The Honda Insight is one of the original hybrid cars, with the first model being launched back in the early days of petrol-electric hybrids in 1999 – a year before the now ubiquitous Toyota Prius arrived on our shores.
Where the original Insight was a striking and high-tech model that offered the prospect of 83.1mpg economy, the current model is much less memorable. Not only does the bland styling fail to live up to its predecessor, but it now barely cracks the 65mpg mark. Emissions have also gone up, though they are still just low enough to warrant free car tax a.
Partly explaining the deteriorating figures, the Insight has grown in size and weight to become a Ford Focus-sized five-door hatchback from its initial compact three-door form. As an economy-focused model rivals include the petrol-electric Toyota Prius and the more frugal petrol and diesel versions of the Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf and Skoda Octavia.
What is it?
The Insight is a medium-sized family car that features hybrid power in a streamlined five-door hatchback body. It’s aim is to provide an easy-to-drive and spacious mode of transport for environmentally-conscious motorists.
Lining up directly against the Toyota Prius, the Insight has a 1.3-litre petrol engine under the bonnet, which works in tandem with an electric motor for improved acceleration and economy. As with other hybrids the Insight has a standard-fit automatic gearbox that divvies up power from the two sources.
The range starts at £20,475 for the entry-level HE model, rising to £21,295 for the HS car we tested and £23,595 for range-topping HX cars. All models feature the same engine and electric motor combination and have proven reliable in a number of owner surveys.
The car we tested offers claimed fuel economy of 65.7mpg and gets to 62mph in 12.5 seconds. While these might sound acceptable in isolation its hybrid, petrol and diesel competitors nearly all offer a better combination of value, economy and punch. A VW Golf 1.6 TDI 110 BlueMotion, for instance, returns 88.3mpg, beats the Insight to 62mph by a full two seconds and offers much lower emissions.
What is it like to drive?
Thanks to its electric motor the Insight is very quiet when cruising gently around town, with the focus firmly being on comfort rather than sharp handling around corners. However, this impression of refinement falls apart when you accelerate or head for faster roads, due to the automatic ‘CVT’ gearbox, which holds the engine at high speeds when accelerating.
Attempt to speed up from 30mph to 70mph when pulling on to a dual carriageway, for instance, and the engine screams away giving the impression that it is working very hard – especially if you put the car into its ‘Sport’ mode. Acceleration is lethargic – a sensation that is exacerbated by the surplus of engine noise. Meanwhile, there is lots of road and tyre noise at higher speeds too. The suspension provides a mostly smooth ride, though it doesn’t isolate from bumps as well as rivals including the VW Golf and Ford Focus.
While the Insight is clearly not targeted at keen drivers the steering offers disconcertingly little feedback through the wheel. With barely any sense of how much grip the front tyres have, it doesn’t give drivers much confidence around corners – even when driving at speeds that would feel perfectly safe in most other rivals. Thankfully the Insight slows down more quickly than it speeds up, with reasonably powerful brakes.
Though the exterior design of the car is bland and much of the interior feels dated, the zany dials are hard to read compared to conventional rivals – blame the countless colours, shapes and fonts and the mix of digital and analogue readouts. Another flaw with the interior is the abysmal rear visibility. Thanks to enormous rear pillars and a two part rear windscreen separated by an opaque bar, reversing is much more difficult than it should be. Rear parking sensors fitted to our car proved to be worth their weight in gold.
What is it like inside?
Despite a price tag north of £21,000 the Insight we drove felt very cheap and unpleasant inside with a less substantial feel than several sub £10,000 city cars. Compare it to the standard of most modern medium cars and it is way off the pace.
We found many of the numerous plastics used scratchy, the fabric thin and flimsy and the faux leather on the seats didn’t look at all appealing or even resemble leather. The layout of controls also takes some getting used to, with many buttons strewn across the steering wheel and an unconventional circular pod for the air conditioning controls.
In HS form the Insight includes a relatively long list of equipment. Standard kit includes climate control, cruise control, automatic headlights and wipers, heated front seats, rear parking sensors and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Is it practical?
The Insight offers a relatively large boot, though the longer Toyota Prius and Skoda Octavia offer significantly more load space. Flip the rear seats down, however, and it’s a different story, with models including the VW Golf and Ford Focus offering more room.
We found the front seats comfortable enough with a reasonable amount of side support around corners. The rear seats also offer sufficient knee and legroom for most passengers, though the sloping rear roof restricts them to those under six foot tall – and the raised middle seat offers even less headroom.
Should I buy one?
No. If economy is your top priority several other hybrids travel further with the same amount of fuel (as do nearly all diesel rivals). If quality is important to you nearly all rivals feel more substantial and appealing to sit in. For those who value punchy performance or sharp handling you’d be hard pushed to find a model that offers a less satisfying driving experience for the money, while practicality is nothing to write home about and comfort levels are average.
Yes it’s understandable that the hybrid technology under the skin would add to the price, but as the economy on offer is unimpressive, the Insight has few positives to offer. When you take into account the kerb appeal of high-quality rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf, chic and fun-to-drive models like the Ford Focus and the fuel-sipping Toyota Prius, the Insight is extremely hard to recommend.
Despite being launched in 2009 this version of the Insight feels like it dates back much further than that and the uncompetitive pricing just rubs salt in the wounds – especially considering the original Insight’s eco-credentials and attention-grabbing design. If all you want is space and reasonable economy and you’re not concerned about style, driving dynamics or refinement, the diesel Dacia Logan MCV 1.5 dCi exactly matches the Insight’s economy and emissions, while offering a huge amount more room – all for around half the price.
Don't want to buy new? You can browse for a used Honda Insight in our classifieds here.
Honda Insight 1.3i VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS
List price: £21,295
Engine: 1.3-litre, four cylinder petrol, electric motor
Top speed: 113mph
0-62mph: 12.5 seconds
Fuel economy: 62.8mpg (urban), 67.3mpg (extra-urban) 65.7mpg (combined)
Emissions: 99g/km CO2
Euro NCAP rating: Five-stars