Imagine being an automaker that prides itself on its engineering, plus has a history of turning out exceptionally fuel-efficient vehicles, like Honda does, back in the early 2000s. With larger rival Toyota about to drop the then-revolutionary Prius gas-electric hybrid four-door into North America, smaller but scrappier Honda decided to bring its subcompact, two-seat, rear-wheel-covered Insight beat it to market in this part of the world by months, offering the first hybrid in North America for the 2000 model year.
It became the most fuel-efficient vehicle without a plug, ever, until late 2015.
Perhaps not shockingly, super small two-seaters with limited power but industry-best fuel efficiency figures were not quite at home in the land of thirsty pickup trucks and relatively inexpensive fuel, no matter how advanced its three-cylinder hybrid engine. Soon after, Honda began offering its Civic Hybrid, which mated much of the advanced hybrid technology of the Insight with a larger gas engine and a more practical body shape. It did relatively well in the market, for a while becoming the second best-selling hybrid next to the Prius in North America, though its production never made it to Honda Canada’s facilities, and it remained far below Prius in sales.
By the early 2010s, Honda was selling the Civic Hybrid as well as a second-generation Insight hybrid five-door hatchback, before the company decided to remove both of them from the market by 2015 due to lacklustre sales.
Cue the reincarnated third-generation Insight seen here, launched last year, which combines a new generation version of Honda’s two-motor gas-electric hybrid technology to the architecture of the latest Honda Civic. The Insight has been given a healthy dollop of standard equipment, somewhat unique looks and better fuel efficiency to differentiate it from the Civic, plus a more refined design inside and out compared to the hybrid market-leading Toyota Prius – though in actuality, the Corolla Hybrid may be the Insight’s closest rival at this point.
How unique this top-line Insight Touring looks over a similarly top-line Civic Touring is debatable: yes, there are some unique grille, LED fog light and parking light elements up front, as well as different wheels too. Perhaps the rear is the most distinctive angle, with a different taillight design, and a hidden tailpipe, its tip curving downwards just behind the rear bumper cover. The overall look is much more mainstream than the latest Prius, but with a touch more uniqueness than the Corolla Hybrid as well.
Inside, the Insight steps up the futurism theme, with a push-button-laden transmission tunnel for the CVT, which also offers regeneration ‘shift’ paddles behind the steering wheel. Right next to the large shift buttons is a handy console space for your cell phone, though the lack of wireless charging capability here was surprising. Under that were mode buttons that offer Economy, Sport and EV modes.
Practicality-wise, there’s lots of room inside, the Insight sharing the same exact wheelbase and trunk specs with the Civic, though the Insight is slightly longer and wider. As well, it’s nice and easy to reconfigure the dash on the left gauge to show what you’d like, instead of the traditional tach. Personally, I liked having it on audio because it was the easiest way to switch sources, which otherwise took multiple stabs of the screen. Plus, there’s an actual volume knob on this Honda, which is great, as top trim Civics were missing these for a few years in favour of screen taps.
There’s also a nice big sunroof, which is something you won’t find on the larger and pricier plug-in Honda Clarity.
Speaking of efficiency, the trip computer reported that in over 1,000 km of driving, this Insight averaged 5.2 L/100 km, though in my 665 kilometres with it, it averaged closer to 6.3, with about 80 per cent of that highway driving. What surprised me most wasn’t that it travelled 626 km before the low fuel light showed up. Most surprising was that to fill it up cost just over $32 for almost 33 litres of regular fuel, thanks to a small 40 tank, with a large seven litres or so for its reserve tank.
Safety-wise, the Insight stacks up well, offering the advanced Honda Sensing suite of safety items standard on all Insights: forward collision warning (FCW), collision mitigation and braking (CMBS), lane departure warning (LDW), road departure mitigation and braking (RDM) if it senses you’re about to leave the road, and a fairly advanced adaptive cruise (ACC) with low-speed follow (LSF) that can start and stop the car even on traffic-clogged highways.
Like other Hondas, the view behind the right passenger window shows up in the large centre screen every time the right turn signal is activated, which Honda calls its LaneWatch blind spot system. It informs you with handy yellow and red guide lines whether the lane change you are signalling is a good idea. It uses a camera attached to the underside of the right-hand side exterior mirror, and quickly come to appreciate the safety and extra confidence it provides, even in tight parking spots.
Since the Insight starts at $30,276, and is based on a Civic that starts closer to $20k, there’s always a shadow of doubt when considering its overall value proposition. But the Insight comes very well equipped, similar and likely slightly better to the $26k-ish Civic EX, with standard features such as remote engine start, LED headlights, active noise cancellation, walk-away auto locking, Apple CarPlay/AndroidAuto, and the Honda Safety suite noted above – not to mention that extra efficient engine and futuristic interior.
The $32,190 Touring model like our tester adds niceties like leather, that sunroof, a power passenger seat, navi, heated rear seats, and a garage door opener, and maintains that rough $4,000 difference to the Civic Touring trim, along with comparable features lists as well.
To be fair, Honda went the right way with its compact hybrid, which deserves its own name and identity for the more advanced powertrain and interior it offers. It gives more environmentally conscious Insight drivers their own vehicular identity, while slotting it in between the Toyota Prius and Corolla in terms of visual impact and overall driving and interior refinement.