Honda Insight Review – Diesel Foe Or Hopeless Hybrid?

Honda’s Insight could almost be considered the “forgotten hybrid”. So entrenched is Toyota’s Prius with the term “hybrid” that Honda’s similar effort is almost completely overlooked.

But should it be? The Insight is, after all, an economical and spacious car. As a Honda, no doubt reliable too. These are all qualities which shine more during ownership than they might on brief acquaintance, so we felt obliged to test the Insight for a week to see if it served up deeper talents.

Exterior

Honda Insight side

At launch the Insight was endlessly compared to its Toyota counterpart, but a few years down the line and it’s hard to see the similarities, beyond their wind-honed silhouettes.

It looks quite modern, particularly in this car’s clean white paint with dark-tinted windows. The blue-tinted head and tail-lights help – blue seems to be the “in” colour for hybrids and electric cars – as do the sharp details and uncluttered look to the side profile.

Honda Insight rear angle

It’s also “different” enough to stand out a little on the road, among the throngs of more conventional hatchbacks. Even Honda’s own Civic, similarly-sized to the Insight, looks less striking, and the Insight’s relative rarity no doubt helps it here.

What it couldn’t be described as is conventionally attractive. There’s plenty of metal towards the back which dwarfs the alloy wheels, and its high ride height does it no favours either. And if you already scorn the Prius for its shape, the Insight’s similar silhouette probably won’t tempt you back to the fold.

Interior

Honda Insight interior

The Honda CR-Z sports coupe is cut from the same cloth as the Insight, but you can tell the Insight is the cheaper, more conventional car. Both share a similar interior layout, but the Insight is notably built down to a lower price.

That isn’t to say it’s nasty inside, but the details give it away. The doors feel light, the door trims hard and unyielding and covered in a thin material rather than padded cloth. The leather on the wheel is less tactile, the dashboard materials a little shinier, and the car’s futuristic instrument displays a little less glitzy.

Honda Insight rear seats

It does do plenty right though. It will seat five in relative comfort – though rear passengers must mind their heads on the low roofline as they curl themselves inside.

The driving position is less sporty than the CR-Z – more like you’d find in the Civic – but also more comfortable, with a good range of adjustment. Visibility is good, and while the view backwards is still compromised by the split rear windscreen, it seems less of an issue here than in the Civic or CR-Z.

Honda Insight boot

The boot too is large, at 408 litres. The floor is higher than that of the 487-litre Civic, but the Civic falls at the upper end of the spacious spectrum in the class, so the Insight can hold its head high. Storage space through the rest of the cabin is adequate.

Driving

Honda Insight corner

Much of the driving experience of a hybrid is dominated by its drivetrain, covered in more detail below. Essentially though, there are two sides to the Insight, and how much you enjoy the experience will depend on what sort of driver you are.

Enthusiastic drivers need not apply. Beyond the basics – decent grip, accurate steering and reasonable resistance to body roll – the Insight offers little to tempt the sporting driver. There’s not much steering feel, the ride becomes flustered when asked to tackle bumpy corners at speed, and the CVT transmission makes for an odd car to drive quickly.

Honda Insight high

If you’ve bought the Insight to have fun in though, you’re probably missing the point. Driven in a more sedate manner, it’s actually very pleasant.

Relaxing, even – the ride is still firm but not uncomfortably so, the aerodynamic shape makes motorway journeys less windy than they might be (though tyre noise is more audible) and it’s a doddle to drive.

Engine

Honda Insight engine

The Insight uses a 1.3-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine pinched from the Jazz. To this, Honda attaches a continuously variable transmission, and between the two sits a slim electric motor. Honda calls it “Integrated Motor Assist” (IMA) and it’s been a mainstay of the maker’s hybrids since the original Insight of the late 90s.

The CVT alone is often enough to put some drivers off – the lack of gearchanges can initially be disconcerting. We found it very, very easy to get used to though, and due to it never revving any higher than is needed at any particular time, very economical: our car returned an indicated 60 mpg over the course of a week, and 62 mpg on a 70 mph two-way motorway run – identical to the Volvo V40 D2 we recently tested. Figures in the 50s should be achievable for many, but economy will suffer if you drive like Vin Diesel, abuse the air-con button or regularly carry a carful of people.

Honda Insight dials

We fail to really see what the big negative fuss is about with CVT layouts. Having established that this isn’t a car for sporting drivers, few are likely to notice that the engine moos a bit when accelerating hard, as most of the time it’s near-silent and vastly more refined than an equivalent diesel. We’d not bother using the manual mode though – it’s not that responsive and not much fun.

Even performance isn’t too bad – not as punchy as some diesels, but not appreciably slower than the typical 1.6-litre diesels with which it competes on real-world economy.

Value for money

Honda Insight console

Our car, in mid-range HS trim, would set you back 20,925. That sounds a little hefty, but it’s fairly competitive with the aforementioned 1.6 diesel set at similar equipment levels. Like most of those, it also gets free car tax (scraping under with 99 g/km), while its warranty is a useful 3 years or 90,000 miles.

Equipment levels in our car were decent enough. You get leather on the wheel and gear shifter, automatic climate control, a USB connection for your MP3 player of choice (our iPhone hooked up with no issues) and of course, a standard automatic gearbox.

Honda Insight rear light

Verdict

7/10

We were tempted to give the Insight another mark here. Our week with the car was enough to convince us that hybrids can make sense in the real world – driven in the right manner, the Insight sips fuel with the best of them (and petrol is cheaper than diesel in the first place, remember) and is relaxing and refined to drive. It also has a big boot, comfy seats and we like the quirky cabin.

On the flip side, the looks are an aquired taste, economy will suffer more than a diesel if you drive it hard, and the cabin does feel a bit cheap next to Honda’s more recent efforts.

But its biggest problem is friendly fire – the Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC we drove a few months back was even more economical, felt more substantial and has an even more spacious cabin. And it’ll be sitting right next to the Insight on the forecourt – which would you take?

Honda Insight badge

For more information check out our full summary of the Honda Insight alongside reviews, stats, photos and videos!

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