Honda's latest Insight is one of a series of new products to feature their new generation Integrated Hybrid Assist (IMA) system, and part of a concerted effort by the company to develop a future of cleaner engines which rely less on gasoline and more on electrical assistance. Indeed, unlike the system in Toyota's Prius, the Insight's nickel metal hydride battery assists the internal combustion engine at all times, and cutting the engine out completely when stationary.
The Insight comes in three trim levels: base LX, a plusher EX, and an EX-plus-nav top-of-the-range model, which as its name suggests is an EX with a built in navigation system. It also gets radio and Bluetooth controls in the steering wheel. However the extra $2K it costs over the standard EX isn't worth the money and you're better to spend that extra cash on a range of dealer options ranging from an electrochromic rear view mirror to window visors. I plumped for the mid-range EX simply because it represents the best value, costing some $1, 500 more than the LX but with many extra comfort touches.
Once inside, the most impressive aspect of the car is its interior room. Despite being based on the Fit's floorpan, it offers almost as much room as an Accord. Honda have achieved this by increasing the car's overall length, with a generous amount of trunk space. However, there is no standard tonneau cover to keep items in the trunk hidden from public view, but one is available as a dealer-fit option. The dashboard is a little congested and overtly futuristic with digital speedometer which turns green when you are driving most economically, to dark blue when you're not. The seats are extremely supportive and comfortable on long journeys.
On the road, the Insight is quiet and lively under most operating conditions. Honda have scored a good balance between handling and ride quality. An economy mode button ensures that acceleration is inhibited somewhat and allows for gentler braking. You can switch this system off and better still, opt to use the standard CVT gearbox in sport mode. This makes the car feel livelier and firms up the steering. Even so, in economy mode it doesn't feel like a slouch unless the airconditioning is in full force. It is also very noisy under harsh acceleration. That said, the 100hp engine feels sprightly in all conditions and will cruise happily at freeway speeds, thanks to Honda's clever use of weight saving measures - for example, there is no sunroof option on the car, designed to keep the weight down as much as possible.
The car's lightness however doesn't affect the car's safety, which was awarded a full five-star rating in Europe's strict NCAP scheme. But most of all, the weight savings count towards the whole purpose for the existence of this car: fuel economy. I regularly average 46-47mpg, and on a steady 35mpg run through the country lanes, as much as 53mpg. Having a heavy right foot on the freeway will bring the figure down to the low 40's range, but I can't possibly get lower than that no matter how much of a hooligan I attempt to be.
Overall, this is a fine effort by Honda. The Klingon cruiser dashboard won't appeal to all, nor will the space-age design of the body. But it offers a good combination of performance, handling, ride quality, space and fuel economy in a car which starts just shy of $20K and tops out at just $24K. Most importantly of all, you're buying into a slice of our motoring future, and the more people do this, the sooner advanced technology in cars will be available to the average buyer.