Honda Insight ES review
by David Finlay (8 December 2009)
It's often said that there is no such thing as a bad car nowadays, and certainly the standard has been raised almost beyond belief since the early days of motoring. One of my favourite bad cars was the mesmerisingly awful Pennington, described by the historian St John C Nixon as being "in a class by itself as a mechanical outrage".
In 1899, H W Egerton agreed - to his later regret - to drive a Pennington from Manchester to London as a publicity stunt. On reaching Lichfield, after a day of unexpectedly rapid travel due to the car being towed by a horse and cart, he wrote to his mother that "at the present rate of progress, it would take me three weeks to reach London, but I realise of course that I cannot always expect to cover sixteen miles in nine hours".
Nor did he. The attempt was abandoned when Egerton ran out of his vast stock of spare parts, including all forty-eight spark plugs.
Fortunately, no car as horrific as the Pennington is in production now, but the standards of the industry these days are so high that is possible to build something vastly better which is nonetheless, if not exactly "bad", at least a major disappointment. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Honda Insight.
There are some things I like about the Insight. For example, I like the way the engine eases into life when you turn the key. It's as if one second the engine isn't running, and the next second it is, with almost no apparent mechanical process in between. And I love the steering. You turn the wheel and the front end just melts into the corner. I don't know of any other car - not one within about £40,000 of the Insight's list price, anyway - which steers like this. And the actions of the accelerator and brake pedals are nearly as good.
But there is much about the Insight which makes me want to send Honda to stand in a corner until it has learned to behave. I've dealt with most of this in a previous road test of the entry-level SE, but in case you don't have much time on your hands I'll give you the short version here: it feels cheap and flimsy for a car costing over £17,000, the dashboard and the rest of the trim seem to have been designed for two entirely different cars, the ride quality and handling ability are poor, there's a lot of road and wind noise, luggage space is a long way below the class average when the rear seats are folded down, there's a puncture repair kit instead of a proper spare wheel, and the rear visibility is so utterly terrible that you'd almost think Honda wants you to knock people down or crash into things when you're reversing.
The Insight falls into what motor industry people call the C segment - that's the one with the Ford Focus in it - and I can not think of a less appealing car in that part of the market. However, the main selling point is that this is a hybrid, with an electric motor boosting the power of the 1.3-litre petrol engine. Honda bases its marketing of the car almost entirely on this aspect, and the Insight's dashboard Will Not Shut Up about it (there are all sorts of graphics and changing background colours to tell you how economically, or otherwise, you're driving), so it's worth investigating how effective the system is.
With that in mind, I took the opportunity offered by a 1000-mile journey to see how much fuel the car would use. It would be unfair to go into much detail about the first part of that experiment, because the weather conditions were absolutely terrible and made economical driving impossible. It did, however, confirm that the economy readout on the trip computer is pretty accurate - my own figures were only 0.6mpg different, which is negligible.
Later on I managed a long motorway run in much better weather and managed around 56mpg, a figure which understandably dipped to 52mpg when I started driving in towns and on slow country roads. According to the EU test the combined consumption is 61.4mpg, but since it's very difficult to match the official rating in most cars I'm not too concerned about that.
What is concerning is that I was actually trying quite hard not to use any more fuel than I needed to. I never accelerated particularly strongly (when you've done that once, the memory of the strangled cry the engine makes when you take it to maximum revs is a good incentive not to do so again) and I never came out of the car's Eco mode.
Despite all that, I couldn't beat the economy I managed earlier this year driving normally in a similarly priced, much quicker, non-start/stop turbo diesel C segment rival which is better than the Insight in almost every respect. So, whatever Hollywood stars and green activists may say about hybrids being the saviours of the planet, this particular example doesn't seem to be making a very good job of it.
I have now driven two versions of the Insight, and I do not intend to be troubled by a third. Still, at least it can do sixteen miles in under nine hours. There's always that to be said for it.