Honda's Insight left the official Movement Design Bureau parking space (alright, the road outside the office) just over a week ago now, so having produced this light-hearted video review towards the end of its time with us, we've now had the chance to think about the car a little longer. Our lasting impression? A total bag of contradictions.
The Insight is at once both deeply impressive and yet slightly disappointing. Why? In short, because Honda has managed to wrap apparently smart, up-to-the-minute technology in a package that's both easy to live with, fine to drive and affordable for the average c-segment (think Golf, Focus) car buyer. Yet at the same time, that technology failed to deliver real world results in our hands, and out of a town environment, the Insight feels out of its depth - leaving us questioning the point of that slippery, low-drag 'kamm-tail' shape and the packaging compromises it has created elsewhere in the car.
We're going to explore some of the innovative thinking behind the Insight, and Honda's overall future strategy in a forthcoming blog, which will feature the interview we did with Honda UK's head of environment and government affairs - John Kingston - while we had the Insight.
But for now, we felt it worth delving a little bit more into the design and detail of the Insight - because this is an area which has raised much interest among others. Or to put it more bluntly, the fact that people think it looks like a Prius has raised plenty of eyebrows. So here are some key thoughts, details and features of the Insight in full on, close up technicolour...
Pretty? Not really, but hardly repulsive either. That high, chopped-off tail, and steeply sloping rear roofline combine to create what's known as a 'kamm-tail'. Invented (discovered?) by German design-engineer, Wunibald Kamm, it reduces the air turbulence thrown off the back of the car at speeds - which in turn reduces aerodynamic drag.
The key contributing factor to people saying that the Insight looks like a Prius is the silhouette and side profile of the glass house. This becomes particularly evident when you see the upper part of the car in isolation, as in the picture above, but some of the detail resolution...
...such as the small front quarter-light blank (above left) ahead of the door opening, contributes to this too - by aping what the design of the Prius does. The rear has more of a distinctive 'Honda design' feel, with some good quality resolution, such as this split line (above right) which continues the downward wrapping line of the rear tail-lamp, pointing to the rear wheel centre.
While the front of the car is generally clean in design, the integration (above) on our upscale ES trim test-car, of this front fog lamp with the running lamp/turn signal/secondary air intake, is ham-fisted and messy.
Like most modern cars, the Insight features clear light lenses revealing a complex, jewel-like light interior design, intended to provide more of a 'premium' quality feel. However, compared to something like the new VW Polo, this design is relatively unsophisticated, and the outer unit's blue tint left Mark feeling that "there looks like some kind of protective film has been left on the light, that someone forgot to rip off after the car's initial delivery."
Inside, the Insight is a mix of space-age modern Honda interior lifted from the European Civic - complete with a compact, good-to-hold multi-function wheel - and elements of Jazz (Fit). Very curious contrast of the premium-feel, piano gloss hi-fi panel, above an awful, low rent, hard plastic ash tray and cigarette lighter (ahead of the gear lever in the above photo). Which is straight out of a late '80s Austin Rover.
HVAC Controls (above) look and feel modern. Situated within very easy reach of the driver, their split control, non-conventional design, can make it tricky to adjust settings at a glance when on the move. Live with the car for long however, and this clearly wouldn't be a problem.
Ignore the dust speckles picked up in this photo. The stereo unit is one of the defining points of the interior, and it's really well done. Large, easy to read and with big, positive feedback buttons. It feels classy with the blue display and black piano-gloss finish. Also, a big cheer for Honda for fitting an auxiliary line-in jack for the unit as standard - as well as a USB/iPod connector in the centre armrest.
Here's where that kamm-tail design really makes itself felt. Packaging of rear seat (above) is quite interesting, but it's the rear visibility compromises that you most notice as the driver. Reversing this car into tight city spaces is hard. Dare we suggest you opt for rear parking sensors if you're going to buy an Insight...?
What you'll notice most about the instrument panel, is its split-level nature. Current speed is projected in its own separate hooded binnacle (above), which sits right in your lower sight-line as you drive. This is neat, and keeps you aware of your speed at all times, but the critical thing to note is how it 'goads' you into driving economically. Floor the throttle, and the back will glow dark blue (above left), feather it and coast along, and it'll go all nice and eco-green (above right).
Helping you to further understand how your driving is affecting fuel economy, and just how the car is working, the central display screen will show how the car is being propelled. Above are four separate scenarios. Clockwise from top left: Car being powered by battery only; car coasting/recharging battery; petrol motor driving car, charging battery at same time; petrol motor powering car, with battery power providing extra power assistance.
Come to a stop, and if the battery's in a good state of charge and the car deems it worthwhile, the engine will completely switch off - which is signified by the flashing "Auto Stop" tell-tale seen above. In normal driving, the engine doesn't switch off, but does feature 'cylinder deactivation', which means that fuel isn't being injected into the port, the engine sparking, and ultimately the cylinders being driven by fuel.
Helping you drive more economically still, Honda have fitted this rather nicely designed, and prominent 'Econ' button. Press it, and the car aims to help you squeeze every last mile out of that gallon of fuel - by massaging your clumsy throttle inputs among other things.
Over 40 years ago, the Citroen DS (in front of the Insight, above) was the motoring technical tour-de-force of its day; the most advanced car of its time - and one of, it not the, most beautiful car ever designed. We wonder if the Insight will be remembered in the same way.
So, do we put our comparatively poor fuel economy figures down to lead-footedness, or hybrid technology not being all it's cracked up to be? A bit of both. Regardless, rear visibility aside, the Insight feels at home in, and adept at coping with the stresses and strains of the dense, modern city.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 13th May 2009.
Thanks to Honda Uk for the loan of the Insight.