Review: 2010 Honda Insight

Up Front

The all-new 2010 Honda (HMC) Insight isn't exactly a misfire, but it's no match for Toyota's (TM) new 2010 Prius. The Insight is less spacious, slower, and not as fuel-efficient as the new Prius—and arguably no cheaper if you factor in fuel cost over time somewhat cheaper.

Here are some revealing stats:

—The Insight is rated to average 41 miles-per-gallon (40 in the city and 43 on the highway) , while the Prius is the first mainstream model rated at 50 mpg (51 city/48 highway). That isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, financially speaking. But many shoppers are buying hybrids as a statement that they want to do something about global warming and the nation's dependence on foreign oil, so the Prius has a big symbolic advantage.

—The Insight only has 15.9 cu. ft. of luggage space behind its rear seats, vs. 21.6 cu. ft. for the new Prius. With the rear seats folded down, the Insight has 32 cu. ft of cargo space, eight cu. ft. less than the Prius

—The Prius' rear seat is roomier, with a full 36 in. of rear-seat legroom, 2.5 in. more than in the Insight. The Prius also has nearly two inches more headspace in back than the Insight.

The main reason to consider the Insight is price. The Insight's average selling price so far is $21,868, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), more than four grand less than the Prius' average price of $26,145. However, entry-level versions of the Prius aren't all that much more expensive than the Insight, considering their superior roominess and fuel economy.

The Insight starts at $20,510 for an LX, which comes standard with full power accessories, a four-CD sound system, tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and an adjustable driver's seat. The fancier Insight EX starts at $22,010 and adds stability and cruise control, alloy wheels, steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, and a six-speaker sound system with a USB port and fully integrated iPod hookup. The lone option is a navigation system that also adds Bluetooth capability and voice controls ($1,800 extra and only available on the EX).

The Prius I, the cheapest version of the Toyota, starts at $21,750 ($1,240 more than the Insight LX), but isn't available until September. For now, the Toyota's price starts at $22,750 for a Prius II, which is similarly equipped to the Insight EX and costs $740 more.

If fancy upgrades are your priority, the Prius has the edge. The top-of-the-line Prius V starts at $28,050 and comes packed with everything from leather upholstery to 17-in. alloy wheels, heated front seats, and a fancy sound system.

To be fair, Honda is positioning the Civic Hybrid as the upscale alternative to the Insight. It's available with amenities such as leather upholstery, satellite radio, and heated seats that aren't available as factory-installed options on the Insight. But high-end Priuses have all sorts of add-ons you can't get as factory options on the Insight or the Civic Hybrid, including a sunroof, lane departure warning system, and Lexus-style parallel-parking assist.

When it comes to safety, the Insight earned four- and five-star ratings in government crash tests while the new Prius hasn't yet been rated. Both the Insight and Prius come standard with four-wheel antilock brakes, seatbelt pre-tensioners, and a full complement of airbags.

The Insight is off to a decent start but has a long way to go bto catch up with its more established rival. Honda sold 2,079 Insights in June and has sold 7,524 since the new model came out this spring. Prius sales rose 6% in June, to 12,998. For the first half of 2009, Prius sales were 55,751, down 38.6%.

Behind the Wheel

In some respects, the Insight is more fun to drive than the Prius. Both have continuously variable transmissions, which tend to be boring because they never shift gears. But the Insight's steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters at least allow the transmission to simulate shifts, which keeps the driver involved in the driving experience.

However, the Insight is pokey. It struggles up hills and is noticeably slower off the mark than the Prius. The fastest time I got in accelerating from 0 to 60 in the Insight was around 12 seconds, though clocked the car in 10.9 seconds. By contrast, I timed the new Prius at a little under 10 seconds, and the Toyota seemed to lag a little less going up hills.

I like the Insight's interior materials and ergonomics slightly better than the Prius.' The front seat is spacious, with plenty of head and leg-room for anyone who isn't unusually tall or heavy. Anyone who has driven a Honda Civic or Fit will find the interior familiar. It has a similar tiered instrument cluster and inexpensive but attractive materials on the dash and doors.

Unfortunately, Honda has imitated one of the worst design features of the Prius—it's hard-to-see-out-of, two-tier rear window. This setup is even more annoying in the Insight than in the Prius. There's a bar between the two windows that largely obscures vision out the back. Also, as in the Prius, the Insight's rear windshield wiper is on the radically sloped top window, which you can barely see out of anyway. When it rains hard, visibility out the bottom window is badly obscured and you can't see much of anything,

As with other hybrids much of the fun of driving the Insight is eking out higher mileage by braking gradually (to get the most out of regenerative braking system) and accelerating gently. Honda has its own setup of graphs and readouts to help you with this. There's even an Eco Guide that monitors your daily driving, awarding you flower petals when you conserve fuel and accumulating a "lifetime score" of your driving habits. There's a green "ECON" button to the left of the steering wheel that saves gas by putting the cruise control, air conditioner, and other accessories in a fuel-saving mode.

Buy it or Bag It?

The Insight LX clearly offers good value, However, whether you buy one instead of a Prius may depend on how long you keep your cars and your projection for gasoline prices. If you expect to own the car for, say, eight years, drive 15,000 annually, and believe gasoline prices will average $5.00 per gallon over than period, the Prius will save you around $2,600 on fuel alone, more than wiping out the Insight's price advantage. On the other hand, if you only plan to keep the car four years and expect gas to stay around $3.00, the savings will be around $800.

If you simply prefer the looks and ergonomics of a Honda to a Toyota, be sure to check out the Civic Hybrid, too. The '09 Civic Hybrid sells for an average of $21,926, almost exactly the same price as the 2010 Insight, according to PIN. The Civic Hybrid has more options and a roomier back seat than the Insight, and gets about the same mileage. However, luggage space is even tighter than in the Insight. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Companies.)

Among non-hybrids, check out Volkswagen's (VOWG) diesel-powered Jetta TDI. It sells for an average of $24,030, handles a lot better than its hybrid rivals, and gets 40-mpg-plus on the highway.

If you're considering an inexpensive hybrid, however, the bottom line seems clear: The Prius remains the model of choice for most shoppers.

Click here to see more of the 2010 Honda Insight.

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