- The 2019 HondaInsight is a high-MPG hybrid that looks like a normal sedan.
- Its chief competitor is the Toyota Prius.
- I thought the Insight more than held its own and, in the end, is a better car than the Prius.
I like hybrids. When I moved back to the New York area after a decade in Los Angeles, where I had owned a bunch of cars, I did what I had curiously never done in La-La Land and bought a used Toyota Prius.
For years now, I’ve enjoyed spending a meager amount of money on gas while having a versatile vehicle to handle everyday life: school drop-offs and pickups, grocery store runs, even the odd jaunt a few hundred miles here or there. True, I get to sample something like 30 vehicles every year thanks to my job at Business Insider. But for my money, the Prius has been an ideal backup mobile.
Of course, the Prius is … peculiar. Underpowered and completely unexciting to drive. It’s as reliable as the day is long, but unengaging. Well made, but hardly luxurious. It’s virtuous, and that was Toyota’s genius when it was introduced. If you wanted flash, this wasn’t your car. If you wanted staggeringly good gas mileage, it was.
So, a great car – but could there be better? Could there be hybrids that were, you know, less hybrid-y, but achieved the same objectives?
Enter the all-new 2019 Honda Insight. The Insight started out as an oddball super-hybrid that could get massive MPGs, but that appealed to almost no one. When the Prius took off, Honda revamped the Insight, but that “Prius killer” version was also sort of a failure, despite some excellent engineering and a better price.
The latest Insight is, well, basically a normal-looking four-door with a superlative hybrid drivetrain. It’s the best of its kind, in many ways. Honda let me borrow a $US29,000 Touring-trim-level Insight for a week, and I put it through its paces. Here’s how it went.
My test car was the top-level Touring trim in “Lunar Silver Metallic.” It came in at $US29,000, but that was with just an extra $US1,000 destination charge — the vehicle is fully loaded for $US28,000.
Unlike the original Insight — a very unusual-looking two-door — and the second generation, which was eerily similar to the Toyota Prius in shape, the 2019 version resembles a statelier Civic.
I’m not crazy about the front end, which gives us a bit too much chrome, an overly strident slotted grille, and narrow headlights.
That said, the Honda badge is relatively in proportion, and the fascia conveys some measure of aggression — never a goal of the brand’s sedan designers.
The fastback slope of the roofline is completely consistent with current trends.
The back end is better-looking than the front, if you ask me.
The 15-cubic-foot trunk — no hatchback here — can handle a family’s luggage for a weekend or a week’s worth of groceries. The rear seats can be dropped if you need to haul something large.
In typical Honda fashion, nothing on the Insight really shouts — neither the nameplate …
… nor the hybrid designation.
“Hybrid” shows up twice on the exterior, but that’s the only outward clue that this vehicle runs on a combination of gasoline and electricity.
The 17-inch alloy wheels have a cool turbine design.
Under the hood, we find …
… Honda’s Earth Dreams hybrid tech. The basis of the engine is a 1.5-litre inline four-cylinder power plant, making a total of 151 horsepower. Honda calls it a “two motor” hybrid, and the electric side draws on a modest 1.1 kWh lithium-ion battery pack.
The transmission is a continuously variable unit (CVT), sending power to the front drive wheels. CVTs are annoying to some — noisy and odd if you’re used to gearshifts, of which there are none — but they contribute to higher MPGs.
The black leather interior is what I’d call “mid-premium.” The topstitching is quite nice, and the seats themselves are moderately bolstered, but angled more for comfort.
The rear bench-style seats are kind of basic but also roomy.
Legroom is reasonable for an adult.
And you get a moonroof to bring in some additional natural light.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels great, and the digital-analogue gauges are what one would expect from Honda, a carmaker that’s always been good at delivering information to the driver.
The touchscreen infotainment system doesn’t boast the biggest screen in the business, but it is relatively easy to use. Bluetooth-device integration is a breeze, there are AUX/USB ports, and the GPS navigation tech performed flawlessly in a drive of about two hours from the New York City area to the Catskills in upstate New York.
