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First drive: 2019 Honda Insight

by Byron Hurd

The Civic Hybrid is dead. Long live the Civic Hybrid.

Honda has always seemed been a bit schizophrenic when it comes to its hybrid branding. For a long time, its hybrids were either built for speed or for efficiency with little middle-ground. We'll call that space the "hybrid for hybrid's sake" segment of the electrified powertrain market--the area Toyota's Prius has dominated since its introduction.

And when we say "always," we're talking about a decent chunk of time. Honda has been in the hybrid game for nearly two decades, and this confused approach came pretty much right out of the gate. It started with the Insight in 1999. It expanded to the Civic Hybrid in 2002 and the performance-oriented Accord Hybrid in 2004. Along the way we got the CR-Z, too, which was more along the lines of the Accord Hybrid in that it was meant to be an enthusiast option, even if raw speed was not its strong point.

The Insight started it all, and in a way has embodied Honda's haphazard approach to the marketing of electrified powertrains. At first, it was a dedicated, hyper-efficient hybrid--a two-seater so focused in its mission that it really only appealed to, well, geeks. If you saw one on your college campus circa 2002, you could pretty much guarantee that it was owned by that professor.

Insight, in hindsightAs revolutionary as Toyota's Prius was for the mainstream market, it didn't boast the fuel efficiency of Honda's glorified double-wide scooter. Even now, 60--MPG ratings are monopolized by two-wheeled automobiles. Even Toyota's most efficient Prius tops out in the mid-fifties.

But while it was fantastic on paper, the original Insight's formula wasn't a sustainable sales model, especially in light of the aforementioned Toyota's commercial success. Honda went back to the drawing board and applied those lessons to the second-generation Insight, which, after a three-year hiatus for the nameplate, debuted in 2009.

To be perfectly blunt, it didn't do much better. The new Insight ditched the off-beat, funky approach of the original and went almost full-Prius. Sure, it looked like a mainstream hybrid "should" and it was capable of doing the things people expect from a small midsize car, but that "almost" part included some efficiency shortcomings, making it a follower in a segment where most people were perfectly content with the cars they already owned. As a Prius alternative, it needed to offer something the former didn't, and it simply failed to do so.

Third time's the charm?Fast-forward to 2018. Honda's advanced powertrain portfolio is more complicated than it has ever been. The Civic Hybrid no longer exists to anchor the lower end of the market, but the middle and upper range are flush. The redesigned Accord's two-motor hybrid is back, now firmly planted on the efficiency end of the spectrum. There's also Clarity, which is an entire alternative powertrain sub-brand in and of itself. Lest we forget, Honda also has Acura to further expand its range into the high-dollar segments, with the NSX acting as a halo car for electrified all-wheel-drive performance.

So, this left Honda in a predicament. Like Accord, the Civic was recently redesigned and boasts a platform that is electrification-ready. Honda, needing an entry-level hybrid, had a platform at its disposal. With Clarity doing the funky, futuristic thing (at a much higher price point), there really wasn't room for another funky-looking efficiency design in Honda's portfolio. Simultaneously, the company saw Civic as too youthful a model for the buyer it is chasing.

This buyer isn't really after a hybrid, necessarily. The customer in search of the aforementioned "hybrid for hybrid's sake" is elusive. Honda has chosen instead to go after the customer who wants a pleasant, comfortable sedan that also happens to be impressively efficient. Welcome, then, to part three of the Insight saga.

The roseBy any other name, would it smell as sweet? A fair question in this case, as what you see here is fundamentally a Civic Hybrid: same platform, same interior dimensions (right down to the trunk volume), same underlying body structure. Honda's product team readily acknowledges it, but thanks to the wonders of modern focus group testing, is armed with the knowledge that "Insight" has better recognition and enough lingering cachet in the marketplace to carry this new model in the direction Honda wants to go.

So, what makes this little Civic-that-isn't special? Well, it starts with unique bodywork, which we'll grant is a bit more upscale than what you'll find on even a top-trim "Touring" variant of the Civic. While it may look more adult, that's only half of the advantage. The slick exterior helps smooth the airflow over the body, reducing both drag and wind noise. The interior also gets nicer materials and some additional sound deadening (along with some trickery, which we'll cover later), and the significance of the latter really can't be understated. Between the extra noise insulation and the exterior tweaks, this may be the single quietest Honda we've ever had the pleasure to drive.

