Identity Crisis?

Given the nice weather we’ve been having here in the UK for the past few days I thought I’d take advantage of some rare spare time and head to the local Honda garage today to see if I could test-drive the new Honda Insight. I went incognito, sans camera, to see if I could get a real feel for how the dealership, and the Insight, performed. The 2010 Insight. Better than the Prius in some things, worse than it in others.What I found was a very fuel efficient car with a confused soul. Somewhere between drawing board and final model, the new Insight feels like a car unsure of what it really is. I’m quite sure it will find a market, but it feels like Honda have tried so hard to please everyone that they’ve managed to produce a car which doesn’t please anyone.

At this point I feel it’s probably best to disclose a few things. My partner and I don’t have a thing against Honda; we used to drive a Honda Prelude and an Accura Inegra. Both vehicles were great and very sporty – a hoot to drive. But the while the local Honda dealer would quite happily sell you a regular car from their line up we get the impression that they don’t really want to sell the Insight. It was certainly borne out today when the sales team were luke-warm about it’s abilities. And back in 2007 when we were comparing the Honda Civic IMA to the Toyota Prius, the only garage which actually gave us a test drive (without faffing around, claiming that there wasn’t a model to try and never calling us back) was Toyota. We waited patiently for six weeks for a test-drive of the Honda Civic IMA and gave up. So, as you can see, we have mixed history with Honda.

That said, today’s visit certainly carried on our impression that Honda aren’t really in the hybrid game. The salesman seemed more content to talk about the Clarity FX... Oh dear. Let’s get back to the car we came to test-drive. The new Honda Insight looks remarkably like the Toyota Prius. In fact, back when it was in testing and incognito under the usual test-driving black vehicle wrap, the Insight was mistaken on many car-spy sights for the 2010 Prius. In profile the two vehicles do look remarkably similar.

The Insight does look slightly more menacing at the front when compared to the 2004-9 Prius, with more angular lines rather than the sweeping, almost surprised look the 2004-9 Prius has. It makes the car look more conventional in many ways and certainly reinforces the links to the Civic line. The rear of the new Insight has thicker rear posts than the Prius, with a rear light cluster and boot end evocative of the original Insight, the car that many now modify to get well over 100 mpg. Gone though are those cute rear-wheel skirts the original Insight had. The original’s wheel skirts, a love-it or hate-it feature, made the original Insight stand out in a crowd. It screamed out it’s heritage and proud fuel efficiency from every orifice and made us all feel like we were driving a car from the future. If the old insight made us feel we were an extra in a sci-fi movie the new Insight makes us feel like we’re extras in a dreary soap-opera. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a perfectly acceptable looking car. While I acknowledge that not everyone likes the design of the old Insight (I was a fan) it would have been nice for the new Insight to stand out in some way. For example, how about making the Insight look slightly more like the current Civic than it does. It’s almost as if Honda have taken the design part way – then rescinded and remembered that the Insight is meant to be a fuel efficient drive.

The current Civic looks as if it could win a race standing still in a parking lot. The new Insight is like the person who can’t quite figure out what to wear for a friend’s party and turns up wearing ripped jeans and a dinner jacket. Part hip. Part sexy. Part formal. Confused. Inside the Insight’s identity crisis continues. Immediately in front of the driver there’s a clearly lit display, giving all the information the driver could ever want (or quite frankly, need) while going along. The display setup is very much like those in the new Civic and the S2000, but this time you get extra information, such as if you’re charging or using battery power, how many economically you’re driving and lots of other things I didn’t have time to take in. On a sunny day like today, I really struggled to see the top pod display, which contained the most useful thing of all. The speed. After I’d adjusted the steering wheel for height and rake (Toyota, please take note: You really should offer this feature in the Prius), I found that I could see the display a bit better. Look left toward the center console (or right if you’re steering wheel is on the left) and your eyes land on the Insight’s radio. Part GPS, part radio, CD and additional information screen, this unit feels quite slapdash.

It’s as if someone at the factory forgot to put a radio in and put any old one in at the last minute. Resolution of the screen is poor and the whole thing feels a little outdated. Not to mention the buttons, which surround the screen in a dizzying array of options. I would have preferred Honda to have figured out just what it would need to design a custom fasia for the unit and perhaps integrate it more fully in the Insight. I suspect in the interests of cost reduction Honda chose to go with a standard housing which would accept one of many different Honda radio units. It just looks quite cheap as a consequence – a big step away from the fully integrated centre multi-function display that Prius owners have got so used to having. And when most cars today come with a GPS option you’d think Honda would have spent more time making their radio fit the Insight better.

