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Honda Insight 1.3 IMA SE Hybrid

Click to view picture galleryThe new Honda Insight medium
  family-sized five-door hatchback
  has price and size on its side.
  Not only is it cheaper than its main
  rivals, but it also has a pricing
  advantage over most conventional
Eco models of
  a similar size

AN AFFORDABLE FIVE-DOOR, FAMILY SIZED, PETROL-ELECTRIC HATCHBACK with Honda's renowned product quality has to be a tempting proposition for hard-taxed company car users, downsizers, companies wanting to promote their 'green' credentials, for those private retail customers just wanting to be 'eco-friendly' and for all drivers not wanting to pay the London Congestion Charge.

Priced from 15,490, the new Honda Insight 1.3 IMA Hybrid is around 2,400 cheaper than its main contender, the Toyota Prius. The Insight also has a pricing advantage over most conventional diesel-powered 'Eco' models of a similar size.

The Insight looks very similar to the current Prius but I guess if you are designing a wind-cheating family hatchback, then computer design logic throws up the same results. Built in Japan, the Insight is very much middle-of-the-road for styling both inside and out. And it meets most of the requirements for most people whether they are in Japan, the USA or Europe — it does not inspire but then neither does it offend.

The Insight range is offered with three trim and equipment levels starting with the 15,490 SE, but it is the well equipped middle specification ES version priced at 16,790 which should account for 60% of total sales. Top of the range is the 18,390 ES-T model equipped with satellite navigation and hands-free technology.

Standard equipment for the entry-level Insight SE includes alloy wheels, climate control air conditioning, electric folding door mirrors, front and rear electric windows, steering wheel controls and Vehicle Stability Assist. And being a roomy five-door hatchback means maximum family and load carrying options with a boot capacity of 408 litres or 584 with the rear seats folded.

With an overall length of 4.4-metres it easy to drive and park although parking sensors would certainly be an advantage; there is a steeply-raked tailgate with the upper and lower rear windows divided by a joining bar, which does limit rear visibility.

Honda's IMA hybrid system is now ten years old, having made its debut in the original Insight back in 1999. IMA stands for Integrated Motor Assist, which means that an electric motor sits alongside the petrol engine it supports and in front of the CVT auto transmission.

The petrol engine is new, but is based heavily on the 1.3-litre unit from the Civic Saloon Hybrid and the new Jazz. This modified i-VTEC unit has been further enhanced by using a low-friction piston design combined with a new catalyst to optimise economical performance.

However, the really clever part happens during deceleration when combustion in all four cylinders is stopped and each pot is sealed shut. This means the engine is not working as hard to pump fuel or air, so it's immediately more efficient.

Driven in a real-world
manner, the Insight
returned 45.3mpg
The technology used to shut the cylinders — VCM (for Variable Cylinder Management) — is also used to shut all four cylinders when only little torque is required; for instance, during low speed cruising. In this mode the Insight is powered by the electric motor only, with the pistons running idle.

On its own, the engine produces 87bhp and 89lb ft of torque but the key to hybrid systems is the support given by the electric motor that can help boost performance as well as keeping emissions and fuel consumption to a minimum. In addition to the new petrol engine, the Insight also gets a new, improved and more compact electric motor which uses coils with high-density windings and high-performance magnets to produce 14bhp and 58lb ft.

The recovery speed of the battery has also improved, meaning that with power from regenerative braking it can charge more quickly and therefore deliver power to the electric motor more regularly.

When combined, the electric motor and petrol engine produce lively enough performance with good throttle response that's ideal for urban environments. Furthermore, using a CVT transmission in a hybrid provides smooth and predictable gear transitions and helps keep the IMA system operating at its peak efficiency. Proof of the pudding: the Insight reaches 62mph from a standing start in 12.5 seconds, and has a top speed of 113mph.

The instrument panel for the new Insight is crammed with informative dials, lights and a pictogram showing five trees — Yes, trees. Drive economically and all five are shown; drive in a non eco-friendly manner and the branches will drop off — you have been warned!

To assist the driver, the background lighting for some of the instruments changes from blue to green as the car performs in a more fuel-efficient manner, depending on how the driver is behaving. Cleverly, the Insight teaches the driver how to drive economically, although it is visually intrusive.

Best to press the ECON button: that assists with driving methods because it dials-in a more fuel-friendly setting for the air conditioning; it also adjusts the throttle response to a 'softer' setting and it will allow cruise control to be more natural — not keeping the car at the dialled-in speed going up steep hills and letting it over-speed slightly going down hills. More like a real driver, in fact.

All clever stuff — but does it work? Well, driving very, very gently around an urban route in Farnborough, my test 1.3 SE version returned 62.6mpg — not that far short of the quoted 64.2mpg. However, it was like pulling teeth: painful. Driven in a more typical (real-world) manner, the Insight returned 54.7mpg. Good, but really no better than a modern 1.6-litre diesel and certainly not as responsive to drive. However, during a subsequent week-long road test the average fuel economy was just 45.3mpg.

While some buyers will find comfort in owning a hybrid and sending out the right message of 'eco-friendly' motoring, I am yet to be convinced that hybrids are really much better than the latest sub-2.0-litre fuel-efficient petrol and diesel engines — especially when you consider the carbon footprint of just developing such hybrid technologies and the usage of some pretty nasty (to the environment) components that are needed to make batteries work.

That said, the Honda Insight doesn't cost the earth. And as well as being affordable, it's also well equipped, roomy, has non-quirky styling, low emissions, low road tax and avoids the Congestion Charge.

To enjoy these benefits, owners will have to accept the Insight's conventional Japanese domestic market family car handling — that's to say comfortable on motorways but a bit sloppy and lazy on other roads — and a fidgety ride: the suspension does not happily cope with the potholed and rippled roads found across the UK. Also not so good are some cheap plastics; and the petrol engine sounds stressed when pushed. But most disappointing of all, the real-life fuel economy is substantially less than the official figures would suggest. Whoever said that there's no such thing as a free lunch was wiser than they knew. — David Miles

Honda Insight 1.3 IMA SE Hybrid
| 15,490
Maximum speed: 113mph | 0-62mph: 12.5 seconds | Overall test MPG: 45.3mpg
Power: 87/14bhp | Torque: 89/58lb ft | CO2 101g/km | Insurance group 6