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Car reviews - Honda - Insight - VTi CVT 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Smooth drivetrain, light steering, completely normal to drive, great fuel economy potential, interesting dash design, useable hatchback body, surprising performance, steady handling, good forward vision, cheap for a dedicated hybrid
Room for improvement
Road noise, busy ride, low roof hinders rear cabin access, cabin materials feel cheap, feel-free steering

24 Nov 2010

SO AUSTRALIA’S first petrol-electric hybrid is back, wearing a new attitude to match the redesigned body, interior and running gear.

Look out Toyota Prius!

The ZE Insight is the second-gen Honda to wear the badge, and a massive departure from the long-forgotten pioneering (at least in Oz) two-seater three-door aluminium-bodied original of 2001.

A monumental flop, that car cost almost $50,000 and found fewer than 50 buyers in just over three years on sale in Oz.

Not this time around. Honda has lopped $20K off the latest Insight’s price, added one more cylinder, two extra (now self-shifting) gears, three additional seats and almost 400kg (partly as a result of going for steel construction).

So while today’s Insight uses 1.5 litres per 100km more fuel than the ultra-miserly 2001 car, it morphs from offbeat curio to a real alternative to a Mazda3 MZR-CD and VW Golf TDI diesels – never mind the $10K exxier Prius.

It gives Honda a much-needed combatant in this country’s largest single vehicle segment – the Corolla class – to belatedly fill in where the brilliant Civic Vi hatch left off five years ago! Speaking of fighting with one arm tied behind your back, Honda …

The ZE Insight, then, is a small car with big aspirations, taking on everything from a $24,850 VW Polo 66TDI DSG to a – deep breath here – $53,300 Prius i-Tech … as well as every petrol and diesel-powered C-segment rival costing similar money in-between.

Unexpectedly, perhaps, the Insight is a B-segment machine based on the Jazz light car platform. But Honda need not apologise for that, since being light is right in the good eco fight.

There are consequences, however, as we shall see ...

Sizing the Insight up at 4.4 metres, it exceeds the Corolla hatch for length, yet a sub-1.7m girth means the Honda is no match in the width department.

Honda insists the teardrop silhouette is an aerodynamic necessity and not just an unabashed Prius duplicate, saying that its Clarity hydrogen fuel cell vehicle available abroad served as the Insight’s design inspiration. Whatever, the styling is neither original nor pretty save for the strong corporate snout.

But the Prius similarities pretty much end right there.

Beneath that sloping bonnet lives a 65kW/121Nm 1.3-litre SOHC i-VTEC four-cylinder powerplant, assisted by a 10kW/78Nm electric motor and nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack. This is a ‘parallel’ rather than the Toyota’s ‘series parallel’ set-up.

With electricity assisting fossil fuel, outputs rise to 72kW and 167Nm. The Insight can also run on electric-only power under some low-speed conditions, while the engine features cylinder pumping pressure deactivation during deceleration and an idle-stop function to help preserve petrol.

Whatever, the Honda feels and drives like an ordinary petrol engined car – except when the engine cuts out at traffic lights. Utterly seamless in operation, you may not even notice this until the unit fires up instantly the moment you lift your foot off the brake pedal, just in time to move off seamlessly. We were continuously impressed at how effortlessly the system worked.

Speaking of continuous, a seven-stepped continuously variable transmission (CVT) drives the front wheels with complete smoothness and little of that “slipping clutch” sensation that blights many competitor CVTs.

But look at the outputs – modest at best – and realise that this is no performance car by any stretch.

Acceleration is spirited at take-off, and more than adequate if travelling from about 70km/h to 110km/h, with the slippery shape, relatively small mass, and low rolling-resistance tyres all contributing to the Insight’s cruising briskness.

But there isn’t the sensation of forward thrust you enjoy from a modern turbo-diesel when fast overtaking is necessary, for instance – and remember there are several competing at the Insight’s price point.

And nor is the Insight that quiet. The culprit is road and tyre noise intrusion into the cabin, undermining refinement. Again, many rivals seem significantly more hushed.

Honda fits discs up front and a set of drums out back, but the brakes seem more than up to the task anyway. They also feed otherwise wasted energy back into the battery pack when applied, which in turn helps ease the load on the electric motor that also acts as a generator.

So the standard paddle shifts behind the steering wheel, which allow the driver to whisk through the CVT’s stepped ratios, have a purpose since their use aids the regenerative braking system. They don’t add to the Insight’s boy racer appeal.

Thanks to the slick refinement of the Insight’s drivetrain, performance is more than acceptable for a 1.3-litre vehicle of its size, but not stirring.

However, the Honda’s economy depends on driving style, despite the addition of an ECON mode that helps smooth out the peaks and troughs of sudden acceleration and braking actions that traditionally have a detrimental effect on efficiency and economy.

In a nutshell, driven normally with no concerted effort to improve the latter, the Insight’s fuel consumption may disappoint.

Honda claims the 40-litre fuel tank can deliver a driving range of around 650km and a 4.6L/100km combined-cycle average, but we averaged just 490km and 8.1L/100km in a mix of heavy suburban and freeway driving. Meanwhile, our ’09 Golf 118TSI runabout returned under 6L/100km in broadly similar conditions.

In heavier traffic, however, the Insight’s frugality improved markedly, due in some part to the idle-stop system. Seamless in conduct, it proved to be one of the best things about the car.

And just slightly more conscientious driving will bring big frugality dividends.

Activate the ECON mode (a push of a dashboard button away), feather rather than prod the throttle and use the various instrumentation info display lights and pointers to preserve fuel, and the Insight’s consumption figures plummet below 5.8L/100km.

