Did you know Ars reviewed its first car 20 years ago? Back in the year 2000, Will Ryu tried out the brand-new Honda Insight, justifying it because the car married some impressive technology and a fun-to-drive nature—criteria we still look for today. Back then, the Insight looked like little else on the road. It had advanced aerodynamics, used lightweight alloy construction, and was the first parallel hybrid powertrain to go on sale in the US market. Today, we’re revisiting the Insight, now in its third generation.
The differences are pronounced: what was cutting edge two decades ago is mainstream now. Instead of shouting its presence, the current Insight hides in crowds. And hybrid powertrains are commonplace and even seen as old tech in a world of 300-mile battery EVs and vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells. But proven technology has its upside. Today’s Insight might look normal, but it’s still remarkably efficient, even beating the old streamliner when it comes to city driving.
And it’s cheap, too. That weird-looking Insight with the faired-in wheels cost just over $20,000 in 2000—just under $30,000 in today’s dollars. The 2021 Insight starts at $22,930, and a Touring model loaded up to press-fleet specifications is still only $28,840. And you can actually fit people in its back seats, too.
Being efficient is a civic duty
The current Insight’s ability to blend in comes down to bone structure, which it shares with the Honda Civic. And I don’t know about you, but I find the Insight much less outrageous to look at, trading most of the Civic’s “fighting robot” aesthetic for some of the Accord’s more grown-up angles. As always, whether you think a car looks good or not is subjective, but to my eyes the Insight is a prettier shape than either Accord or Civic, although that might come across in person better than in photos.
Honda says the Insight has class-leading aerodynamic performance, but unlike Insights past, the company hasn’t provided a drag coefficient value for the current car. It carefully channels air through and around its front, which has been shaped to minimize wake formation, the underfloor is completely flat, and the window glass is mounted flush along the car’s sides. But visually, the only thing that really signals this car cares about the planet is the low-drag alloy wheels.
There is no transmission
The Insight’s hybrid powertrain does care about the planet, though. And it’s not old hat, either—it has no transmission but combines two electric motors with an internal combustion engine.
The 129hp (96kW), 179lb-ft (242Nm) electric propulsion motor is usually responsible for turning the front wheels, which it does through a 2.45:1 direct drive. Under the hood is a 107hp (80kW), 99lb-ft (134Nm) 1.5L four-cylinder gasoline engine that uses the Atkinson cycle with a thermal efficiency of 40.5 percent. Most of the time, this engine just works to charge the car’s 1.2kWh lithium-ion battery through the second electric motor, but at speeds above 65mph (105km/h), the internal combustion engine can engage a clutch that connects it to the propulsion motor to also drive the front wheels (through a direct drive with a ratio of 0.81:1).
With such a small battery—one shared with the NSX hybrid supercar—you won’t go particularly far in EV mode, but if fully charged, it will stretch to roughly a mile (1.6km) before the engine fires up again.
The 2021 Insight is rated at 52mpg (4.52l/100km), combined, by the EPA, getting 55mpg (4.28l/100km) in the city and 49mpg (4.8l/100km) on the highway. If you do spring for the more expensive Touring trim, this drops to 48/51/45mpg (4.9/4.6/5.2l/100km) combined/city/highway thanks to larger 17-inch wheels. Over the course of a week and a couple of hundred miles I managed to average around 44.5mpg (5.29l/100km).
A typically Honda interior
The Insight might look understated on the outside, but the interior feels very 21st century. At this point, I’ve driven enough Hondas and Acuras to get used to the P/R/N/D buttons; such familiarity should come to an owner within the first few days. The main instrument panel blends a 7-inch TFT display with a large analogue speedometer. It’s not particularly flashy, but it is very legible and minimally distracting. If you opt for the EX or Touring trims, you also get an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system mounted in the center stack. Honda’s own infotainment UI is simple and uncluttered, but if you opt for the cheapest Insight LX, that one will come with a 5-inch infotainment system that lacks Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
Things are more egalitarian between LX, EX, and Touring when it comes to safety features. The cheapest Insight does without the LaneWatch camera in the passenger-side mirror, fitted in lieu of a more conventional blindspot monitoring system. And it gets a less fancy reversing camera. But other than that, all Insights arrive with the same suite of advanced driver assists (adaptive cruise, lane keeping, collision warnings, emergency braking), and they all get LED lights.
Is it fun to drive?
The old Insight married its advanced technology with some on-road brio, in part probably because that car only had room for two, and two seaters are meant to be sporty. The current Insight seats five and is decidedly not sporty to drive. The steering is rather light and not particularly communicative, and it rides on low rolling resistance tires, so low-G cornering is the order of the day unless you really like understeer. With no conventional transmission to provide engine braking, you can use steering wheel paddles to vary the level of regenerative braking that occurs when you lift the accelerator pedal, although it’s much milder than the lift-off deceleration you would experience in a BEV.
The lightness of the control inputs encourages a more leisurely driving style, as does the disconnect between forward motion and the noise from the internal combustion engine when it’s acting as a true series hybrid. When the engine does fire up in Normal mode, it can sound like it is being thrashed to within an inch of its life. This happens even when you’re merely accelerating (and not especially quickly) from 45 to 65mph as the revs soar with little relation to your changing velocity. Although the car is a little louder—fruity, even, thanks to active noise gadgetry—in Sport mode, it sounds more natural as you drive, perhaps because the internal combustion engine runs constantly in this mode.
“We are from the future,” is how Ryu ended his original Insight review. Well, we’re in the future now, and it appears a lot more normal-looking than we thought it might back at the turn of the millennium. At least when it comes to the Insight.
Listing image by Honda