The 10-speaker premium audio system is included for the Touring trim level. It sounds very good.
Shall we fire up this hybrid and see what it can do?
The hybrid market is in a weird place right now. Consumers aren’t buying them like they used to, back in the early 2010s. Some of this is because of gas-only vehicles achieving better fuel economy at a lower price, but the popularity of big SUVs and pickups in a cheap-petrol world has pushed buyers away from hybrids. On top of that, there are more pure electric vehicles in today’s market, so many folks who might have gone hybrid ten years ago are now choosing to ditch the gas station altogether and are plugging in.
Meanwhile, the hybrids that are on the market have just gotten better and better. The Insight is a great example. It’s been, effectively, three different cars. The first gen was a hypermiler’s special, but impractical for everyday owners. The second gen was a capable Prius competitor that didn’t really catch on. The third gen is all Honda, drawing on the brands pragmatic, unostentatious DNA while dropping an excellent hybrid drivetrain into the platform.
The MPGs are a true selling point: 45 highway/51 city/48 combined (the Insight does better in town because it can favour the electric motor at lower speeds). Honda estimates annual fuel costs at a mere $US800.
The 0 to 60 mph time is relatively sluggish at about nine seconds, but CVTs aren’t noted for serving up much pop when accelerating. Despite that, power delivery and torque are smooth, so I didn’t feel disadvantaged when merging or passing. You have Eco, Sport, and an all-EV mode available, and the latter is good for poking around at slow speeds for short distances. Sport basically peps up the acceleration, while Eco maximizes MPGs.
As a Prius owner, I enjoy motoring around my suburban enclave and never having to buy gas. But I’m not crazy about long freeway journeys. Not so with the Insight, which has a demeanour that’s halfway between Honda’s compact Civic and mid-size Accord. If you park it on 65 and let the adaptive cruise control do its thing, you have a dandy, fuel-sipping highway chariot.
Handling is typically Honda: crisp without being overly heavy or sporty. Hondas have always been the best mass-market cars to drive, and the Insight is no exception. This is no BMW, obviously, but it’s miles above what Toyota serves up.
So what’s the verdict, from the owner of a Toyota Prius?
The Insight is a winner! Better than even the most recent generation of the Prius.
I’m a Prius patriot, but there’s no question that the 2019 Honda Insight is a better car. It’s not quite as superlative of a hybrid as what the Prius has to offer, but it’s darn good and won’t disappoint anybody who doesn’t want to take the all-electric plunge, yet is appalled by the feeble relative MPGs that even fuel-efficient all-gas vehicles provide.
(For the record, the latest-gen Prius and the new Insight match up almost exactly on the MPG specs. My take on the technology is more subjective – I’ve lived with Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive longer.)
Yes, the Insight is sedan, and yes, consumers have been flocking to crossovers. But the Insight has enough versatility to handle almost anything a normal human would encounter. No all-wheel drive, but AWD isn’t always an absolutely necessity, and Honda’s front-wheel drivetrains are usually able to deal with everything but the worst roadway conditions.
I’ve owned two Hondas and one Toyota, and my loyalty as a driver has generally been with Honda. I understand that Honda’s engineering is superior, while Toyotas tend to win the longevity battle. So by that analysis, I’d be looking very closely at the Insight if I personally were in the market for a new car. On balance, the Insight’s hybrid system is the market’s second best, behind the Chevy Volt, which can run on electricity for far longer (but also costs a notable amount more). It’s defter than the Prius’, but as I already said, I’m unsure of how the sophisticated engineering would hold-up long-term. I’ve had to make exactly one scheduled repair to my 2011 Prius’ drivetrain.
When you get right down to it, the bottom line on the 2019 Honda Insight Touring is that it’s simply a fantastic car, at the height of hybrid tech, with decades of Honda genius behind it. The price, even for a well-equipped, rather premium set of wheels, is superb. If you’re a thinking person, this is your ride.
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