REVIEW DATE: 2010-02-05 00:00:00.0
June Neary takes a look at Honda's Ecowarrior.
I'm all for saving the planet, let's clear that up from the get go. If scientists tell me that we're dangerously warming the earth, I'm for being on the safe side and trying to do something about it. It's all about worst case scenarios. If we all buy solar panels and change to smaller cars but the scientists are wrong, we'll be out of pocket and unnecessarily inconvenienced. If we all carry on regardless but the scientists are right, we'll either be living under three feet of water or on a planet that looks like a baked potato. Driving a green car doesn't even have to be expensive or inconvenient. At least that's what Honda set out to demonstrate with its Insight. The Toyota Prius is the poster child of the green car movement and it has been for a while. Honda couldn't let its arch rival continue to dominate the limelight and the Insight hybrid is the result. Rather than trying to outclass the Prius with its technology and efficiency, the Insight adopts the sneaky approach of being slightly less clever and a lot less expensive. Honda's offering even adopts a similar shape to the Prius. They'll tell you that it's just the most aerodynamic solution for a practical family car but there must have been an element of Honda trying to piggyback on the high profile the Prius has built for itself. The basic premise of the hybrid is familiar to us by now. An electric motor assists the petrol one so it can work less hard and use less fuel. Energy is recaptured when the Insight brakes or coasts and used to recharge the battery. It's clever stuff but it's becoming ever more widely available in different cars and shouldn't hold the concerns for buyers that it once did.
Honda stuck with a hatchback design for the Insight to ensure the car's compatibility with European tastes and despite being a little hefty around the hindquarters, it's a sleek and mildly futuristic shape. The resemblance to the Toyota Prius is obvious. The dash has the chunky buttons and slightly cluttered feel of the Civic and the Accord but like in these cars, initial concern that you'll need a few hours with the owner's manual before you can change the radio station should quickly subside as the controls prove intuitive to use. The five-door body style of the Insight opens up the possibility of using it as family transport. Head room in the back seats is restricted by that aerodynamic roof line but otherwise space is plentiful. Despite the presence of the batteries, the boot is a generous 408 litres and the rear seats can fold to increase that capacity. Compared to conventional family hatchback models, the car can hold its own.
Driving an Insight is a subtly different experience to that which you get in other cars and that's no accident. Honda is looking to alter the way owners drive, encouraging them to adopt more efficient practices and that could have as big an impact as any hybrid drive system. The central instrument read out is the key to all this. Drive in a relaxed manner, tickling the throttle underfoot like it were a giant over-ripe strawberry, and the dash glows in a calming green light. Get a bit over enthusiastic and the green hue fades, eventually turning blue if you're really getting carried away. Maintain a green approach and a little plant symbol illuminates on the Insight's display as a reward, it's possible to get up to five of these sprouts lit but you might need to fit a sail to achieve this. At the end of your journey the car will give you an average rating to show how eco-friendly you've been. The effect of this is surprisingly relaxing and you do find yourself striving to drive in a smooth, efficient manner to keep the car happy. Actually powering the Insight is Honda's clever IMA petrol/electric drivetrain. The engine is a 1.3-litre unit based on the one in the Civic Hybrid. It might only have 87bhp but it is assisted by a 14bhp electric motor driven by power from a bank of nickel hydride batteries under the boot floor. These are recharged by energy reclaimed from the wheels when braking or coasting. The Insight is clearly not a car that's designed to be driven quickly. It doesn't corner with any great conviction and the engine sounds harsh if you try to work it hard. Keep everything smooth and gentle however and it's an easy car to get about in with the CVT gearbox doing the shifting and noise in the car kept to a minimum.
The Insight genuinely does change the way you look at driving. The goal becomes smoothness and efficiency rather than speed and in many situations, that can be very relaxing. Those who enjoy driving for the fun of it may not get on with this car. It isn't as responsive or lively in feel as a conventional hatch and trying to drive it aggressively only brings out its foibles. Honda's pricing positions the Insight hybrid as a direct alternative to mainstream hatchbacks and, while it's less accomplished in many ways, buyers making the switch in the interests of saving money and helping the environment are unlikely to be disappointed.
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