Hybrid Comparo: Honda Insight vs. Toyota Prius
Does the newcomer have what it takes to challenge the champion?
You may be familiar with the cheeky adage that's often used to disparage us: Americans want what they want, when they want it and a lot of it. While those words might be used to imply how finicky we can be, they can also be used to describe our taste in hybrid vehicles. In this case, Americans want a hybrid that has room for the family, gets great fuel mileage and offers a lot of both.
When the Honda Insight was originally introduced in 2000 as the first commercially available hybrid in this country, it delivered the fuel economy but not the room needed for a family. It was a two-seat hatchback coupe built for one purpose: to get good mileage. With a lightweight design, a slippery shape and skinny tires, it sipped gas but lacked practicality, making it a bit player in the U.S. auto market.
Then the second generation of the Toyota Prius hybrid came along for the 2004 model year. A four-door hatchback sedan, the Prius seated five, had a useful rear cargo area and delivered industry-leading fuel economy. When American families realized they could buy a hybrid without sacrificing too much functionality, the Prius caught on, selling more than 180,000 units in 2007.
Now the hybrid landscape is changing. For the 2010 model year, Toyota is offering a redesigned Prius with slightly more interior space and even better fuel economy. After a three-model-year hiatus, Honda is resurrecting the Insight for 2010 as a four-door hatchback with room for five, excellent fuel economy, and the lowest price for a hybrid in the States.
So, how do these two vehicles stack up? Will the new Insight challenge the Prius for hybrid supremacy? And if you're in the market for a hybrid, which one is right for you? Let's see.
Round 1: Road Manners
The difference between the road manners of the Insight and Prius reflects the fundamental difference between Toyota and Honda. Both companies aim for a comfortable ride that will please the masses, but they go about it very differently. Toyota's machines offer very smooth, quiet, slushy rides that are impressively luxurious but far from sporty. Hondas, on the other hand, are sharper, with better body control and more direct steering. Though it's sportier than the Prius, we wouldn't actually call the Insight sporty.
So it's not surprising that the Insight is more fun to drive than the Prius. It deals fairly well with bumps and potholes, and is more composed and controlled during cornering and braking. The Insight feels a lot like the Honda Fit (no doubt because they share many of the same front-end components), which has a fun-to-drive character that you wouldn't expect in an economy car. The Prius, on the other hand, feels like a Camry, with a soft ride, somewhat vague steering, and just a little bit too much lean in turns and during braking.
Each brand also takes a different approach to hybrid powertrains. Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system is the simpler of the two. It uses an electric motor between the engine and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) to aid propulsion and turn the 1.3-liter i-VTEC 4-cylinder engine off at stoplights. Integrated Motor Assist is a "mild," or "power assist," hybrid system because the electric motor can't propel the car on its own from a stop, though it can do so for a short time in some steady cruising situations (at about 40 mph). The Insight's engine produces 88 horsepower and 88 lb-ft of torque. Combined output with the electric motor is 98 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque. Zero to 60 mph takes about 10.6 seconds.
Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system is more powerful. It uses a 98-horsepower 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine aided by two electric motors, one of which assists the engine when more power is needed. Toyota quotes total output at 134 horsepower, which makes the Prius faster and more responsive than the Insight. Toyota quotes a zero to 60 mph time of 9.8 seconds. Hybrid Synergy Drive is a full hybrid system because the motor can propel the vehicle up to 25 mph without the aid of the engine.
The Prius also has an "EV" button that allows the car to be driven on electric power alone (again, to 25 mph), provided the driver doesn't have a heavy foot. The upshot is that drivers can aim to keep the engine off as often as possible in the Toyota, but not in the Honda. However, as we'll soon see, the Insight has plenty of features to help guide drivers toward better fuel economy.
Winner: The fun-to-drive Insight