Review: Honda Insight 3.0 is a chic geek hybrid

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Honda’s Insight and Toyota’s Prius led the hybrid motorcade into the U.S. two decades ago, proudly parading their unparalleled fuel economy and geeky wardrobes.

Nerds were cool!

The egg-shaped Toyota became the rage of the Hollywood jet set, an essential accessory for those claiming the Age of Oil was over. Harrison Ford and Cameron Diaz arrived at the Oscars in the “Pious” (as it was nicknamed), and the hybrid became the first battery-powered car to soar past 100,000 in sales.

But while the Toyota rubbed its thick-rimmed-glasses-wearing nose with the rich and famous, the rest of the nerd frat house got stood up. Including the Insight.

The Camry hybrid, Ford Fusion hybrid, Ford C-Max, Chevy Tahoe hybrid all sat idly by the dance floor.  But the Insight was so ... out there! Like the sci-pod Prius, the 70-mpg fuel-sipper dared to be a geek fashion plate.

Its spat-covered rear wheels, aero bod, Jetsons dash and split-window rear deck all screamed 21st-century green-mobile. Except like pocket protectors and plaid pants, it didn’t catch on. A second stab at geek-chic failed to turn heads in 2008. By 2014 Insight 2.0 was put out to pasture.

For 2019, Insight 3.0 has been totally remade. Nerd is out, tech is in, and I’m not sure even fuel economy matters that much anymore judging by the subpar (for hybrids) 37 mpg I got around wintry Metro Detroit.

Under the cane around the hills of Oakland County, the 2019 Honda Insight's e-CVT transmission droned, dulling the fun factor normally associated with compact Hondas.

In a remarkable transformation that would impress Professor Henry Higgins, the Insight has evolved from class geek to prom queen. That’s not to say green fashion has gone away — global warming has replaced oil scarcity as the bogeyman of the elites — but in a United States where gas looks to be affordable for some time (against all predictions to the contrary), the Insight has to sell itself with more than moral appeal.

This geek is downright attractive. It wouldn’t be out of place rolling up to Capital Grille for a night out. Gone are the rear wheel covers, Mork dash and goofy tuckus. Taking a cue from the Honda brand’s handsome Accord midsize sedan, the Insight is nicely understated with flowing lines, a coupe-like roof and conventional, tablet infotainment display.

The Insight feels more Acura than Honda with its flying buttress lower-front air intake, rectangular tail lights and electronic “trigger” gear-selector. Though based on the same platform as the quick, roomy Civic, the Insight shares none of the compact’s boy-toy accents like boomerang rear taillights and garish, faux, rear air-intakes (which the 20-year-old in me still find irresistible).

But the Indiana-made Insight makes its fashion statement without an Acura premium. The sedan is loaded with standard technology including a lovely, configurable digital-dash (was it really just five years ago that this technology wowed me on a $50,000 Cadillac CTS?), the aforementioned trigger gear-selector, adaptive cruise-control, rear traffic-alert camera (Honda’s version of blind-spot assist), auto-emergency braking and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Jumping into the car this winter after a week in Volvos and Teslas, my Insight in Touring trim felt decidedly premium. The handling is sharp, the chassis rock-solid. The elegant cockpit display is full of info, the heated leather seats as comfortable as a lounge chair. The console space is typically, brilliantly configured by Honda with room for my big phone, bottle of ice tea and more.

All this for just $28,000 — or about the same price as a Civic Touring sedan with 25 more horsepower from a 1.5-liter turbo engine.

What we have is an attractive, sippy four-door hybrid with no apparent sacrifice over the gas-powered equivalent. That’s a long way from 1999. And a seemingly short way toward Honda’s goal to make 80 percent of vehicles electrified in just over a decade.

But then I stabbed the accelerator pedal. Oh ...

I’ve driven the Civic in multiple forms — sedan, Si coupe, manual Sport hatchback, track-shredding Type R — and I don’t call it King Civic for nothing. It dominates the compact class because it offers its class-leading room and fuel economy in a variety of fun-to-drive flavors.

The Insight, on the other hand, is pure vanilla. Blame a driveline obsessed with a goal of 55 miles per gallon that mates a 1.5-liter normally aspirated engine and electric motor directly to the wheels. Honda calls it an e-CVT (electronic continuously variable transmission).

The result is a sluggish driveline with all the urgency of an old-fashioned gas-engine driven CVT. HNUUUUUUUUUUUGGGHHH went the Insight as I tried to whip it through the twisty lake roads of Oakland County.

The sensation was particularly off-putting because Honda has been on the cutting edge of engineering the dreaded CVT to be more palatable. The standard gas-powered Civic, for example, comes with a CVT with stepped shifts that give it the feel of a multi-ratio box.

I like how single-speed trannies work in quiet electric cars, but in the Insight I felt like I was stuck on a trip with Eeyore. The droning got under my skin and got louder when under the cane. Clearly, this is a driveline optimized for fuel-conscious right-lane drivers, not lead-foots like yours truly.

Accept that premise and the Insight is the gold-star student in Green 101.

Compared to its old nemesis Prius, it is more attractive, more affordable, more fun. The Toyota is still instantly recognizable. But since green is a more upscale demographic (see the flood of luxury EVs hitting the market), buyers may find its premium looks a better fit. Interior amenities are no contest, with the Insight packing a luxurious vibe — and roomy back seats with 4 more inches of legroom than the Prius.

While Eeyore may get on my nerves, the Insight will easily out-drag the Prius out of a stoplight: It hits 60 mph in 8.8 seconds compared with the Toyota’s glacial 10.5.

Two decades after its debut, the Insight finally seems to have the hybrid formula right. But the times have changed. The Age of Oil is ascendant, hybrid sales are slow (Prius purchases are half what they were in 2014), and SUVs have replaced sedans.

But if you’re looking for a sippy — as opposed to zippy — sedan, the Insight is competitively priced with its sibling 1.5-liter turbo Civic while gaining 40 percent better fuel economy and giving up just 20 percent of acceleration.

That’s a chic geek.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Honda Insight

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $23,725 base including $895 destination fee ($28,985 Touring as tested) 

Powerplant: 1.5-liter inline 4-cylinder mated to electric motor and 1.1 kWh lithium-ion battery

Power: 151 horsepower (total hybrid system output)

Transmission: 1-speed, direct-drive, electronic continuously variable transmission (e-CVT) 

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.8 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 110 mph

Weight: 3,078 pounds (Touring as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 51 city/45 highway/48 combined (Touring as tested)

Report card

Highs: Affordable hybrid; upscale interior

Lows: No 70 mpg figure like the old days; droning e-CVT negates usual Honda fun-to-drive factor

Overall: 3 stars