The Honda Insight in my driveway. (Jim Motavalli photo)
You'd never get either Honda or Toyota to admit it, but the Insight and Prius are rivals. The Honda Insight is all new, and the Prius was redesigned for 2010. Both are entering an uncertain but brightening hybrid market.
In March, U.S. hybrid sales (about two to three percent of the market now) shot up 34% compared to February. Overall car sales were up 24%. Incentives have something to do with this, but a better economy, higher gas prices (up 20% since December, and six percent in March alone), more choice (the Insight, the new Prius, the Ford Fusion/Mercury Mariner twins) are also pushing people toward hybrids.
If the Japanese market is any indication, the Insight will do well: It is currently the best-selling car, bar none, in the Land of the Rising Sun -- the first hybrid to so place.
I have weekly test cars, and by sheer coincidence had a 2009 Prius and a 2010 Insight back to back (literally; their rear ends are quite similar). I haven't been in the Insight all that long, but first impressions favor the Prius. Not having been in a while, I'd forgotten what great cars they are: Roomy, quiet, versatile, innovative -- and this isn't even the new one! Here's what the Insight is like behind the wheel:
The slightly smaller Insight doesn't seem quite as sophisticated as the Prius, but it performs well in every way that should matter to the marketplace. It gets 40 mpg in the city and 43 on the highway. Oddly, the EPA is still calculating annual driving costs with $4.10 gas, but if you drove 15,000 miles under those conditions it would cost $1,501. Both hybrids are AT-PZEVs, which translates into super-low emissions.
The loaded Insight EX I'm driving (with navigation) bottom lines at $23,770. The new Prius has an entry-level price of $21,000, but that's for a stripped car (no rear wiper, Touch Tracer Display or electric-only EV mode). The one people will actually buy starts at $22,000 but with a lot of features included -- EV mode, a smart key, cruise control, seven airbags, a six-speaker stereo and even heated mirrors.
It doesn't much matter what I think. The Insight is the cheapest hybrid on the U.S. market, and that will mean a lot to cash-strapped American buyers. If I were Toyota, I might think about undercutting it with a smaller hybrid, based perhaps on the tiny, so far non-U.S. iQ. Now that would be affordable -- and hugely fuel-efficient.
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