2010 Prius vs. 2010 Insight Cage Match

By Chris Haak

01.15.2009

In a situation that is ironically similar to what occurred at last year’s Detroit Auto Show when both Ford and Dodge unveiled all-new full-size pickups, yet with a completely different product this time, the two dedicated hybrid names probably most recognizable to consumers over the past decade – the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight – were both officially revealed at the same auto show, only a day apart from one another.

The Honda Insight in its first generation was Honda’s first foray into the hybrid market, and was the mileage champion for a number of years.  However, the car’s anemic three-cylinder engine and two-door, two-seat layout consigned it to the dustbin of history.

Meanwhile, its arch-rival Toyota Prius also had a dorky looking (almost like a restyled Echo) silhouette in its first generation, was underpowered and not particularly popular.  Instead of abandoning the franchise the way Honda did (at least for a few years), Toyota elected to roll out a much improved, larger, more efficient, and more powerful Prius for the 2004 model year.  The Prius became the default answer to the question, “which hybrid should I buy?” or “what’s the most fuel efficient car I could buy?” and it became the standard-bearer for the green car movement.

Honda decided not too long ago that, after an unsuccessful foray into larger hybrids (see the Accord Hybrid of 2005 to 2007; I actually did see one on the road during my travels last weekend) to focus on its core strength of small, efficient vehicles, and to resurrect the Insight nameplate on a dedicate hybrid model that would go toe-to-toe with the Prius.  The 2010 Insight, however, adds a cylinder to the gasoline engine (now sporting four of them) and a pair of doors (also now with four of them), and increasing theoretical seating capacity from two to five.  Honda plans to sell 100,000 Insights in the US this year, and Toyota plans to sell 180,000 Priuses in the US this year.  With Toyota’s huge head start in terms of brand awareness and momentum, would Honda’s tribute to the Prius – which, let’s face it, looks a heck of a lot like a Prius – have enough to sway buyers into its corner?  Time to investigate.

Exterior Design
As I’ve said earlier, the Insight’s styling is some combination of a nod to the 2000-2006 Insight (in the rear), the 2004-2009 Prius (in the silhouette), and the necessities of an aerodynamic shape (the entire car).  The result is a car that looks nearly like a rebadged second-generation Prius from the side, but with softer curves and a front clip that pays tribute to Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel-cell test vehicle.

The 3G Prius, on the other hand, has successfully made the transition from something of an automotive ugly duckling, where form followed function, into a vehicle that actually has some fairly interesting styling.  The 2010 Prius’ shape appears to be a cross between a Corolla/Matrix and the old Prius; the body sides are far more sculpted than before, and the front fascia has a somewhat aggressive appearance.  The most impressive aspect of the new Prius’ exterior design, however, is its phenomenal 0.25 cd drag coefficient, which is among the best of any production car in the world.  In fact, it matches that of the 2000-2006 Honda Insight, which had to rely on aero tricks like rear fender skirts, a rear bobtail shape, and purpose-shaped wheel cutouts for the front.  All of those old Insight tricks made the car look odd, but Toyota managed to bring more attractiveness to the Prius while keeping a slippery shape.

Advantage:  Prius.

Interior Design/Features
The Insight’s interior looks OK – it reminded me a lot of the Fit, which slots slightly below it in price class.  The dash has a two-tier setup similar to the one in the Civic, with the digital speedometer by itself above the steering wheel’s rim, and the tachometer and other instruments below in the traditional location.  The dash is covered in low-gloss hard plastic and features a two-tone motif in some color schemes.  The design is fairly conventional, but the controls are fairly futuristic-looking.  An “Eco mode” button is included in the Insight to alter shift points and throttle mapping to a more efficient result, and niceties such as paddle shifters, a navigation system, and a driver feedback system (similar to the one in the Ford Fusion Hybrid, but less sophisticated) that tells you how economically you’re driving.

