I had the opportunity for an extended test drive of the new Honda Insight, use of it over a long weekend. I drove down to Devon and back from London, so it had a fair test of different roads, traffic, driving styles and conditions.
I do already own a Honda Civic Hybrid so have had experience of the hybrid technology for the last three years, so I could put that experience to use on this vehicle. So the Insight is actually Honda's second modern hybrid vehicle to reach the UK.
List prices are now from £15,990 to £18,990 for the top of the range with all the gizmos. It is cheaper than the Civic Hybrid at £17,990 to £20,450 but I think has missed a great opportunity to compete head on with the new Toyota Prius, which is priced from £18,390 to £23,280
To me there are two disastrous design faults that mean I would never consider it or recommend it. The rear view is dangerously obstructed by the strut between the two halves of the split rear windscreen. The other is that no one much over 5ft 10in can sit upright in the rear seat without sitting with their neck bent to one side, the head room is ridiculously bad, all for the sake of giving the car the fancy design of a sloping rake towards the rear.
The rear view visibility is serious, if a car behind is at a certain distance and same relative size as the strut then it just disappears. The dealer rather alarmingly said, well you only really use the rear view mirror for parking anyway!
Driving position is just right, sitting quite high on a comfortable snug seat, excellent all round front visibility, corner posts not too thick and aided by huge wing mirrors that do not distort rear view estimate of distances behind. Plenty of legroom for both driver and passenger. Legroom in the back is worse than some charter aircraft. Plenty of adjustment in the front seats with lumbar support adjustment for the driver, (don't understand why they can never give front passengers the same adjustment).
Being a hatchback gives you the flexibility most of us now take for granted, versus the Civic Hybrid, which is a saloon. Quite good space with the seats down and not too high tailgate for lifting bags over.
Small thing - they have similar door locks to my Civic. I tend not to lock the doors when driving because in an emergency, to push the fiddly knobs with no grip I guess would be next to impossible when in a panic.
The high level speed indicator is good, a good discipline for those not used to one, it does make you more aware of your speed without having to take your eyes off the road, though is quite small. A good point is that it glows green as you drive more economically and red when less so. The rev counter is the main feature of the main dial together with the automatic gear position indicator (Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Slow) that illuminate with your current gear position. The petrol level indicator is to the right and the battery charge vs assist indicator to the left.
Driving feels like any mid size car, good road holding, feels stable, pleasantly quiet, nice seats, and it goes and should never give you any problems because it's a Honda, renowned for build quality and reliability.
Those who are not used to the hybrid technology will notice three main differences from an all petrol car. When accelerating, especially up hills, the combination of the relatively small engine, only a 1.4, and the extra drive from the electric motor push the car into high revs which make for a pretty raucous sounding strain on the engine, no problem but no doubts critics would find this a problem and say it is vastly under-powered. Next difference is if you gently decelerate with the intention of stopping, the engine cuts out at 8mph and effectively goes into freewheeling, which can be alarming for the un-initiated. The other novel feature is that this engine cut-out is pleasantly quiet and relaxing when driving in traffic, and gives the eco-friendly driver that feel-good factor (apparently, according to the adverts), the engine hardly noticeably fires up again when you take your foot off the foot-brake.
I believe the Toyota Prius can be driven in electric mode only in town so long as the battery lasts, Honda have never gone for this ability. You can really only drive on electric only when on a flat road at steady speed, decelerating or only very, very gently accelerating, and of course when coasting below 8mph.
There is knack you learn to improve your economy which is to reach your desired speed, anything up to 70mph (or more if you are so inclined) and then just, only just, lift your foot off the accelerator pedal to maintain speed, this engine to electric on and petrol off. With this technique we can get 65mpg plus fairly regularly on long drives and have reached a record of 70mpg on a long flat, warm weather drive over about 150 miles in my Civic Hybrid. Basically all cars including Honda Hybrids are more economical out of town rather than in-town. Only because of the constant stop-start and need to accelerate. I have no experience of the Toyota Prius as to whether the opposite is true.
The really annoying feature Honda harp on about is the Insight's "Multi Information Display". This potentially more interesting and useful indicator is relatively small and low down over the rev counter. Whilst the useful parts are odometer, trip meter, miles till next fill-up, outside temperature, current mpg etc etc the choice to display these is interspersed with all the absurd eco options. You switch between them with one of the four sets of steering wheel controls.