I mentioned buttons, so I will again. The steering wheel, which is just the right size and gives much more positive feedback to the driver than the current Prius has ever done, has more buttons on it than my laptop. It’s a confusing array of front and rear button clusters. So much so, that when I wanted to reset the fuel economy trip to record how well the Insight did on my short , 6 mile test-drive, the dealer took about two minutes to remember how to get through the dizzying array of buttons and menu options to do it. Admittedly, he wasn’t partiuclarly versed (or wanted to be) on the Insight, but I struggled too, and I take it as a badge of honor that I rarely have to read the owner’s manual for that kind of thing. The Insights dash seems a little cluttered.

Both front seats in the Insight are heated, but didn’t seem quite as comfortable as Honda seats of old. My partner, who sat in the back, certainly agreed that the Insight seats didn’t appear to be long-distance friendly. However, leg-room in the back and front was brilliant and a lack of any sizable center hump means that three medium-sized adults could fit in the back quite happily. The width at the rear though is slightly less than the Prius though. Vision was good at the front with a good sense of where the corners of the vehicle were. The rear, however, seemed to have a few blind spots by those big rear pillars. The split rear-screen didn’t make any problems with interior rear-view visibility though. One of the most attacked features of the Toyota Prius has been it’s rather unique gear selection and starting system. Anyone who hated the Prius for it’s big power button and quirky selector will be pleased to know that Honda have chosen to not follow Toyota’s example of a console-mounted gear lever and foot parking brake, going for a more conventional handbrake (parking brake) and floor mounted shifter stick. It would have been nice though had Honda decided to do away with the traditional key. With so many cars now having keyless entry and start it’d be nice to see the Insight follow. But not on this occasion, at least. Pulling away in the Insight felt sluggish. The salesman quite happily informed me that the Prius was slower and that he’d witnessed Honda’s efforts to prove it.

Apparently, some time earlier this year, Honda UK rented six Prius and took them, along with six Insights, along to a disused airstrip for a bit of racing. Twelve Honda employees (Yes, all Honda employees, including those driving the Prius) took it in turns to race each other down a quarter-mile course. Apparently in each case the Insight won. Now, forgive me for saying this, but that hardly sounds like a fair test. Had What Car? done this, with a Prius and Insight side-by-side I’d be more inclined to believe them. A whole load of Honda salespeople doing this? No. Sounds like an inside job to me. From my own perspective the new Insight did feel slower at pulling away than the Prius. It was a bit slower to pick up on my hints at kickdown too. I had to pull out to overtake a stationary truck and found that I was half-way over the other side of the road before the Insight responded. I’m pretty sure the Prius would have made more effort sooner. But then I do drive one, so I am biased.

When overtaking and accelerating, the Insight also made much more fuss than the Prius, really screaming the engine for all it’s worth. I’m not the only one to have thought that, either. (Take a look on Google.) While the Insight looses to the Prius in power and acceleration, it certainly feels more like a regular car. The Insight also has a much more responsive steering than the Prius. When it comes to economy, the test Insight I was driving read 51 imperial mpg when I got in it for 140 miles of test-drives. After resetting, I was able to coax it as high as 75 imperial mpg. It settled out at about 67 imperial mpg by the time I got back. It therefore trumps what my partner and I are able to get out of a Prius on a short trip. Obviously, my Plug in Hybrid, currently sitting outside reading 90.3 imperial mpg on the display, trumps them both. (But we’re not comparing that to the Insight, so I’ll shut up.)

The Prius is much more of an intuitive car to operate (once you get past the initial shock of the foot parking-brake and stubby gear shift) than the Insight and only displays the information you really need to see while driving. The Insight showers you with information and hopes you can remember all those tricky key-combinations to customize the car the way you want it. If fuel economy is all you’re worried about and you can’t wait to buy the 2010 Prius (which will have a better fuel economy than the current Insight) then the Insight will save you not only a few thousand on purchase price and some fuel too. If you can learn to drive the Prius well though, I suspect it could quite easily match the Insight’s fuel economy while giving more power and room. If comfort comes into the bargain too then go with the Prius. It’s so much more finished and less busy inside. With all the extra buttons, dials and do-ma-jiggies that the Insight has over the Prius (you can even get a version with paddle-shift for those faux-transmission lockdowns) the Insight feels like it’s Honda’s PC to Toyota’s Mac. Which one are you?