First Drive: Honda Insight


HONDA was an early player in the hybrid car scene, with its Insight making its debut in Japan late last century. A few of those cars have even been imported to the UK.

These days much has changed and the technological advances have been impressive, but the basic premise of the Insight’s hybrid drivetrain has stayed the same.

The IMA, or Integrated Motor Assist, uses a motor directly mounted onto the engine’s crankshaft. It directly assists the engine when it’s needed, boosting fuel economy and enabling an expansion of the engine stop-start principle, but unlike other hybrids the Insight can’t run on electric power alone.

Honda likes the system because it’s lighter, less complex and cheaper than rival hybrid systems, which means the customer gets improved fuel economy over non-hybrid models for a lower purchase price.

For 2012 the Insight has had a minor visual refresh. The rear spoiler is slimmer for better rear visibility and the rear windscreen wiper motor has been reduced in size for the same reason. Suspension, friction-reduction and materials quality improvements complete the set.

Inside there’s not too much to make you think the car is anything out of the ordinary, with a manual handbrake, an apparently ordinary automatic gearbox and a not-unusual combination of a digital speedometer and an analogue rev counter. The only real clue comes in the shape of an auxiliary readout for the IMA system state, showing whether it’s charging or assisting, and by how much.

The Insight often attracts older buyers looking for a smooth drive and a comfortable environment. The half fake-leather interior on the higher models comes in either black or grey, which covers the key bases for likely buyers. The air movement controls are big, chunky and easy to find, but despite that they’re laid out in an eye-catching setup that looks great.

In fact all the controls fall to hand easily, with cruise control and audio controls mounted on the steering wheel arms for scarcely thumb-flexing ease of use. In short, setting off along the road feels as normal as it ever does. The only hint, if you’re listening for it, is that the engine starts up amazingly quickly and smoothly. That’s because the IMA system also acts like a starter motor under normal conditions – but more effectively.

In general use the Insight feels just like a normal petrol car. With only light throttle inputs necessary thanks to the electric motor’s assistance, the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) keeps engine revs low and the whole experience quiet. The IMA system does its main work under acceleration, reducing the load on the engine and improving the all-important efficiency under power.

But it also plays a key role in low- to mid-speed cruising, where the motor temporarily takes over the main responsibility for maintaining forward motion. The engine keeps running but the giveaway is when the instant fuel consumption readout zooms way up to its 100mpg top mark, clearly rising way beyond that. How far beyond is anyone’s guess, but at 40mph it’s quite happy to hold the car above 100mpg for relatively extended periods; periods that in the real world are more than enough.

The engine cuts out when the car drops to 4mph, but only when the driver has their foot on the brake. It’s just an extension of the stop-start ideal, and the motor is able to power the brake and steering systems on its own. The down-side to the IMA system is that at low speeds and in stop-start traffic the engine is usually running, so outright in-town economy can’t match fully-enclosed hybrids despite being better than an equivalent petrol-only car.

The ride is on the soft side which encourages a smooth, leisurely driving style befitting of the car. There’s absolutely loads of dry-weather grip if you should need to call on it, though. The seats are quite squidgy, and on the whole the Insight is a very comfortable place to sit for 100 miles or more.

Rear legroom is good, although seating three adults across the bench seat might be asking a little much. Visibility is arguably the one area of compromise with the car, its aerodynamic shape not doing much for the rearward line of sight. Thankfully it’s much clearer at the front and sides.

For a hybrid of the Insight’s calibre, with its high level of standard equipment and impressive driving characteristics when treated properly, this car is something of a bargain. There’s even a lot of room in the boot, making it a thoroughly practical four-door saloon. There’s much more to the Insight than meets the eye.


Model: Honda Insight HS, £20,335 on the road.

Engine: 1.3-litre four-cylinder petrol linked to an electric motor.

Transmission: CVT gearbox driving the front wheels.

Performance: Top speed 113mph, 0-62mph in 12.5 seconds.

Fuel economy: 65.7mpg.

CO2 rating: 96g/km.


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