Strapping into the original 2000-model-year Honda Insight, I was never more certain about anything: This will be a hit.
Man oh man, here’s the first hybrid sold in America. It’s a radically aluminum, slippery teardrop of a two-seater that looks like an eye-catching cross between a Chiclet and a space-pod dropped from Venus. Brilliant, brilliant car. And in the end, a few engineering professors did in fact, buy them—but there’s only so many of those, and then it quietly disappeared.
In 2009, I stared at the words “All-New Second-Generation Honda Insight.” This was in the context of a showdown with the recently redesigned, third-generation Prius. What can I say—my only defense for picking the four-door, five-seat Honda the winner was temporary insanity. I was way too enthusiastic about its cheapskate cost of ownership during the frightening downdraft of the Great Recession, and not nearly disturbed enough by its otherwise dreariness. In the end, a few car-hating accountants bought them—but there’s only so many of those, and then it quietly disappeared.
So here I am pecking out the words “Honda Insight” for a third time. A bit nervously, too, I’ll admit. If I screw this one up, who knows what’s going to happen. Perhaps I’ll have my writer epaulettes ripped from my shirt sleeves and be pushed out of the car-guy treehouse. However, just maybe, Honda—and I—have finally learned our lesson: A successful car’s gotta be more than a one-trick pony. It’s reassuring, then, that Honda’s packed the 2019 Insight with both the first edition’s caliber of technology and the second generation’s equally compelling value proposition.
For starters, it recycles the full-hybrid blueprints already used in its bigger brothers—the latest Accord Hybrid and Clarity Plug-In hybrid—but simply shrunk everything to about 75 percent scale. The gas engine is a 107-hp 1.5-liter four-cylinder (Atkinson cycle, naturally) with its crankshaft offset to decrease rubbing friction. Most of the time, it spins a generator to energize a 129-hp traction motor. But during highway cruising it might instead find itself simply clutched to the drive wheels via a solitary gear ratio to cut out the electrical middlemen to produce maximum efficiency. If the traffic gets feisty, pressing the accelerator pedal past a subtle (admonishing) resistance point (at 75 percent of its travel) soars the engine revs to make maximum juice and acceleration. And when you’re trying to keep a low profile, there’s an EV mode for briefly slinking through the neighborhood when you get home, um, a bit too late.
The other driving modes are the usual trio of suspects: Eco, Normal, and Sport. Each is software-tailored for its own accelerator alertness and enthusiasm for climate controlling. But it’s the cabin’s repertoire of customizable augmented acoustics that grabbed my attention even more: On top of the always-on sound-cancellation of road rumble, any anomalous change in the 1.5-liter’s volume as its rpm changes is artificially smoothed (satisfying our subconscious expectation that the engine’s volume should steadily climb with revs). Then, in Sport mode, there’s even an additional texture—a subtle snarl layered onto what’s, when naked, simply a thin, raspy exhaust. The effect is rather appealing, actually. Except for the occasional long incline when everything gets entirely too raucous.
With 151 system hp, this feels like a fairly brisk car, and Honda’s probably right when it says the Insight will walk away from a Prius. Yet it’ll do that while being nearly as efficient, too; its LX and EX versions (wearing 215/55 R16 tires) return a triumphant 55/49/52 mpg city/highway/combined (that ebbs slightly to 51/45/48 for the top-drawer Touring version rolling on 215/50 R17s). Here’s the eye-opener: Corrected to contemporary EPA methodology, that first-generation teardrop Insight produced mpgs of 49/61/53 city/highway/combined—a single combined mpg better than this loaded-with-features (and modern crash-safety tech), five-passenger sedan that exhibits virtually none of the polarizing bodywork of aerodynamic sculpting.
The car that surrounds the spiffy drivetrain is a mostly reskinned Civic to visually differentiate it, meaning it’s still a practical five-seater with a notably big back seat and a nice-sized, 15.1-cubic-foot trunk. To maximize those cubic feet, Honda situated the hybrid system’s small, lithium-ion battery under the rear seat, shrinking the tank size to 10.6 gallons (though that’s largely offset by the car’s stingy fuel consumption). And Honda’s trunk team defended its cargo capacity through some unorthodox packaging elsewhere. Snooping under the hood, I paused. Where’s the battery? There’s nothing but hybrid guts in the engine bay. I checked the trunk. Nothing there, either. It turns out that the battery is inside the cabin, under the shifter, where somebody realized there was a little bit of room doing nothing.
On the road, the 2019 Insight seems more solid and drives more fluidly than the tenth-generation Civic platform it’s based on. Although its extra sound deadening didn’t subdue the tires’ occasional yowls on grooved concrete highway, it’s way calmer inside than I expected. Its ride is better isolated via hydraulic front suspension bushings (that are even cooled by little underfloor air scoops), and the front, lower L-arms are redesigned for less longitudinal stiffness (for more relaxed bump compliance) but stiffer laterally for crisper steering feel.
The steering itself is variable-ratio, having happily exorcised of the common demons of nonlinearity, while providing quicker responses near lock for zippy parking. At the other extreme—carving through windy back-road hills—steering turn-in is sweetened by a lighter aluminum hood and the subtle antics of the inside front wheel’s brake pads, which can lightly scuff their disc to amplify yaw. Try to drive dead-straight down a strongly cambered road, and the electrically assisted steering will eventually notice your subtle efforts to countersteer and add its own torque to compensate. Stopping a hybrid often means brake pedal feel that’s as predictable as stepping into a bouncy-house, but this one has kudos-worthy linearity, backed by three-setting, easy-reach finger-tap paddles behind the steering wheel.
Indeed, the list of sophisticated standard features here is roll call of greatest hits: adaptive cruise control (down to 0 mph), lane centering, auto high-beams, a multi-angle rearview camera, traffic sign recognition, collision-mitigation braking, heated side mirrors; the EX and Touring versions get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, SiriusXM satellite radio, SMS text messaging, and plenty more.
At prices stepping from $23,725 for the LX, $24,995 for the EX, and $28,985 for the Touring, it seems that the third time’s finally the charm, right? Not so fast.
Despite all its good stuff—fabulous features, even more fabulous mileage, interior spaciousness, completely unexpected driving sophistication, and sheer technological terrificness—Honda is pushing a boulder uphill by debuting a sedan exactly when other carmakers are axing some of theirs. Moreover, it’s risking cannibalizing its two existing, world-class sedans—the Civic and Accord—that still sell well by threading a complicating needle between them. Things will only get harder if gas prices drop, too.
The first- and second-generation Insights failed due to overspecialization; this one risks having learned that lesson too well. It’s a Swiss Army knife of a car: great at so many things that its audience has left the elevator by the time it’s done making its pitch. Which would be a shame because, after 18 years, it’s a story lots of people would enjoy.
The post 2019 Honda Insight First Drive: Third Try’s A Charm appeared first on Motor Trend.