In the style of the Pentagon - where generals prepare to fight the last war, rather than the next - Honda launched a salvo at the Toyota Prius this week, only to discover the enemy had moved.
The car is the 2010 Honda Insight, a slope-nosed four-door hybrid hatchback that looks nearly identical to the Prius. Named after the original, aero-tadpole Insight (1999-2006), the new Insight aims to whittle away at Prius sales by offering hybrid-esque mileage (average 41 mpg) without the so-called hybrid premium (that is, the price difference between a comparable conventional car and a gas-electric hybrid).
The Insight will go on sale April 22 - Earth Day - and will be priced below the current Honda Civic hybrid ($23,650), the company promises.
2010 Honda Insight
Base price: Less than $23,690
Price, as tested: N/A
Powertrain: gas-electric hybrid, with a 1.3-liter 8-valve inline four-cylinder engine with variable timing and lift; integrated-assist electric motor with 100.8 volt/5.75 amp-hour nickel-metal hydride battery pack; continuously variable transmission; front-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 88 hp (gas); 13 hp (electric) Maximum operating horsepower: 98 hp
Torque: 88 pound-feet (gas); 58 pound-feet (electric)
Maximum operating torque: 123 pound-feet
Vehicle weight: 2,733 pounds
0-60 mph: 0-60 mph: 10 seconds
Wheelbase: 100.4 inches
Overall length: 172.3 inches
EPA fuel economy: 40 miles per gallon city/43 mpg highway/ 41 mpg combined
Final thoughts: Honda swings at a moving target.
- Los Angeles Times
Got that? Honda is offering a Prius-on-the-cheap that gets 41 mpg.
Alas, in a withering repost to all the hard work that must have gone into the Insight, the Prius has just gotten massively better. This week at the Detroit auto show, Toyota is showing off its redesigned 2010 Prius, with an average fuel economy up 4 mpg to more than 50 mpg. That's a marquee number that will let Prius keep its standing as the most fuel-efficient car sold in America.
The 2010 Prius is also bigger (0.6 inches longer), 1 second quicker to 60 mph (9.6 seconds), and chockablock with tech to set greenie tongues awag. Optional on the Prius is a roof-mounted solar array that generates enough watts to cool the cabin on hot days. Nifty.
So what confronts us now is a charming little game of chicken between the two Japanese carmakers. If Toyota sets the MSRP of the new Prius anywhere near its current base price -- $22,000 - then Honda will be obliged to set the Insight's price lower, maybe much lower. After all, the car's market position, its entire rationale, rests on the price/mpg matrix. The 41-mpg Insight has to be substantially cheaper than the 50-mpg Prius.
Who will name the price first? Who will blink? Cue the Ennio Morricone music.
Honda execs will tell you they aren't really targeting the Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid model since 1997. Heavens, no. The 2010 Insight merely seeks to exploit an opportunity in the market, where eco-conscious Gen Y'ers and budget-conscious Empty Nesters can't justify the expense of a hybrid car. The visual similarities between the Insight and Prius are purely the consequence of aerodynamics, plus safety and packaging considerations. The cars are products of the same algebraic modulus.
(If I may interject a styling critique here, I'd give the Insight the advantage in looks. The front-end styling on the Honda - borrowed from the Honda Clarity and Accord - is proper and fitting. The nose of the Toyota seems pretty cobbled together. That said, you would need a pretty finely calibrated ugly stick to discern which car is actually "prettier.")
And yet, the Insight - a futuristic lozenge of aero-cheating practicality - is unmistakably a hybrid. And that's significant. Hybridized versions of the Toyota Camry, Chevy Malibu, Nissan Altima and Honda Civic don't offer the same psychic rewards, because their differences are concealed under conventional sheetmetal. The new Ford Fusion hybrid, which is a sensational car, offers limited pride-of-ownership rewards because a) it looks like another run-of-the-million Ford sedan and b) Ford isn't exactly the most cherished brand among whale-huggers.
I spent a day driving the new Honda Insight in early December (information was embargoed until this week) and it is almost exactly what you'd expect: impeccably constructed, well planned, and honeyed with high-tech surfaces and materials. Nothing feels cheap or compromised.
The car uses a version of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist technology, with a 1.3-liter, 98-horsepower four-cylinder engine assisted by a 13-hp electric motor/generator (max torque is 123 pound-feet). Unlike previous generations of IMA-equipped Hondas, the car will move at very low speed on all-electric power and will coast at speeds up to 30 mph on electric.
The nickel-metal hydride battery pack (100.8 Volts, 5.75 amp-hours) and power electronics unit has been shrunk to the size of a breadbox and stuffed under the cargo floor in back. Cargo space is a very generous 16 cubic feet when the rear seats are folded down.
Like the Honda Clarity and the Ford Fusion hybrid, the Insight instrument panel brims with readouts and displays that coach and encourage efficient driving. Hard starts and stops and excessive speed are met with gentle reproofs.
The car also has an ECON mode: Push the button and the computer controllers throw a big green blanket over the car's systems. The idle-stop kicks in sooner; the air conditioning relies more on recirculation. The throttle response, power and torque are dialed back.
On a short hyper-miling course, I was able to coax 62 mpg out of the Insight. A colleague at the same event got well over 70 mpg in a Prius - the outgoing Prius.
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