it did with the original, certainly. Its Integrated Motor Assist system is not notably more advanced than it was in the previous-generation Civic Hybrid, while the body still marks it out as something a little outlandish.

Well priced, but not as efficient or refined as the Prius

We suspect that hybrid technology – as Lexus has managed – will really start to become accepted when it just represents an alternative model to a conventional car.

Honda’s real achievement with the Insight is that it has brought it within reach of buyers who would otherwise find it, or a Prius, too expensive. But still, to be really competitive, it ought to be cheaper still.

The small dynamic upgrades do enough to earn the Insight a greater recommendation than the original. As it is, there are diesels that do everything that the Insight does, but better.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Honda Insight 2009-2014 First drives