To me the classy elements of the car are blown away by this childish idea of growing bloody trees and building an eco score. Concentrating on watching trees grow and adding leaves or watching a bar move to the left or right to reflect your acceleration skills is madness. To help you in general there is the ECON button, but being an overall fairly economical car why would you turn it off.
The heating controls are the largest feature on the dashboard, but strangely split between a huge dial for temperature control and buttons for front, rear, footwell, windows etc but then a smaller separate display with internal temperature and the a/c button.
Radio/CD controls, cruise control and blue-tooth mobile phone controls are steering wheel based, together with the usual sticks for lighting and windscreen wipers. The satnav on the car I drove is well placed, but to insert CD's you dropped this down and inserted them in a single slot behind, before pushing the satnav back up into position - strange, but maybe that is normal. Another oddity is the cable to plug in a music player using an usb cable looks like an after-thought - it is actually a loose wire emerging and lying loose under the front armrest.
On the 500 mile weekend trip we achieved an overall average 62mpg. That was extensive 70mph motorway driving, a few main road traffic hold-ups and a lot of hills around north Devon. Certainly that is nothing startling but this was with making every effort to drive as economically as possible using my experience of already driving a Honda hybrid car. I had the incentive to drive it economically as possible as they gave me a free full tank of petrol and I got there and back without having to fill it up! Surprising my mpg figure was almost spot-on with the manufacturer stated mpg of 62.8mpg for this top spec car on the extra urban cycle.
As this was only a loan car for a short time I can't comment on ongoing economies. However based on the fact that you should up to an additional 20 miles per gallon over the some petrol cars, only £15/year car tax (going down to £10 from April 2010) and it being only a 1.4 engine it should be cheap to insure. From experience servicing at Honda garages is not un-reasonable at around £150
Would I buy it? - no, for the rear-view visibility problem and lack of headroom and legroom for rear passengers.
I do prefer my Civic Hybrid or the Jazz.
Honda Insight SE
On the Road Price : £15490
The new 2009 Honda Insight is the first of Honda's new Eco range of cars to go on sale in the UK, with the FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell car, and CRZ hybrid sports coupe not available until 2010.
The Insight has come into the Hybrid sector of the car market which has been dominated in recent years by the Toyota Prius. So does the Honda have what it takes to take on every Eco drivers favourite, the Prius?
On first impressions the Insight is quite a hansom car, and although many of the styling features on the car have been around for a while, it still manages to look fresh.
The front end is virtually the same as the FCX Clarity, the rear end harks back to the classic Honda CRX coupe of the 1980s, which is no bad thing, but the side profile is almost exactly the same as the Toyota Prius. However given it's similar profile to that of the Prius, the Insight is the much better looking car, it's lower and sleeker.
The 15 inch alloys fitted to the SE model although not very sporty looking, don't look out of place and fit in with the look of the car very well.
The first thing that the eye is drawn to upon entering the car is the large rev counter with it's LCD information display which is eye catching to say the least. The multi function steering wheel will be very familiar with modern Honda drivers and is good to hold. You soon notice that all the major controls are directed at the driver which gives you the impression of being cocooned in a cockpit, much like the Civic, although not quite as extreme. It all looks very attractive and the switches and controls have a nice feel to them too.
However over on the passenger side of the car you get two air vents and a glove box, and lots of cheap looking plastic. I'm glad I'm going to be driving the car as it's quite a boring sight for any passenger in the Insight.
Passengers in the back have plenty of room, although anyone over 6 foot 2 may feel a bit cramped, and the seats are very comfortable too. The middle seat also has a proper 3 point belt.
Finally the boot. The Insight is a Hatchback and has a very useful 408 litres of boot space which is increased to 584 litres with the rear seats folded flat, and considering the hybrid battery pack is located behind the rear seats it doesn't effect the practicality of the boot as much as you might think. There is also very useful storage under the boot floor too.
Now for the important part. What's it like to drive and just how economical is it in the real world.
Now for a few years I have always thought that people who buy Hybrid's were just trying to make a statement rather than make an effort to be green. I have read reports of the Prius only being able to deliver 45mpg in the real world which is vastly down on it's 65mpg official figures. I always said that people would be far better off with a small diesel Hatch. So I already had negative thoughts about this Insight before I got in it.
