Mountain Wheels: Normalized 2018 Honda Insight is a high-mileage delight (column)
August 24, 2018
Way back in the pioneering days of hybrid vehicles, Honda's mass-market entry to the game was a very, very hybrid-looking vehicle known as the Insight, an ugly duckling that hadn't quite blossomed into a swan.
You've seen the 1999-2006 model years out there and you know they're hybrids because they look so strange — teardrop-shaped and off-putting, like the cars you see pictured in some hilarious dystopian movie like Demolition Man. Hybrid equals weird equals no thanks, for most customers.
Second-generation Insight overcompensated by looking exactly like an older Prius, and sales were not a thing, so the car went on hiatus from production for several years, despite being the highest-mileage hybrid vehicle sold in the United States.
It was much to my surprise that the 2018 Honda Insight is none of those things, minus the mileage part. Instead, it looks like a slightly smaller version of the new Honda Accord, one which also gives off no external sense of electro-mechanical drama, at least until you hit your first minor hill. At $23,725, including destination charges, the base model Insight is also an affordable offering; my Touring model stickered at $28,985. It's built in Greensburg, Indiana, with the engine and power unit made in Ohio.
It's sharp, pleasant-looking, comfortable for five and includes a deep trunk for all your goods. From its jewel-eye projector beam headlamps and big LED light surrounds, to a distinctive chrome eyebrow on the grille, all the way back to an integrated spoiler on the trunk lid, it's all very nice.
That rear aero is really the only overly stylized part of the vehicle at all, with lines that stream off the roof and settle into the deck — an effect that is almost identical to the hood and A-pillars of the new Ford EcoSport, which I'll discuss in a few weeks.
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Really, aside from the air-cutting flat-disc wheels and the badging, you might not even know this was a hybrid vehicle, other than its occasional, entirely silent all-electronic cruising.
Even the interior is oddity-free, odd in a world where hybrids usually like to add spaceship-styled gauges and switchgear to demonstrate their often-pious fuel frugality.
Really, it's just the three Eco/Sport/EV switches, set behind a dedicated rubberized mat that EVERY CAR should have for easily storing your phone, next to the now-standard Honda pushbutton transmission controls, that you see some hybridity.
Likewise, when you hit the starter, you get an initially busy but really very simple instrument display which captures the energy transfer in two gauges, with power (a tachometer) and battery/fuel level indicators on the edges. That's it, unless you want to watch the power flow diagram on the navigation screen.
The idea here, I guess, is that by minimizing the drama, you can go from hypermiling geek to simply someone who drives a very efficient, very normal-looking and operating vehicle.
During my outings, the highest combined mileage was 51.2 MPG, which beats the car's 51 city/45 highway rating — the Touring model I drove is a little heavier and more power-draining than the base models, which have received an impressive 55 MPG city rating. Over about 300 miles of travel, I ended up with about 48.5 MPG overall, which is nearly triple that of the Ford Mustang GT I will also talk about in a few weeks.
How high you go on the MPG chart definitely depends on your driving style. Other than the curious, high-pitched horror-movie organ sound you might hear from the all-electric mode, really only obvious when you're in an enclosed space like a drive-thru bank stall, startup and EV-mode driving are indeed totally silent.
When bigger power requirements emerge on the highway, the car's 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder kicks in, and total output is an austere but manageable 151 horsepower, with 197 lb.-ft. of maximum torque.
Highway driving was also the spot where the car's one-speed continuously variable transmission suggested you will have to be very brave when you take the vehicle over our mountain passes. Even down in the Front Range, the first 1 percent grade I encountered — a small rise — suddenly produced the kinds of deep, deep revving and whining I now associate with old Suzukis or the early Ford products which tried to use CVTs to add efficiency.
I did remedy my pokiness with a tap of the Sport mode button, which brought up red instrumentation and channeled battery power into the Insight's roll, allowing me to go like a bat out of hell for about 10 seconds, at which point the visible battery reserve disappeared. Though I was also apparently able to nearly fully recharge the battery by dragging the regenerative brakes at the next stoplight; column-mounted paddles also allow you to do this while driving, helping to recharge the car as you drive.
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