The 2019 Honda Insight is a midsize sedan that also happens to be a hybrid. If we didn’t tell you, you might not otherwise know. (Honda)
If you’re driving a $30,000 mid-size sedan that burns an average of 10 litres per 100 kilometres, how would you like to cut your fuel costs in half?
That is, in a nutshell, the case presented by the 2019 Honda Insight, a vehicle so far removed from the first quirky little runabout to wear the name you’d be hard-pressed to know it’s a hybrid.
Despite being a hybrid, the new Insight is as normal a sedan as you can imagine. You get a full trunk. The rear seats fold down. For anyone who has driven the Toyota Camry Hybrid or the Ford Fusion Hybrid, the first question that arises is, “Where’s the battery?”
Unlike crossovers, where it is relatively easy to hide all the electric bits that make a hybrid go, sedan hybrids have almost universally had to eat into trunk space to fit the battery. The first Lexus GS Hybrid, for instance, had such a tiny trunk compared to its gas-only sibling that if you had more than a couple overnight bags, there had better be only two of you in the car.
“Yeah, we have a sedan, but our luggage is in the back seat, so while we’d love to give you a ride...”
The Insight’s battery is tiny enough it fits under the rear seat, which is par for the course in crossovers but an accomplishment in a sedan.
In size, the Insight is a touch bigger than Civic and a touch smaller than Accord. Its trunk is smaller than Accord’s but identical — in base model trim — to Civic’s (428 litres for both; the Touring model’s trunk drops to 416 litres, as the subwoofer cuts into the space).
Its price is nearly identical to Accord’s, which means it’s a $10,000 premium over the base Civic DX ($19,665), a car almost nobody is going to buy outside of Quebec. Why? No air conditioning, for starters, and, bless their souls, only a six-speed manual as a transmission option. (Quebecers love stick shifts, which is good, but they also seem to love cars with no air. Nobody knows why...)
Realistically, then, the base-price Civic is the LX ($22,565) but it’s the EX ($26,165) that more closely approximates the available features in Insight (upgraded sound system, shiftless transmission, power driver’s seat, among others).
All of which means that the economics of a hybrid are as close to workable as they’ve ever been: you get a normal sedan with normal amenities and interior space for kind of the same money (particularly if you shop it against Accord). Can you do better on overall cost of ownership by buying, say, a Fit? Given its $17,265 base price, yes. (All prices include $1,655 freight and PDI.)
Hybrids get their fuel savings primarily by using electricity to provide torque for the thirstiest part of any drive — acceleration from a stop. The computer then manages the flow of energy to try to keep the use of the gasoline engine to times when it runs most efficiently, which is cruising.
It’s also why hybrids typically flip the table on fuel economy; while most cars get better fuel economy on the highway, hybrids get worse. That’s because on the highway, you have less intervention by the electric motor; with limited opportunity to recharge during deceleration, the electric starts to run out of battery power quickly, for which the computer compensates by directing gas-engine power to both the wheels and the generator as needed to keep the battery at a minimum level.
What does all this mean for fuel economy? Well, it’s no Clarity Plug-in Hybrid (which both Willy Williamson and I drove for back-to-back weeks burning zero molecules of fuel (though the fuel was there if needed)), but the worst I could get was an average of 5.0 litres per 100 km. That’s with Eco mode on (Honda certified the fuel economy using Eco mode, which by law means it must be what the car defaults to on startup). With Eco mode off, it’s more thirsty, but also much more responsive.
Like many hybrids, the Insight’s handling is outstanding. The balance provided by having the battery pack under the rear seat translates into very neutral handling. The only mark against it is the video-game feel of the steering: it responds exactly when you want it to, but it feels a bit disconnected from the front wheels.
The only sacrifice in driving, aside from the slightly numb steering, is the transmission. It’s a CVT, so if you don’t like CVTs, you won’t like driving the Insight. If that doesn’t matter to you, you’re good.
The interior is typical Honda sedan, which means you get a big touchscreen display atop the centre stack and a good selection of materials on the dash and other touchpoints.
A bit of padding on the side of the centre console would be appreciated. Another interesting bit of economization on Insight is the use of a conventional fuel filler cap. Most Hondas these days come with a capless system that is very handy.
The Insight may well be the first hybrid sedan where the only thing you give up is a good chunk of your fuel bill. It seems to turn the question of “Why a hybrid?” to “Why not?”
Despite being a hybrid, that trunk you see is fully functional. You can even fold down the rear seatbacks. (Honda)
The Insight has one of Honda’s most-refined interiors yet. (Honda)