I started the engine and was greeted with a nice green tree symbol in the top left of the instrument display. This told me that the car was in Eco mode. This mode detunes the engine slightly and prevents the engine from using the higher end of its rev range. But even in this Eco mode, I was immediately impressed with the drivability. Despite having only an 88bhp 1.3 litre petrol engine and a 14hp electric motor, the Insight felt surprisingly nimble in town traffic. It always impressed me with how quickly it seemed to get up to 30mph, and lets face it, with real world every day driving this is far more important than 0-60mph figures. The electric motor gives the Insight a good dollop of torque when you need it too.
The first seven miles of driving in the Insight was in heavy stop start traffic, lots of traffic lights, roundabouts and junctions to negotiate, and in this sort of environment the Insight was in its element. The CVT gearbox is very smooth and your left leg doesn't have the heavy workload of a manual car in such conditions. It was actually quite relaxing.
The other thing that immediately impressed me was the Insight's Idle Stop system. It works very much like Stop Start in other cars where the engine cuts when you come to a stop. But in the Insight the engine switches off when the speed drops below 10mph, so you can cruise to a stop at a set of traffic lights with the engine already off and not burning fuel. In other cars fitted with Stop Start, you have to have come to a complete stop and put the car in neutral with the hand brake on before the engine turns off. Then all you have to do to fire the engine back up is to release pressure on the footbrake, and no matter how fast I tried to get my foot from the brake pedal to the accelerator, the engine was up and running and ready to go.
After about seven miles of this kind of driving I found the screen on the rev counter that shows you your average mpg. I just couldn't believe my eyes! In these stop start driving conditions which normal cars would be burning fuel at an alarming rate, I'd averaged 88mpg!
All of a sudden this car started to make very good sense. I then moved the display to the "tree" display which shows you how economical you have been driving. When I started all five trees were bare, but now all five trees had grown leaves! Now I know this is all a bit gimmicky, but I found myself feeling really pleased with myself. So then I started to really pay attention and try to drive as economically as possible to see just how high I could make the mpg go. You have help from the speedo too which glows green when you are not using much fuel, but starts to glow dark blue when you put your foot down. I got really good at just stroking the accelerator pedal which helps you to keep moving with just the use of the electric motor, and every time you lift off, the battery packs get recharged.
My town driving came to an end at a roundabout with a long stretch of duel carriageway ahead. A quick glance at the mpg readout, 89.7mpg!
For the rest of my time in the car I put it into Sport mode and turned the Eco button off. I then did 70 miles of duel carriageway, fast twisty B roads and a bit of town driving. I really tried not to drive the car economically, with hard acceleration and later braking, and the mpg figures soon started to tumble. By the end of my drive, despite my best efforts to kill all the trees on my little screen, the car still managed to average 56 mpg. This was much better than I had expected.
Also on the twisty stuff I felt the car handled rather well. It did feel a bit top heavy, but it didn't roll or wallow too much in the corners. The steering although lacking in feel, was light, precise and quick to react. A bit more feel would have been nice though.
When driving the car hard the engine with its CVT gearbox is quite noisy and drones a bit. It's under this type of driving conditions that you really do notice that you only have about 100bhp. The engine has to work hard to keep the pace up. On Motorways, although it can cruise at 70mph quite happily, any uphill gradient also asks a lot from the engine.
So to sum up. If more than 70% of you driving is in built up areas then the Insight makes a lot of sense. Easily more the 70mpg and it will keep pace with traffic no problem. It's comfortable and relaxing to drive, and practical too.
Although it can achieve around 50mpg on a motorway, this is where diesel is still King. Most average sized modern diesels can better 60mpg on a long motorway run, and with the torque a diesel produces, uphill sections of the motorway are no problem and overtaking is a breeze. So if you do a lot of motorway miles then diesel is still the way to go.
Other benefits to the Insight are £15 per year road tax, and 10% company car tax.
I have been completely won over by the Insight, it has performed so much better than I ever though it would, and considering that the vast majority of my annual mileage is spent doing short journeys in towns during busy times of the day the Insight makes a lot of sense, and you can quite happily drive it in Eco mode 99% of the time, as lets face it, how often to you actually get to drive along a fast twisty road without being stuck behind a tractor, caravan or grandad in his Honda Jazz!
Model driven - Honda Insight SE
Standard Equipment includes:
ABS, EBD, Brake Assist
Front, side and curtain airbags
Electric adjustable, heated and folding door mirrors
Automatic Climate Control
Front Central Arm Rest