Honda Insight 1.3 SE

It scores on price, but is this the better hybrid choice?

When it comes to hybrids, Honda is no novice. The original Insight coupé debuted in 2000, and the company already produces a saloon version of the Civic, with its clever Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) drivetrain.

The new Insight takes the lessons learned here and applies them to a purpose-built model. Elements of its underpinnings are shared with the Jazz, although you couldn’t tell from the outside, because its shape bears little resemblance to the supermini.

While it looks distinctive on the outside, the Insight trails the smarter Prius in the style stakes. Inside, the futuristic cabin takes a leaf out of the Civic’s book for design, and there’s plenty of space. But its hard plastics are clear evidence of cost-cutting.

The split-level dash incorporates a digital speedo in a separate display near the base of the windscreen, and there’s a read-out at the centre of the rev counter which tells you which power source the drivetrain is using – as in the Prius. Our SE-spec test car comes generously equipped as standard, but the Honda misses out on the Toyota’s useful head-up display. Hi-tech options like Intelligent Park Assist or solar-powered air-con – which keeps the Prius cool when it’s parked – aren’t available on the Insight at all.

Under the bonnet, the Honda features an 87bhp 1.3-litre engine and a 14bhp electric motor, mated to a CVT gearbox. And it drives like a conventional car. Hybrids are at their best in town, where they can use their store of battery power to give the engine a rest. But the Insight’s firm suspension compromises comfort. It is unsettled by even the smallest bumps, and large ruts jolt through the cabin.

Things don’t improve on open roads, because the Honda rolls more in corners than the Prius. This poor body control hampers its agility, while the over-light steering ensures the Insight is not as rewarding to drive, too. Refinement is also disappointing – the lack of noise insulation means the constant pitch of the 1.3-litre engine under hard acceleration is annoying. And there’s a surprising amount of wind noise at motorway speeds.

Insight buyers will clearly have a keen eye on fuel economy, though, and the firm’s Ecological Drive Assist System is designed to encourage efficient driving. It is activated by pressing the green button on the dash.

Make smooth progress, and the speedo glows green; it turns blue if you’re heavy on the throttle. The set-up effectively keeps score, and prolonged eco-friendly driving will see you rewarded with graphics of trees on the digital display. But on our mixed test route, the Insight returned 45.1mpg – that’s 3.6mpg lower than the Prius.

We think this is due to its smaller engine, which isn’t as relaxed at speed as the Prius’s 1.8-litre. The Insight also emits more CO2 – although its 101g/km output means tax is only £35 a year. It can’t run on the battery alone at the touch of a button, either. Will all this count against the cheaper Honda?

In detail: * Price: £15,490 * Engine: 1.3-litre 4cyl, 87bhp * 0-60mph: 10.7 seconds * AE economy: 45.1mpg * Annual road tax: £35

Details

Chart position: 2WHY: Honda’s take on the hybrid hatchback. It has a simpler set-up than the Prius – and it’s much cheaper to buy.

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