ROAD TEST: Honda Insight

Honda has chosen to market the Insight in New Zealand as a small 5-door hatchback that just happens to be a hybrid, rather than just focus on the fact that it is a hybrid, a-la Prius.

This may well prove to be a very smart strategy from Honda New Zealand, but probably not for the reasons they would have planned.

You see, the Insight happens to be a far better at being a small 5-door hatch than it is at being a fuel miser that the term hybrid currently suggests…

The reason it makes such a good 5-door hatch is twofold – firstly, Honda hasn’t had a small 5-door in its line up here since it dropped the Civic hatch in 2005 and secondly, it happens to be a very good little car with a very sharp price thrown into the bargain.

Forget all the flowery tree-hugging nonsense like the little bushes that grow leaves to show you how planet-friendly your driving is and the medals you get awarded for… erm… the same thing, the fact is that if you leave the Insight in Eco mode and drive it like you are scared of the throttle it will return mid-fours on the average fuel consumption readout. Drive it like a normal person and it will add about a litre to that figure.

Not a huge difference and certainly not one that makes driving it like a nana really worth it. But here’s the big clincher – mid-fours to mid-fives on the readout is still not something particularly special these days. I personally have seen low-threes in a diesel Mini and – gasp! – 2.9l/100km from a diesel Ford Fiesta. Neither were being driven in a particularly nana-esque fashion either. The Fiesta even had the air-con going…

Adding insult to injury are the new generation of small petrol engines from the likes of Volkswagen – the fantastically brilliant 77kW Polo has a claimed average of 5.3l/100km and is quite capable of seeing that, and even smaller numbers, with very little effort indeed.

All of which adds up to punch an inconvenient petrol engine-sized hole in any claim the Insight may have to being a fuel-sipping eco-warrior. Which probably won’t actually count against it anyway, you see it has one big thing going for its eco-credentials – it looks like a hybrid while all the others just look like ordinary cars.

Or, at least, the Insight looks like what we think a hybrid should look like. With its mini-Prius (only much better looking) super-slippery aerodynamic profile, the Insight simply screams for comparison to the Toyota hybrid. Except you can’t compare them, because the Insight is A) considerably smaller than a Prius is, B) considerably cheaper than a Prius is and C) simply not as good as being a hybrid as the Prius is.

However, the Insight is considerably better at being a decent car than the Prius is. Okay, saying that it drives better than a Prius is a bit like saying that ice cream is better than a head wound, but the fact remains that the Insight is not a bad little steer. Around town it feels perky and willing enough and it’s really only under extended periods of full throttle acceleration that you notice the droning annoyance of the CVT transmission.

Despite a few examples of obvious cost-cutting (rear drum brakes?) the Insight is a quality little piece of kit – well built out of decent materials and loaded with enough toys to keep you happy and all the safety kit to keep you the right way up – and does a far more convincing job of being a good car than it does of being a hybrid.

Honda want you to buy the Insight as a small hatch that just happens to be a hybrid. I say forget that it’s a hybrid altogether and buy it because it’s a decent little generously-equipped, well-priced hatch that drives well and looks good. Because, let’s face it, if you were really serious about saving the planet you’d be riding a bike or a horse or something anyway…

This article first appeared in New Zealand Company Vehicle magazine.

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