Review: 2010 Honda Insight EX, familiarity breeds discontent

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First impressions can be problematic, even more so when reviewing a vehicle. When the media gets its first shot at a new offering, the automaker typically invites journalists to a location of its choosing to drive under conditions that show the car in its best light. Such was the case with the 2010 Honda Insight. After our First Drive, we came away with the impression that Honda's hot new hybrid was an engaging alternative to the Toyota Prius, but we quickly came to realize the Insight's limitations and flaws after a week behind the wheel on our home turf.

Get our real-world impressions after the jump.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

When Honda revealed its all-new dedicated hybrid model, it was careful to emphasize that the Insight wasn't meant to be a direct competitor to the Prius. (If you buy that, we've got a bridge you might be interested in...) Without a doubt, Honda saw the success that Toyota enjoyed with the Prius as an instantly recognizable alternative powertrain vehicle, so with the same engineering and aesthetic goals in mind, Honda's designers followed a similar aerodynamic path. While that drew a fair amount of criticism from the Peanut Gallery (the Insight's a Prius clone!), in reality, both hybrids simply adhere to the time-honored task of "form following function."

In spite of a very similar shape, the styling of the Insight has its own unique touches that connect it to the rest of the Honda lineup, particularly the hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity. Most bystanders like the look, although there was some debate about the chosen wheel size. The 15-inch hoops look positively puny in the wheel arches, but while larger rolling stock would give the Insight a more athletic appearance, they would add weight, decrease fuel economy and degrade ride quality.

Unlike the Toyota Prius, which carries a mid-size classification, the Insight is much smaller, sharing many of its underpinnings with the Fit. Since Honda doesn't want to put the Insight side-by-side with the Prius (we'll humor them), maybe it's best to draw a comparison between the hybrid and Honda's other sub-compact runabout. Not quite. Compared to the Fit, the emphasis on optimal aerodynamics has taken a big bite out of passenger room, with the peak of the Insight's roof sitting four inches lower than the Fit's and then sloping downward into the hatch.

The rear door openings cut down sharply and make ingress and egress a pain (in one case, literally) for anyone over six-foot tall, and once fitted into the rear confines, head room is limited, with only a fraction of an inch separating one of our lanky passenger's craniums from the roof. However, we were able to fit three passengers in the back, and while the shoulder fit was snug, there was a reasonable amount of leg room. And although the Insight loses a lot of vertical space, it's still packing plenty of cargo room, with 15.9 cubic feet under the hatch – enough to easily handle eight, 40-pound bags of top-soil from our local big box store.

Up front, the Insight's interior is a mix of Civic and Fit, with an assortment of futuristic shapes and hard plastics normally found in Honda's entry-level models. Lending even more familial cohesion is the split-level instrument cluster with tachometer, power and fuel gauges mounted inside the multi-information display (MID) in the lower section and a separate pod mounted above the steering wheel to house the digital speedometer and color-changing eco-friendly display. While the MID provides a number of driver-coaching aids to maximize fuel efficiency, most will rely on the speedometer background that displays green when driving gently and blue when you give it the boot.

We were impressed with the Insight's ride during our initial drive in Arizona, where the roads were perfectly manicured and mercilessly devoid of northern Michigan's imperfections. Body roll was well-controlled, and the Insight delivered decent steering feel and reasonable grip. Back home, it was a different story, where freeze-thaw cycles conspire with 80+ ton trucks to create the state's hellaciously poor excuse for modern roadways.

Compared to the 2010 Toyota Prius, which needs more damping compliance over small road imperfections, the Insight's spring rates are too tight and the damping is too loose. The result is a ride that ends up feeling bouncy yet not floaty. Although those in southern states might not notice, citizens in the snow belt are sure to take issue with the Insight's ride.

Which brings us back to the Fit comparison.

Those looking for an affordable Honda have three main choices: the Civic, Fit and Insight. What you should choose depends on your full spectrum of needs and wants. For those who rarely have to traverse bumpy roads, that takes one element out of the equation. If you regularly need to carry four people and two of them are over six feet tall, the Fit is the clear winner. The same is true if you are looking to maximize utility in a small package.

Those purely interested in maximizing fuel efficiency or minimizing greenhouse gas emissions should go for the Insight. Over a week of driving around town and on freeways, we scored an impressive 43 mpg with the Insight compared to the 47 mpg we managed to squeeze out of the 2010 Toyota Prius. However, no matter how much you want to save fuel or protect the environment, for many of us, dollars and cents play a big part of the equation. Here's where things get a bit dicey. The Prius we drove came to over $30,000. Including delivery charge. This Insight comes to $22,010. That's a big difference, though you can get a Prius priced a lot closer to the Insight by choosing lower levels of equipment.

The Insight's real internecine competitor, however, is the Fit. At just $17,820 out the door, a Fit Sport has a significant pricing advantage over its electrically assisted kin. The Fit Sport we reviewed last fall achieved 33 mpg, which nears a point where the diminishing returns of increased mileage kick in. If gas were $4/gallon, driving the Fit Sport some 12,000 miles per year would cost $1,452 versus $1,116 for the Insight. The difference of $336 per year in fuel cost would take over 12 years to cover the premium paid for the Insight. This won't matter to people who are more interested in reducing their carbon footprint than saving some greenbacks, but for the rest of us, the Insight's extra cost may not be manageable, especially in this economy.

From what we've said so far, you might get the impression that we've taken Jeremy Clarkson's recent review of the Insight to heart, or that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Consumer Reports in our assessment of the Insight. Nothing could be further from the truth. We've just gotten a somewhat clearer picture of the Insight's faults and foibles after sampling it in the real world.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

2010 Honda Insight EX
Performance Brakes/Tires/Wheels
Engine 1.3-liter inline four (w/ elec. motor) Front Brakes 10.3-inch ventilated discs (ABS)
Configuration/Valvetrain SOHC, 2 valves per cylinder, I-VTEC Rear Brakes 7.9-inch drum
Max Horsepower @ RPM 98 hp @ 5.,800 RPM Wheels (front) 15-inches
Max Torque @ RPM 123 lb-ft @ 1,000 to 1,500 RPM Wheels (rear) 15-inches
Drive Type Front-wheel drive Tires (front) 175/65 R15
Transmission CVT w/ paddle shifters Tires (rear) 175/65 R15
Fuel Injection Multi-port
Compression Ratio 10.8:1 Exterior Dimensions
Recommended Fuel 87 octane Length 172.3 inches
Fuel Capacity 10.6 gallons Width 66.7 inches
EPA Fuel Economy (city/hwy) 40 / 43 mpg Height 56.2 inches
0-60 mph time (MFR est.) Not Available Wheelbase 100.4 inches
Top Speed Not Available Curb Weight 2,727 pounds
Suspension/Steering Interior Dimensions
Front MacPherson, with anti-roll bar Maximum Seating 5
Rear Torsion Beam Luggage Capacity (seats up) 15.9 cu-ft
Steering Electric Power Assist Rack-and-Pinion Head Room (Front/Rear) 38.4 / 35.9 inches
Turns Lock-to-Lock 3.29 Shoulder Room (Front/Rear) 52.7 / 50.4 inches
Turning Circle (feet) 36.1 Leg Room (Front/Rear) 42.3 / 33.5 inches

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