Honda Insights: Then and Now
By Bill Moore
A decade separates the original Honda Insight and its reincarnation. In 1999, when the first version was introduced as a streamlined, all-aluminum version of the CRX, it was the only hybrid-electric car you could buy in North America. Introduced as a 2000 model year vehicle, it boasted 70 mph fuel economy, then and still an astounding number that remains largely unrivaled by any production automobile. More amazing, it really was also an achievable number, though in mixed city/highway driving, numbers in mid-to-high 50s and low sixties were more sustainable.
But the car had its shortcomings. It only had two seats and the first year only a manual transmission was available. In subsequent model years, automatic transmissions became options. Although the Honda Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) drive system was tailored more for highway driving, the car wasn't. It was best used as a city commuter car, usually assigned the status of the family's second car in many dual income households.
Honda built some 5000 Insights a year between 1999 and 2006, when production ceased. Total production was just over 13,600 vehicles. When it was introduced the winter of 1999, the MSRP was $19,800.
It was Honda's first -- and until now -- only attempt to introduce a dedicated hybrid platform. The Insight was followed in 2002 by the Civic Hybrid and in 2004 the Accord Hybrid. To use a baseball metaphor, the Insight was a stand-up double. The Civic was a good, solid single. The Accord, for all its exciting power, was a strikeout. Compared to the 2004 Toyota Prius, Honda just hasn't had a home run.
The 2010 Insight represents not only a revival of the original model line but also a return to the strategy that a sizable market exists for a separately-styled hybrid product line. But as with GM who learned -- painfully -- the folly of relying solely on a narrow two-seat commuter car niche in the EV1, Honda went with a five-passenger hatchback that is everything you could ask for in a truly affordable hybrid family car.
Honda loaned EV World a 2010 Insight for ten days, during which time we drove it around eastern Nebraska, commuted to work and back, and even used it as an ambulance. We found it met all our expectations and then some. It seemed to deliver a predictable mid-40s fuel economy, in part because of the on-screen encouragements. Other reviewers have reported 60 mpg, which I suppose is achievable, but we never saw anything close to that number. Considering that the 2000 Insight will often do no better than 48-50 mpg in stop-n-go city driving, the new, more comfortable and roomier Insight isn't that far off the mark.
Given the improvements between the 2000 and 2010 models, the new Insight clearly represents a far better value. If Honda had introduced this car instead of the two-seat model back when, it would be an entirely different ball game today. It would be Toyota who would be playing catch-up. But they didn't and they've struggled like the White Sox against the Yankees ever since.
Don't get me wrong, the 2010 Insight is a good car. I'd be comfortable buying one, but the trouble is, it's up against the 2010 Prius, an equally stylish, more powerful yet more fuel efficient vehicle that isn't that much more costly than the Insight we drove with an MSPR of $22,010US. We found a rare 2010 demonstrator locally that was stickered at just $1,100US more.
In my mind, the final buyer decision is going to boil down to several factors: vehicle availability, dealer aggressiveness, and brand loyalty. If Toyota can't build enough Priuses to meet demand, the Insight may become a consumer fallback choice. Final pricing and financing -- as well as vehicle trade-in values -- will tip the balance either way. Honda brand loyalty is deservedly strong, as is Toyota. Honda customers who've been looking for an alternative to switching to Toyota, may now the choice they've been waiting for.
I would certainly not hesitate to encourage readers looking for a new, more fuel efficient Honda that expresses your environmental awareness -- and financial acumen -- to consider the Insight.
For me personally, though, the deciding factor isn't any of the above. The decider for me is I can't run the Insight in electric-only mode. The IAM, system for all its sophistication and simplicity, won't allow it. The Insight is and always will be a gasoline-dependent motor vehicle. In this respect, Honda has made virtually no progress since the 2000 model was introduced. Yes, I know that Honda, as a corporation, doesn't believe in the concept, but I am sorry, it is where we're headed. $2.4 billion in grants just confirmed that here in America.
We've been a Honda family since 1995, but that's about to change. Steve Woodruff is restoring a 2009 salvaged Prius for us and we hope to take delivery sometime in September. I decided to go this route because my plan is eventually to have it converted to a plug-in hybrid, which my wife will use daily for her 8-mile commute to work at Omaha Steaks. It is my intention to use as little petroleum as possible in the future. We started by scraping our old gas mower and going to electric more than two years ago. Now, I want to make at least one of the family vehicles a plug-in.
For all its wonderful features, the Insight will never let me do that.
Click the 35 mm slide icon below to see a series of photo's comparing our 2000 Insight with the 2010 model.
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