Pedro Arrais review: Honda Insight hybrid gives Prius a run for money

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Honda has pulled out all the stops to make sure buyers shopping for the ultimate in fuel efficiency consider their new gasoline-electric 2019 Insight.

Until now, those frugal buyers would naturally just default to the Toyota Prius, which has built up an enviable reputation since it was first introduced in 1997.

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The Prius educated motorists on the benefits of attaching an electric motor and battery to a gasoline engine — a match that has been adopted in some vehicles by almost every car manufacturer.

Honda’s history with hybrids hasn’t gone quite as well, including the discontinuation of the Civic Hybrid in 2015.

This is not the first time Honda has offered an Insight in its model mix. The first Insight was a streamlined, futuristic-looking two-seater that was available between 2000 and 2006. The second generation (2010 to 2014) was a five-door hatchback.

This time around, the Insight returns as a conventional four-door sedan, sharing similar exterior and interior dimensions with the current Civic.

There are two trim levels, the base, with a $27,990 starting price, and a Touring model with a $31,590 sticker.

I drove the latter.

Under the hood, the Insight features Honda’s third-generation Integrated Motor Assist, a parallel hybrid — an electric motor sandwiched between an internal-combustion engine and the transmission. In the Insight’s case, the 1.5-litre Atkinson-cycle gas engine delivers 107 horsepower. The electric motor delivers 129 hp, with a combined horsepower of 151 and 197 pound-feet of torque.

While few people who purchase a hybrid look for power, it is important to note that the Insight’s gas and electric powerplants crank out more juice than the Prius.

The powertrain consists of an electric continuously variable transmission driving the front wheels. It comes with a 1.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack.

The Insight comes with three driving modes — Econ, Sport or EV.

If you have adequate juice in your battery pack, you can operate in straight EV mode at lower speeds and stop-and-go driving for nearly 1.6 kilometres, according to Honda. In this mode, the gas engine only kicks in to recharge the battery once it is depleted.

Fuel-consumption figures are 4.6 litres per 100 km in the city and 5.3 on the highway, slightly more than the Prius.

With the EV motor engaged, the Insight is in its element, gliding along noiselessly.

When you need power, the gas engine awakens and connects directly to the drive wheels.

But if you mash the accelerator, be prepared for an awful drone as the four-cylinder tries desperately to comply for the request for power.

But it’s not just from a lead foot. As soon as the Insight approaches an incline, the gas engine will invariably rev like crazy to charge the battery or provide propulsion.

On an decline, or when approaching a stop, you can grab back some expended energy by using a steering-wheel mounted paddle that gives drivers the choice of three levels of regenerative braking. When using more regenerative braking, you hardly have to use the actual brakes on the car.

You must, however, make sure you don’t have a vehicle following too close when you decide to do this, as the driver behind won’t have brake lights to warn them of your sudden deceleration.

Interestingly, the car does not remember the level of regeneration you prefer. Once you come to a complete stop, the regenerative level you just chose defaults back to off. You then have to reapply it the next time you wish to slow or stop.

It just seems counter-intuitive to keep telling the car to activate the system.

As the Insight shares the Civic’s basic platform architecture, it feels about the same on the road. Both cars have a comfortable, well controlled (almost big-car) ride thanks to their 2,700-millimetre wheelbase. Bumps and road imperfections are absorbed with aplomb.

The trunk holds 416 litres of cargo and the rear seat backs fold 60/40 to extend capacity. It will come at no surprise that the Prius, with its hatchback configuration, can carry more cargo.

Dimensionally, the Insight is longer and wider than the Prius. Passengers can feel the difference in the interior, where the Honda uses the extra 118 mm in body width to its advantage.

The cabin in my Touring model gave a premium aura, with details I would have associated with an Acura. My tester had soft leather seats and even stitching on the dashboard.

The infotainment centre features an eight-inch touchscreen with a knob for volume adjustment. As with many cutting-edge models, the driver looks at a mostly digital screen with bright graphics and a choice of information presented.

My tester had Honda’s Sensing suite of safety and driver-assistance aids, including forward collision warning, a collision-mitigation braking system and others.

Honda is hoping that the third iteration of the Insight will be a charm. People who might have automatically defaulted to the Prius for its frugality — but never warmed up to its unique style — will find the more conventionally shaped Insight more to their liking.

THE SPEC SHEET

Type: Compact four-door sedan, front engine, front-wheel-drive

Engine: Gasoline-electric hybrid

Gas: 1.5-litre Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder, 107 hp at 6,000 r.p.m., 99 lb.-ft. of torque at 5,000 r.p.m.

Electric: 129 hp at 4,000 to 8,000 r.p.m., 197 lb.-ft. of torque at 0 to 3,000 r.p.m.

Combined: 151 hp at 6,000 r.p.m.

Battery: 1.1 kWh lithium-ion

Transmission: Electric, continuously variable

Dimensions (mm): Length, 4,663; width, 1,878; height, 1,411; wheelbase, 2,700

Curb weight (kg): 1,399

Price (base/as tested): $31,590/ $33,345 (includes $1,655 freight and PDI and $100 AC tax)

Options: Nil

Tires: 215/50 R17 on alloy wheels

Fuel type: Regular

Fuel economy (L/100km): 4.6 city/ 5.3 hwy

Warranty: Three years/60,000 km new car, five years/100,000 km powertrain and roadside assistance

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