Which brings us to the powertrain. Honda's two-motor hybrid setup is a known quantity at this point, but one worth recapping. The Insight's variant uses a 107-horsepower, 1.5L Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine paired to a 129-horsepower electric motor. Since it's a hybrid, you wave a magic wand over those figures and get 151 total system horsepower paired with 197 lb-ft of torque. As in most newer hybrid vehicles, the Insight's battery pack is located under the rear seat, meaning there are no interior space compromises. It's also fairly lightweight; the LX model's curb weight is just 2,987 pounds. A loaded-up touring is only 90 pounds heavier.

So, it's enough of a car; is it enough of a hybrid? Well, by the numbers, we'd say so. LX and EX models are built to deliver efficiency above all else. They have smaller, lighter wheels and super-low-rolling-resistance tires. Together, these are good for EPA ratings of 55 MPG city, 49 highway and 52 combined. Step up to the Touring, which has more content and larger wheels with nicer tires, and those figures drop to 51/45/48.

For comparison's sake, Toyota rates the Prius at 54 city, 50 highway and 52 combined--right there with the Insight LX/EX--and its Eco model at 58/53/56. It's probably not coincidence that both models have their efficiency ratings tiered by equipment, though it is worth noting that the Eco package is only available on the Prius "Two" model--Toyota's most basic. For all but the most excessively frugal, Honda seems to have the right stuff this time around.

It does the job on paper, but does it deliver in the real world? Honda invited us to the Twin Cities for a drive through Minnesota and Wisconsin to see for ourselves.

The bloomWe noted above that the Insight is quiet, but we have to reiterate that here. As we set off from downtown Minneapolis in the early morning hours, we found the interior shockingly serene. The Insight starts off in EV mode (assuming the battery is sufficiently charged to do so), which further accentuates the silence. It's quite a sensation, especially in a Honda. The added insulation was paired with active noise cancellation technology to filter out tire and wind noise. It's incredibly effective.

Honda's product team stressed to us that the Insight is for a more adult, more affluent buyer than even a loaded-up Civic, and that shows in the way the Insight drives. Not only is it quiet, but its suspension is quite supple. The bones are solid, though, and the Civic platform's inherent competency can be felt under the Insight's softer tuning.

We spent the bulk of our time in a Touring model, and even its more competent tires had, shall we say, quite approachable limits. Just a hint of corner aggression would result in tire feedback that could be heard even over the sound of the gasoline engine working hard to maintain the battery's state of charge. And it has to work hard for that, because the Insight is not a very eager performer. Even with your foot firmly planted on the floor, you'll never feel a real shove of acceleration.

This is not a performance car by any stretch, so it would be unfair to judge it by those criteria. That said, the lack of punch outside of the immediate electric torque felt when pulling away from a stoplight was glaringly obvious. This is a car best suited to stop-and-go suburban driving (Hello, target demographic!) rather than fast freeway merges and I-need-the-power-now overtaking maneuvers.

The competitionHonda (as it customarily does) brought along the Insight's direct competition for us to sample, this time in the form of a Prius. We took the opportunity to drive the two back-to-back on a test loop which included surface streets and a short stretch of interstate highway. The Honda is by far the quieter, more car-like vehicle of the two. The Prius felt upright and a bit unrefined by comparison, with its minivan-like windshield view and more plasticky interior materials.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the Prius felt more communicative. Road imperfections that fell on a dead helm in the Insight were readily apparent in the Toyota. Its responses were also a bit more immediate. It lets in more noise, too, which gives a greater sensation of speed. The catch, of course, is that the Prius feels cheaper for being so much more talkative. It's a characteristic that may appeal to us as enthusiasts (and indeed we praised Toyota for it when we drove the new Prius back-to-back with the model it replaced), but we're not sure it's necessarily an upside in this segment.

MG's bottom line

We have to admit, we're not completely certain what the "hybrid for hybrid's sake" buyer looks like these days, but Honda seems to have enough car here to justify its pitch to the any-sedan-will-do crowd. It's no CR-Z replacement, but it's competent in its own right and doesn't pretend to be any sort of performer. Honesty like that is something we can appreciate.

2019 Honda Insight LX base price, $22,830; as tested, $23,7252018 Honda Insight Touring base price, $28,090; as tested, $28,985Destination, $895

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd; interior photos courtesy of Honda.

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