2011 Honda Insight First Look

More of a Cheap Hybrid than an Inexpensive Prius

2011 Honda Insight EX Front Three Quarter

Honda's 2010 Insight made waves when it first debuted. The automaker known, in part, for efficient vehicles was unveiling a Toyota Prius-like five-door hatchback offered only as a hybrid. The resulting car, however, has proved questionable in its value for those looking for more than just a low price and efficiency.

The 2011 Honda Insight bears visual similarities to the Toyota Prius simply because the general body shape is designed to travel through the wind unnoticed. While the Insight remains one of the most fuel efficient new vehicles available in the U.S. today, it is a car best enjoyed by drivers who really want a Toyota Prius hybrid experience but can't afford the mid-$20,000 base price.

Unlike the Toyota Prius, which the EPA now considers a midsize car in interior space, the Honda Insight is a true compact car. All Insights have a CVT mated to a hybrid powertrain: a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine and a 10-kilowatt electric motor. The 2011 Insight has a nickel metal hydride battery pack, in contrast to the more advanced lithium-ion unit you can find in the 2012 Honda Civic. Expect to see the Civic's system in the Insight soon.

Fuel economy is a central reason people purchase hybrid vehicles, so we'll get right to it. The 2011 Insight is rated 40/43 mpg city/highway, just like the outgoing 2011 Civic Hybrid. The redesigned 2012 Civic Hybrid -- with the lithium-ion battery pack and a slightly larger gas engine -- is rated 44/44 mpg. That's still below the 2011 Toyota Prius' 51/48 mpg rating.

What's also below the Toyota Prius is the Insight's price. For the 2011 model year, the Honda Insight is nearly $5000 less expensive than the Toyota Prius. The Insight's $18,950 base price is the lowest MSRP for a hybrid from any automaker, about $1000 below the 2011 Honda CR-Z hybrid coupe.

This lower price is thanks to the 2011 Insight's new base model below the LX. Just called "Insight," the car is a stripped-down model with a two-speaker sound system and a CD player. There's no cruise control, USB audio interface and unique seating fabric. If that doesn't excite you, the base model does have two extra cup holders for a total of eight -- in a five-passenger car.

The Insight does seat five, but in Motor Trend magazine tests, editors found the back seat uncomfortable. That wasn't the only problem. Some Motor Trend drivers thought there was too much noise at highway speeds and the engine revved coarsely.

In a comparison test of a 2010 Insight and Prius, Motor Trend reflected on the difference in driving experience between the two hybrid hatchbacks: "You'd expect the lighter Insight to be the hands-down handling champ, but its languid steering ratio (3.3 turns lock to lock) and light effort left me actually preferring our heavier-feeling, faster-steering Prius (fitted with optional 17-inch wheels, it's worth noting). Offsetting this though is the Insight's seven, paddle-operated, synthetic gear ratios that give you a convincing sense of authority over its belt-type continuously variable transmission."

It's worth noting that the price for a loaded 2011 Insight EX with a navigation system is the price for a base 2011 Toyota Prius. Standard on all Insights are four- and five-star safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. When the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tested an Insight, it was rated "good" in the front and side tests and "acceptable" in the roof strength test.

What the Insight lacks in driving dynamics, some say it compensates for in a low base price. But be sure to take the car on a long test drive before signing on the dotted line.

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