2019 Honda Insight Review: A Better-Looking, 50 MPG Civic

2019 Honda Insight Review: A Better-Looking, 50 MPG Civic

Honda has a winner in the third-generation Honda Insight compact sedan. You’ll get 50 mpg without trying hard, an upscale interior, and decent room for four. After building two generations of weird-looking, and then kinda-weird-looking Insights, Honda settled on what looks like a Civic — only nicer, and outfitted with a smaller version of the two-motor hybrid drivetrain in the Accord hybrid. As with the Honda Clarity plug-in hybrid, you’ll see marketing for the Insight that extols efficiency, more than the underlying technology that made it possible.

It’s called the Insight, instead of the Civic Hybrid, because the car appeals to more affluent, older buyers who respond to different cues than the core Civic audience. So Honda wanted a separate model. The new Insight perks up with a a nice next-generation infotainment display with real buttons (but still no tuning knob), and the puzzling return of Honda’s offbeat LaneWatch camera system for DIY blind-spot detection on the passenger side only.

The Honda is quick around town thanks to the electric motor. If you don’t tromp the throttle, you’ll easily top 50 mpg in city driving. On highways, the Insight is quiet and stable, and as polished as a car with a 106-inch wheelbase can be. It’s not a sports car, but it is a Honda, meaning you won’t wallow. Room is very good up front, and just good in back. You’ll think you’re sitting in the most luxe Civic ever built. The premium audio system is pretty good (the sound), although the improved Display Audio system could still use a tuning knob (the functionality). The Insight even spots highway signs and posts information, particularly speed limits. Other electronic goodies include an electronic parking brake with automatic brake hold at stoplights.

As the Insight shifts among its three drive modes, it does so effortlessly because it doesn’t require one motor to both drive the car and regenerate electricity. Honda puts a detent, or bump, in the throttle pedal linkage at about three-quarters power to remind you to drive economically. Go past that and the noises from the hood grow a bit raucous as you stress the system. You’ll hear it for about 9.0 seconds on a timed run to 60 mph, which for 2018 is the border line between good and acceptable acceleration. Pull back on the left-side paddle for regeneration at three levels. On the early production cars we drove, even max regen seemed weak. Ideally, the most aggressive setting should take the place of routine, not panic, braking. The Honda Sensing safety suite makes highway driving safer and backs up a driver who is momentarily inattentive.

The trunk is reasonable for a compact car at 15 cubic, helped by a 60/40 folding seatback on the two upper trim levels. It would be close to 40 cubic feet, had the third-gen Insight been a compact SUV based on the CR-V instead of a sedan based on the Civic.

Honda says its two-motors, no-transmission hybrid drivetrain has less than half the friction of a conventional automatic transmission system car. Honda originally called this the Two-motor Sport Hybrid Intelligent Multi Mode Drive/Plug-in. Today it’s the Third-Generation Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive (i-MMD) Two-Motor Hybrid System. Thank goodness tweets are now 280 characters.
Honda says its two-motors, no-transmission hybrid drivetrain has less than half the friction of a conventional automatic transmission system car. Honda originally called this the Two-motor Sport Hybrid Intelligent Multi Mode Drive/Plug-in. Today it’s the Third-Generation Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive (i-MMD) Two-Motor Hybrid System. Thank goodness tweets are now 280 characters.

Honda’s Home Run: The Two-Motor Hybrid

1999: Ricky Martin unleashes “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” Honda the first-gen Insight. Note the rear wheel spats.
1999: Ricky Martin unleashes “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” Honda the first-gen Insight. Note the rear wheel spats.

The new Insight is a two-motor hybrid. This is not like the two motors of a Tesla or the new Jaguar I-Pace EV with one motor driving the front wheels and the second a motor in back. Instead, Honda’s are both up front. One electric motor powers the front wheels (the ones in back freewheel). A second, smaller unit is a motor in the guise of a generator, meaning it turns engine force into electricity (a motor does the opposite) to charge the lithium-ion battery or to power the first motor and propel the car. There’s no traditional transmission, but there are clutch packs. The Insight runs in one of three modes: electric-only, gasoline-only, or a combination of gas and electric.

On startup, the traction motor (the electric motor) is geared to the drive wheels directly and gets the car going, as long as there’s battery power. With a full charge, it’s good for a mile at 20 mph or less. At low-to-moderate speeds and loads — that is, when you’re not tromping the throttle — the Insight works as a series hybrid, meaning the engine turns the generator, which powers the traction motor that drives the wheels. This would be the arrangement, too, if you’re starting off with no juice in the hybrid battery.

