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A New Insight Brings Hybrids to the Masses

Posted on: Thursday, October 2, 2008

Honda Motor Co. wants to challenge the eco-supremacy of the Toyota Prius and bring hybrids to the masses with the dirt-cheap gas-electric Insight hatchback it unveiled today at the Paris Motor Show.

A New Insight Brings Hybrids to the MassesHonda isn't saying what the Insight will cost when it rolls into showrooms next spring, but it's widely expected to go for as little as $18,500 and no more than $20,000. That's significantly cheaper than the Prius, which starts at 22 grand but goes for an average of $26,672 when you can find one. "This new Insight will give more people the chance to get behind the wheel of a high-quality hybrid vehicle," Tekeo Fukui, Honda's president and CEO, said in Paris.

Although the Japanese automaker was the first to sell hybrids in America when it rolled out the original Insight in 1999, it's been choking on Toyota's dust since the Prius arrived in 2001. The green set has bought more than 1 million of them, and Toyota holds 79 percent of the global market for gas-electric vehicles. Honda bets it can get a bigger piece of that pie by taking hybrids into what Fukui called "a new era of affordability." Considering Toyota can't build the Prius fast enough to meet demand, auto industry watchers expect Honda to clean up by undercutting its competition.

"Anyone who says "We've got a car that does what the Prius does and it's several thousand cheaper' will sell every car it builds," Aaron Bragman, an industry analyst with Global Insight told us. "People will beat a path to their door."

For all the attention they get, hybrids are still just 3 percent of the domestic market. Their relatively high price is one reason they've been slow to catch on, Mike Omotoso of J.D. Power and Associates said. The Insight could provide the price breakthrough the technology needs to take off.
"The new Insight is a good idea for Honda and for the hybrid market in general," he said. "It undercuts the Prius by about $5,000 and is within reach of the average car buyer, especially in these tough economic times."

Honda says the car it unveiled in Paris is just a concept, but the production model we'll see at the Detroit Auto Show in January is not expected to look significantly different. The Insight bears more than a passing resemblance to the Prius -- although the front end was clearly inspired by the FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle, the general shape is reminiscent of the car Honda hopes to unseat as the darling of the eco-conscious set. That is, to a certain degree, unavoidable, as General Motors discovered while designing the Chevrolet Volt. Aerodynamic efficiency is the name of the game when going for maximum fuel economy, and the laws of physics and aerodynamics give designers only so much leeway. Still, the Insight has sharper lines and a more aggressive look than the Prius, and it isn't so funky as the car it's named for.

"The new Insight should do a lot better than the original because it will look more like a normal car and less like a toy, and it will be bigger, more comfortable and more powerful," Omotoso said.

Look for it to do better than the Civic and Accord hybrids, which looked just like their gasoline counterparts but for the small "hybrid" badges on their rear ends. One reason the Prius has out-sold Honda's hybrids four to one is because it all but screams, "I care about the environment!" Honda executives have said the company reevaluated its strategy of building hybrid versions of existing models and decided a dedicated model would sell better.

The Insight, like all of Honda's hybrids, uses a "mild" hybrid system where the primary source of power is a gasoline engine assisted by an electric motor. The Prius, on the other hand, is a "full" hybrid system that uses battery power at low speeds and switches to gasoline at higher speeds. Honda hasn't released any specifics on the Insight's drivetrain or performance but says it will use a 1.3-liter gasoline engine an an updated version of the Integrated Motor Assist system found in the Civic Hybrid. Like Toyota, Honda is sticking with nickel-metal hydride batteries because it doesn't think lithium-ion technology is ready for prime-time. No word yet on fuel economy, but Honda says it's expected to top the Civic Hybrid's 45 mpg. That puts it in the same ballpark as the Prius, which gets 48 mpg city/45 highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Insight will arrive in showrooms on April 22 -- Earth Day -- and Honda expects to sell 200,000 of them annually.

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Test drove Honda Insight Today
posted by: Mark on Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 12:11 PM
I did a test drive with local Honda dealer. First thing that surprised me was rear drum brakes! (????)
As for the road test drive - very plain car! I mean very! Nothing special. I did not notice any personality (similar to Toyota Corolla). Variable gear transmission is the only thing that I've noticed immediately. Car doesn't have much of a pick-up. Nothing special in handling - something one would expect from a small Honda - a great handling.
Although it looks nice (in my taste). There is enough room for the driver and a front passenger.
Green dash light is a nice touch.
I probably would lease the car but would not own it as it is unclear of what has to be done to the batteries in-time and an electric part of the drive train.
How much maintenance would new technology require over time.
I'd give it 3 out of 5 in a balance of price/maintenance/looks/technology and driving.