So a little attitude adjustment – and perseverance – produces results. The Insight is about changing driving as well as vehicle buying behaviour.

Too bad, then, that the Honda displays some dynamic misbehaviour.

Light and easy, the electrically powered steering is free from the gloopy weight inconsistency of some similar set ups, but is also devoid of feel and feedback.

So despite the tiller’s rapid responses that translate into flat and precise handling, nothing hooks the enthusiast. Long winding roads are thus torturously numbing affairs.

And although the roadholding is tenacious, the Insight’s leaning through faster corners is a drag. Please, please, please, Honda – beg, borrow or steal a Ford engineer to show you how EPS systems can be fun!

While they’re at it, a talented damper engineer might come in handy too, since the Insight never feels completely settled as it skims and pitches and rocks over all sorts of uneven road surfaces. The ride always seems busy as a result, making for tiresome journeys on anything other than super-smooth roads.

Honda says the front half of the chassis is pure Jazz while the rear platform is new, with an inexpensive, simple and space-saving torsion beam suspension set-up taking care of things out back.

Wrong! At this price point sophisticated multi-link arrangements are now the norm. And remember, not too long ago, Honda used to give us exquisite double wishbone arrangements front and rear.

Perhaps that’s why the undercarriage feels cruder than a basic Mazda3’s.

For good or bad, contemporary Honda thinking abounds inside as well.

The doors have that precision made and lightweight feel that close shut in that most definitive quality manner redolent of the marque.

A fusion of Jazz and Civic, the interior ambience continues the modern theme suggested by the futuristic styling and drivetrain, with the now-trademark Honda digital speedo sitting astride of a fussy instrument binnacle dominated by a colourful rev counter.

Honda makes much use of lighting in order to signal frugal driving styles, with the cluster glowing either green (eco) or blue (wasteful). It’s a novel and clever way of interacting with the Insight.

Fundamentally, though, this is a city/urban car, so the vitals need to be sorted. Let’s see.

Driving position: excellent, helped by height and fore-aft adjustability for both the seat and steering wheel, as well as a deep windscreen and thin pillars for good forward vision.

That wheel is good to grip and features a plethora of thumb-activated switches for the audio, cruise control and trip computer systems. We also rate the gearbox paddle shifters.

Actually, every dashboard item is easy to operate once the driver takes the time to get to know the Insight’s insides, although the resulting button placement isn’t exactly pleasing to the eye if you long for simplicity and symmetry. But all works well.

Also earning our admiration is the effective aftermarket Honda Bluetooth system, various oddments storage solutions (including a narrow but deep centre bin) and the satisfying way the interior lighting switches click on and off.

Filed under ‘FYI’, in normal mode the air-con does a fine job keeping the cabin cool, but once the ECON button is pushed and the engine idle-stop function kicks in, the cold air stops. Furthermore, as with some other Hondas of late, the cruise control is useless in keeping the car at the set speed on an incline.

Initially, we hated the rear view since the horizontal plane is bisected but the depth of the lower panel (that miraculously keeps itself clean) assists reversing vision as the C-pillar is unhelpfully wide.

What we didn’t come to terms with are the flat seats after a longer spell behind the wheel, or the cheap hard dash material that is a world away from what VW offers in the Polo for half the price.

Perhaps more pressingly, the sloping roofline makes rear entry and egress a pain in the neck, literally, while stymieing headroom for taller passengers.

The rear, in fact, immediately betrays the Insight’s light-car basis, for while legroom is OK, shoulder space is limited. The raised centre position is best left for large Victorian porcelain dolls to enjoy.

And then there’s the road noise and suspension movement that makes for tiring, queasy travel back there. Again, the Honda trails many equivalently priced (and some cheaper) rivals in this area, undermining the Insight’s appeal.

But some attention to detail exists, such as the contrasting seat patterns, ceiling material, mobile phone and bottle holders, comfy centre armrest and rear windows that retract almost all of the way down.

Plus, the rear floor section isn’t unduly high because of the clever drivetrain packaging.

That in turn means a larger-than-expected cargo area (402 litres) facilitated by a low loading lip and split-fold backrest. You never need know this is a hybrid vehicle for all the versatility that the hatchback body provides.

Indeed, Honda’s designers have thought long and hard about maximising efficiencies, since there is more than sufficient space beneath the boot floor (and beside the space saver spare wheel) to accommodate at least three 13-inch MacBook laptops that this review is being written on. Also keeping out prying eyes is a retractable cargo blind.

Generous equipment levels are further Insight strong points.

They include six airbags, stability/traction control, ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, anti-whiplash front head restraints, paddle shifters, climate-control air-con, remote central locking, cruise control, steering wheel reach and rake adjustment, LED brake tail-lights, Bluetooth connectivity, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with USB/AUX input and steering wheel controls, power windows, 15-inch alloy wheels and rear parking sensors.

Finally, on the peace-of-mind front, the usual three-year/100,000km warranty is backed by an eight-year battery pack one. Service intervals are six months or 10,000km, while every Honda dealer in Oz is trained to service the Insight.

What Honda has created, then, is an affordable hybrid that is different enough to let your neighbours know how green you are, but normal enough for novices not to feel overwhelmed.

But you need to know that this $30K Insight feels, sounds, and drives like a $20K car when a cheaper Golf seems like a $40K one.

And, just for the record, nor does the newcomer have the leftfield charm or still-astounding frugality of its ahead-of-its-time 2001 namesake.

We admit that an extended time together helped us appreciate the many strengths as well as frustrating weaknesses, but we ultimately feel that Honda hasn’t engineered the masterpiece that the Jazz, Civic hatch, Accord Euro and back catalogue classics show is possible.

In making the Insight more mainstream the Japanese have introduced too many compromises.

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