As long as there’s a modest load on the car and you’re going at a decent clip, the gas engine drives the front wheels directly. The ratio is equivalent to a transmission-equipped car in top gear. Add load to build up speed entering an on-ramp ,and it’s all hands on deck as the 1.5-liter Atkinson engine (2.0 liters on the Accord, which pioneered the technology in 2014) is boosted by the electric traction motor and by any power still left in the battery.

The 60-cell LiIon battery is rated at 1.1 kWh and is small enough to fit under the rear seat along with the gas tank, stealing no trunk space. The intelligent power unit (IPU), which contains the batteries, is 32 percent smaller — in part by removing the DC-DC convert and moving it to the power control unit (PCU), which is unchanged in size. The engine is rated at 107 hp, the traction motor at 129 hp, and the two at a combined 151 hp. The EPA ratings for LX an EX are 55 mpg city, 49 mpg highway, 52 mpg combined. The Insight Touring is rated at 55/45/49.

2019 Insight Display Audio has an 8-inch screen and physical buttons/knobs for Home, Back, Day/Night display, Track Control, and Volume. Still missing is a tuning knob. The above screen shows LaneWatch, a passenger-side way for the driver to judge blind-spot distances. The lines are 3, 10 and 23 meters (10, 33, and 75 feet) from the back bumper.
2019 Insight Display Audio has an 8-inch screen and physical buttons/knobs for Home, Back, Day/Night display, Track Control, and Volume. Still missing is a tuning knob. The above screen shows LaneWatch, a passenger-side way for the driver to judge blind-spot distances. The lines are 3, 10 and 23 meters (10, 33, and 75 feet) from the back bumper.

Honda Sensing Rocks. Then There’s LaneWatch.

The Insight’s technology is mostly good. Honda, along with Toyota, pioneered the no-cost safety and driver-assist system systems on most or all of its cars. Honda Sensing is on every Insight. It comprises forward collision warning (FCW), collision mitigation braking system (CMBS), lane departure warning, lane keep assistance, road departure mitigation (that pulls the car back if you go off-road), and adaptive cruise control with low-speed follow and traffic sign recognition.

Honda LaneWatch camera in passenger-side mirror.
Honda LaneWatch camera in passenger-side mirror.

LaneWatch is one of Honda’s genius engineering ideas that works okay at best in real life. It’s a rear-facing camera on the passenger-side mirror only (that’s strike one) that projects a view of cars in or near your right-side blind spot, taking over the center stack display after you flip the turn signal or press a button. It works poorly at night because of headlamp glare (strike two). You measure the intruding car’s proximity by three horizontal lines on the display. If the other car is in back of the middle (yellow) line, it’s at least 33 feet away, and behind the rear line it’s at least 75 feet away. If it’s between the middle yellow and the forward red line, it’s as little as 3 feet from your back bumper, as would be the car in the photo above; LaneWatch gives you no information on whether that car’s speed is constant or accelerating (strike three or, politely, foul ball). If navigation is running, you only get to see LaneWatch on half the screen, which is barely enough (another foul ball). LaneWatch precludes rear cross traffic alert, which uses the same sensors as BSD (a foul ball caught by the catcher). [I think we got the point. -Ed]

A couple years ago, Honda seemed to sour on LaneWatch in favor of traditional blind spot detection, which covers both left and right sides, and provides rear cross traffic alert, the tool that protects your backside when backing out out of mall parking spaces. Honda says there was strong sentiment among owners who wanted LaneWatch back. Perhaps Honda should contract with someone skilled in handwriting analysis or word pattern recognition to see if it’s not one LaneWatch diehard chauvinist with a hundred writing styles. LaneWatch would be super-cool on an Acura (higher-end vehicle) in conjunction with traditional blind spot detection, where LaneWatch always got the entire center stack screen when activated and the navigation prompts went to the instrument panel LCD or the head-up display. No one believes it’s a bad thing to have a rear camera and parking sonar.

Insight Infotainment

The current iteration of the Display Audio is an improvement from the all-glass-panel (no buttons, no knobs) version, or the one that got a volume knob. But it still would benefit from a tuning knob and the menus could improve. We’d also argue against Honda’s decision to not offer Android Auto and Apple CarPlay on the cheapest Insight (less-affluent folks don’t get lost?), and applaud the decision to not include on-board navigation in the middle trim level, since smartphone navigation is pretty good and getting better now that Apple caved and agreed to allow Android Auto and Waze to be used as well as Apple Maps.

