Two years ago, Honda launched its Insight subcompact hybrid hatchback to high hopes. Regrettably, the company saw its hopes for soaring sales of its mild hybrids dashed, with the Insight selling less than half the projected number--largely because it suffered in comparison to its showroom stablemate, the Honda Fit. Both cars were five-door hatchbacks of about the same size, but the Fit is far more flexible inside, holds more people and cargo, gets real-world gas mileage of about 30 mpg, and cost more than $3,000 less.
For 2012, Honda has refreshed and updated the Insight, with revised front styling, a nicer interior, and improved gas mileage. The combined EPA rating is now 42 mpg, made up of 41 mpg city and 44 mpg highway--all of those numbers 1 mpg higher than last year's Insight ratings.
This brings the Insight slightly closer to the 44 mpg combined rating for the larger and more luxurious 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid, which uses an all-new lithium-ion battery pack while the Insight sticks with the tried-and-true nickel-metal-hydride pack that's larger and heavier. It's worth noting, though, that the Civic Hybrid is also $5,700 more expensive than the 2012 Insight.
As well as the gas mileage, the 2012 Insight receives a restyled grille, headlamps, and front and rear bumper fascias; new materials and displays inside; and several new features. The base model added last year continues, with a starting price of $18,500.
The Insight's shape is similar to that of the larger and more efficient Toyota Prius: it's a high-tailed five-door hatchback. That lets it slip through the air with little aerodynamic drag, using less fuel to fight lower turbulence. The new-for-2012 rear bumper includes diffusers that smooth airflow leaving the car's body at the tail.
From behind the wheel, the Insight's twin-tier instrument panel sites digital readouts for road speed and other status information up top, with main gauges below in a more traditional cluster. The center stack is angled toward the driver, but climate controls are directly to the right of the wheel--meaning an awkward reach for the front passenger.
The front seats are flat and somewhat short, but there's a ton of headroom above them. The rear seats are different story, though, where the sloping roofline (those aerodynamics, remember?) steals height. For 2012, Honda redesigned the rear seats to add more than half an inch of headroom, and that half-inch will really count. You can fit three kids in the rear, but for adults, two's the real limit.
Under the hood, a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine is paired with Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system, using a 10-kilowatt (13-horsepower) electric motor, which in the Insight powers the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The entire powertrain is rated at 98 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque.
Because it's a so-called mild hybrid, the Insight's electric motor can't move the car on electricity alone--unlike the full hybrids sold by Toyota. The motor contributes extra torque to the engine under load, and restarts the engine after it's switched off when the car comes to a stop. It also acts as a generator to convert braking energy into electricity that recharges the battery pack.
Around town, the Insight hybrid is pleasant enough, with quick takeoff from stoplights. To get power for passing, though, you'll endure quite a lot of engine noise--though for 2012, Honda has added additional sound insulation in the load bay and thickened other noise-suppression materials. But there's not much margin for extra power at highway speeds, which is when you're reminded most obviously that the Insight is a heavy subcompact powered by a small 1.3-liter engine.
The handling is a bright spot, though, and the Insight's steering and suspension make it much more fun to fling around crowded urban areas than the larger and softer Civic Hybrid or the not-very-fun (though very fuel efficient) Prius. The Fit is still a little crisper in corners, but the Insight acquits itself well for a hybrid and is smooth and composed at freeway speeds. Ride quality is good, and the car is quiet except when it's floored--which you may have to do more often than you'd like.
Midway through 2012, Honda raised its prices, so a base Honda Insight now starts at $18,500. It includes automatic climate control, remote entry, power windows, and an audio system with two (!!) speakers. Next step up is the mid-level Insight LX, which adds steering-wheel controls for the audio system, a console with armrest, a security system, map lights, and floor mats, with a price starting at $20,275.
At the top of the range, the Insight EX--from $21,965, or $23,690 with Navigation--adds a six-speaker stereo system with Bluetooth pairing, automatic headlights, alloy wheels, heated side mirrors, and paddle shifters behind the wheel so drivers can "shift" simulated "gears" for better performance. All Honda Insight prices are quoted before a mandatory $770 destination fee.
For more details, see the full review of the 2012 Honda Insight range on our sister site, TheCarConnection.
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