It may not get as much ink as its well-known competitor, but the 2010 Honda Insight can claim one "best" even before it goes on sale: It will be the lowest-priced hybrid available in the U.S. market.

Honda launched the vehicle in Japan today, where Executive Vice President Koichi Kondo said Honda wants to keep the U.S. price under $20,000. It hopes to sell 100,000 Insights a year here; if it consistently achieves that goal, the company said it will consider building the Insight in the States. 

That's an ambtious goal for 2009. Hybrid sales aren't down as much as the overall market--U.S. sales of 315,761 last year declined 9.9 percent compared to 2007, according to Automotive News--but this year is widely expected to be the toughest in decades for all automakers.

The Insight will hit European showrooms next month, with first vehicles expected at U.S. dealers in April or May. The Japanese base price is 1.8 million yen (almost exactly $20,000), and the most expensive model is 2.10 million yen (about $23,000). For the States, Honda has been hammered by the rising yen, which makes cars built in Japan (like the Insight) much pricier in dollars. Early rumors had suggested the price might be between $18K and $19K, but now the company will do well to keep it somewhere south of $20K.

The Insight's fuel economy ratings are 40/43 mpg (city/highway), but many press reports suggest the car can do far better in actual usage--especially if the driver pays attention to the power-shift and fuel usage gauges. The Insight can't run up to a mile on pure electric power, like the 2010 Toyota Prius. But the larger Prius needs a battery pack twice as large as the Insight's to get its 50 mpg (combined) rating, which raises its price.

Six months from now, we'll know what the market has chosen: a smaller five-door at 40 mpg-plus for $20K, or a larger five-door at 50 mpg-plus for $25K or more. Which way would YOU go?