Wi-Fi for occupants is on the top trim line, the Touring, as part of the integrated telematics system. There is a center console slot for an iPhone X with case (Honda claims space for only up to iPhone 8+), but Qi wireless charging isn’t available. The shifter buttons — push a button for Drive, pull back on a second for Reverse — take getting used to, but they are not a barrier to choosing the car.

Insight Touring, the top level of three trim lines, gets leather seats with contrasting piping, and lots of padded surfaces. Insight seats lack lumbar support.
Insight Touring, the top level of three trim lines, gets leather seats with contrasting piping, and lots of padded surfaces. Insight seats lack lumbar support.

The Insight Trim Walk

One of the best things about buying a Honda is you don’t wade through trim lines, then features packages, and then options. As the trim line goes up, so do the features. But it also means you can’t mix and match the features the exactly the way you want them, order the car, and drive it a couple weeks later. The three Insights are:

Insight LX, $23,195 (including shipping). It includes Honda Sensing, 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlamps-running lights-taillamps, auto high beam, auto high-beams, a 7-inch TFT screen and 5-inch color audio screen, six speakers, heated door mirrors, and HandsFreeLink. You do not get Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, as mentioned earlier.

Insight EX, $24,955. It includes smart entry, Honda LaneWatch, remote start, 8-inch Display Audio, eight speakers, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, satellite and HD radio, and a 60/40 split rear seatback. Honda says this will be the most-purchased trim line.

Insight Touring, $28,985. It adds on-board navigation, a moonroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, LED fog lights, leather seats and steering wheel, HondaLink (telematics), a 10-speaker premium audio, heated power front seats (8-way driver, 4-way passenger), dual-zone climate control, remote garage door opener, and automatic wipers. Mileage falls off. In comparison, a loaded Honda Civic Touring would run $27,695, also with Honda Sensing and LaneWatch, and get 37 mpg (EPA combined), for $1,290 less.

The 2019 Insight looks a normal car (like a Civic, only different). Honda believes buyers are looking for a hassle-free mainstream car that just happens to be hybrid.
The 2019 Insight looks a normal car (like a Civic, only different). Honda believes buyers are looking for a hassle-free mainstream car that just happens to be hybrid.

Should You Buy the Honda Insight?

The 2019 Honda Insight is a polished car with a smoother, superior hybrid system and excellent mileage. At this month’s average price for regular gasoline ($2.85 a gallon), you’d spend just $820 to drive 15,000 miles in the next year, or half the cost of driving the average 2018 vehicle. Honda Sensing is a significant safety benefit. LaneWatch is a drawback.

Competition to look at includes the Toyota Prius (the plug-in is better than hybrid, we found), and the Hyundai Ioniq hybrid. Among mainstream cars, the Mazda3 Touring is the best sporty compact sedan/hatchback; the Toyota Corolla is a reliable best-seller, light in the fun-to-drive category (try the Corolla hatchback instead); and the Kia Forte is solid all-around, and more enjoyable to drive than the otherwise solid Hyundai Elantra.

We buy into Honda’s marketing pitch that even while Insight is Honda’s entry alternative-energy vehicle — with the Honda Accord in the middle and the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid on top — the Insight buyer differs enough from a Civic intender that a different vehicle makes sense as the company’s compact hybrid offering. We’re also on board with de-emphasizing the hybrid underpinnings and look-I’m-a-hybrid designs.

That said, it’s unclear why Honda is pulling back from the out-there shapes of the first two Insights, yet it didn’t go mainstream in a more compelling way and offer the Insight as a crossover/SUV, not a sedan. The US market is now voting 2-1 against sedans in its current buying patterns. Note that within the Hyundai corporate family, the Kiro Niro hybrid (and Niro plug-in) crossovers are outselling the Ioniq sedans almost 2-1.

The 2019 Insight looks a normal, stylish car. In fact, like a Civic, only different. Honda believes buyers are looking for a hassle-free mainstream vehicle that, by the way, turns out to be a hybrid. The bottom line on the 2019 Insight is that the hybrid technology, telematics, and nicer cockpit justify the upcharge over the stock Civic. It’s a very good car and worth a look if you drive a lot of miles each year. It’s competitive against traditional compact sedans and holds its own against other hybrids. The middle trim line, Insight EX, offers the best bang for the buck.

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