Hybrid Hoopla: 2010 Honda Insight

April 7, 2009, 6:18 PM UTC
Fortune

2010_honda_insight_hybridDespite being one of the pioneers of the gas-electric hybrid, Honda has taken its lumps in recent years.

More of a science project than a passenger car, the original Insight hybrid faded quickly from consumers’ consciences while the Toyota Prius went on to become the industry standard. Subsequent hybrid adaptions of the Civic and Accord failed to set the world on fire, trading, as they did, headline- grabbing gas mileage for simplicity and affordability.

Now comes the second-generation Insight, Honda’s latest attempt to reclaim bragging rights in the hybrid wars. Let’s cut right to the chase: No science project, this is an attractive, drivable compact car that you’d be happy to park in your garage; it starts at less than $20,000 and it got better than 44 miles per gallon in a combination of 200 miles of highway and country driving I did recently.

When you’re behind the wheel of an Insight, you’ll have no trouble remembering what you’re driving – and onlookers won’t either. With its fast-sloping front-end and high, hatch-backed rear – a shape imposed by the demands for aerodynamic efficiency – the Insight looks like nothing else on the road except a Prius.

Behind the wheel, you feel like you are piloting the Starship Enterprise. A large green digital speedometer glows green to encourage you to use high-mileage driving techniques like not accelerating uphill, while a large round dial allows you to easily check the state of battery charge or discharge. Should you want to raise your environmental consciousness to an even higher level, an “eco” button allows you to gear everything down – including the air conditioner – to squeeze another couple of miles out of a gallon of gas.

On the highway, all this emphasis on fuel economy extracts some penalties. The low-rolling resistance tires are over-matched on expansion joints and pot holes, while the CVT transmission causes the engine to noisily rev before it can catch up. The Insight goes on sale April 22 – Earth Day – and is likely to find slow going for a couple of months while gas remains cheap and auto sales remain depressed. The launch of the third-generation Prius later this year will likely expand interest in the hybrid segment but also make things even tougher for Honda to increase interest in the whole hybrid category.

The Prius is a larger and plusher car that gets better mileage – 50 mpg – and Toyota has signaled that it will be very aggressive in its pricing. In Japan, the Prius starts at less than $1,000 more than the Insight. With its hard-won status as the affordable hybrid up for grabs, the Insight could find itself trailing the leader once again.