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New Insight hybrid pulls into view, but Prius isn't sitting still

The new Honda, while not as efficient, may separate itself by price.

January 16, 2009|DAN NEIL

In the style of the Pentagon -- where generals prepare to fight the last war, rather than the next -- Honda launched a salvo at the Toyota Prius this week, only to discover the enemy had moved.

The car is the 2010 Honda Insight, a slope-nosed four-door hybrid hatchback that looks nearly identical to the Prius. Named after the original, aero-tadpole Insight (1999-2006), the new Insight aims to whittle away at Prius sales by offering hybrid-esque mileage (average 41 mpg) without the so-called hybrid premium (that is, the price difference between a comparable conventional car and a gas-electric hybrid).

The Insight will go on sale April 22 -- Earth Day -- and will be priced below the current Honda Civic hybrid ($23,650), the company promises.

Got that? Honda is offering a Prius-on-the-cheap that gets 41 mpg.

Alas, in a withering riposte to all the hard work that must have gone into the Insight, the Prius has just gotten massively better. This week at the Detroit auto show, Toyota is showing off its redesigned 2010 Prius, with an average fuel economy up 4 mpg to over 50 mpg. That's a marquee number that will let Prius keep its standing as the most fuel-efficient car sold in America.

The 2010 Prius is also bigger (0.6 inches longer), 1 second quicker to 60 mph (9.6 seconds), and chockablock with tech to set greenie tongues awag. Optional on the Prius is a roof-mounted solar array that generates enough watts to cool the cabin on hot days. Nifty.

So what confronts us now is a charming little game of chicken between the two Japanese carmakers. If Toyota sets the MSRP of the new Prius anywhere near its current base price -- $22,000 -- Honda will be obliged to set the Insight's price lower, maybe a lot lower. After all, the car's market position, its entire rationale, rests on the price/mpg matrix. The 41-mpg Insight has to be substantially cheaper than the 50-mpg Prius.

Who will name the price first? Who will blink? Cue the Ennio Morricone music.

Honda execs will tell you they aren't really targeting the Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid model since 1997. Heavens, no. The 2010 Insight merely seeks to exploit an opportunity in the market, where eco-conscious Gen Y'ers and budget-conscious Empty Nesters can't justify the expense of a hybrid car. The visual similarities between the Insight and Prius are purely the consequence of aerodynamics, plus safety and packaging considerations. The cars are products of the same algebraic modulus.

(If I may interject a styling critique here, I'd give the Insight the advantage in looks. The front-end styling on the Honda -- borrowed from the Honda Clarity and Accord -- is proper and fitting. The nose of the Toyota seems pretty cobbled together. That said, you would need a pretty finely calibrated ugly stick to discern which car is actually "prettier.")

And yet, the Insight -- a futuristic lozenge of aero-cheating practicality -- is unmistakably a hybrid. And that's significant. Hybridized versions of the Toyota Camry, Chevy Malibu, Nissan Altima and Honda Civic don't offer the same psychic rewards, because their differences are concealed under conventional sheet metal. The new Ford Fusion hybrid, which is a sensational car, offers limited pride-of-ownership rewards because a) it looks like another run-of-the-million Ford sedan, and b) Ford isn't exactly the most cherished brand among whale-huggers.

I spent a day driving the new Insight in early December (information was embargoed until this week) and it is almost exactly what you'd expect: impeccably constructed, well planned and honeyed with high-tech surfaces and materials. Nothing feels cheap or compromised.

The car uses a version of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist technology, with a 1.3-liter, 98-horsepower four-cylinder engine assisted by a 13-hp electric motor/generator (max torque is 123 pound-feet). Unlike previous generations of IMA-equipped Hondas, the car will move at very low speed on all-electric power and will coast at speeds up to 30 mph in electric mode.

The nickel-metal hydride battery pack (100.8 volts, 5.75 amp-hours) and power electronics unit has been shrunk to the size of a breadbox and stuffed under the cargo floor in back. Cargo space is a very generous 16 cubic feet when the rear seats are folded down.

Like the Honda Clarity and the Ford Fusion hybrid, the Insight instrument panel brims with readouts and displays that coach and encourage efficient driving. Hard starts and stops and excessive speed -- what we in Los Angeles call driving -- are met with gentle reproofs: Your little animated plant doesn't get any leaves and the dash display glows a harsh blue instead of a happy green. It's kind of a scold, actually.

The car also has an Econ mode: Push the button and the computer controllers throw a big green blanket over the car's systems. The idle-stop kicks in sooner; the air conditioning relies more on recirculation. The throttle response, power and torque are dialed back.

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