The Prius has an improved interior with more room inside than its predecessor – as with its previous generation, it’s classified by the EPA as a midsize sedan based on interior volume, if just barely.  The biggest change – and one that I welcome as someone who’s over six feet tall – is that the peak of the roof is moved 3.9 inches rearward.  When I reviewed the Prius a year ago, my observation was that rear headroom was compromised by the downward-sloping roof; this change helps remedy that.  The Prius’ interior is still spaceship-like, but the Prius has a far more coherent design theme than does the Insight, as well as better materials.  Further, the Prius can not only be had with everything available on the Insight except for shift paddles, but also has available Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Intelligent Parking Assist, Safety Connect, and Lane Keep Assist.

Advantage: Prius

Performance On Paper
Obviously, cars are driven on roads and not on paper (or on websites, for that matter), but not having the opportunity to drive either car, I’m going to have to base this section on the hardware and the statistics.  The first-generation Insight weighed in at a paltry 1,856 pounds, which – along with its slippery shape – helped it achieve market-leading fuel economy numbers.  The 2010 Insight tips the scales at a still-light 2,723 pounds, but has a 98-horsepower 1.3 liter gasoline engine and 13 horsepower electric motor providing motivation.  On the plus side of the ledger, the Insight’s lower curb weight than the Prius and front suspension derived from the well-regarded and sharp-handling Fit subcompact should offer better handling than Toyota is able to boast with the Prius.

Toyota has not yet published the curb weight for the 2010 Prius, but considering that it rides on the same wheelbase as the old model and is only 0.6 inches longer overall, it’s probably close to the 2009 model’s 2,932 pounds.  Let’s assume that the 2010 Prius clocks in at an even 3,000 pounds, allowing for additional features, subtracting some of the new weight-saving components such as a lighter transaxle and the use of aluminum on the hood, rear hatch, and some suspension pieces.  That makes the Prius’s 98-horsepower 1.8 liter gasoline engine and 80-horsepower electric motor (134 net horsepower) move the Prius more briskly.

Advantage:  Draw.  (The Insight takes handling; the Prius takes acceleration)

Fuel Economy
Honda projects that the Insight will be rated at 42 mpg city/40 mpg highway, for a combined rating of 41 miles per gallon.

Toyota projects a 50 mile per gallon combined rating for the new Prius, but doesn’t break down the city/highway mix.

Advantage:  Prius.

Pricing/Payback Period
The Honda’s pricing is projected at a base price of about $18,500.  With features such as navigation, the EX trim package, and more, the price will likely climb into the mid-$20,000s.

The Toyota’s pricing hasn’t been projected, but is likely going to be very close to the outgoing model’s $22,720.  Loaded 2009 Priuses can top out at just over $30,000, but I would anticipate that the additional optional features such as dynamic cruise control, lane departure prevention, self-parking, and the solar-powered cabin cooling feature will allow the price to enter the mid-$30,000s without much trouble.  Coincidentally, that’s likely around where the pricing of the new Prius-based Lexus HS250h hybrid will fall for buyers who want even more features in their hybrid.

Depending upon gasoline prices, hybrids have a payback period, which is the length of time that the additional cost of the hybrid hardware is recouped via fuel consumption savings. However, in this instance, I am comparing two hybrids and instead have determined that based on 15,000 miles per year, gasoline at $2.00 per gallon, and assuming the Insight will average 41 miles per gallon and the Prius will average 50 miles per gallon, the approximate $4,220 price premium between the Insight and Prius means that it would take over 32 years for the Prius owner to save enough money on fuel to pay for the price premium over the Insight.  (The savings calculates to about $131 per year.)

Advantage:  Insight.

Conclusion
Honda has done a nice job of turning the Insight into a credible competitor to the Prius.  With that being said, the Prius should still prove to be the superior vehicle.  While the Prius won more categories (Exterior Design, Interior Design/Features, Fuel Economy) than did the Insight (Pricing/Payback Period), the Insight held its own, and might do a good job of offering a value alternative to the Prius, while still being oddly-enough shaped to broadcast its driver’s green credentials to fellow motorists, without the need for a six-foot long “H Y B R I D” decal on each side of the vehicle (I’m looking at you, GM).

Honda has the advantage over other non-Toyota competitors of sharing nearly as glowing of a “green” reputation as Toyota has (and arguably, should have an even better one), so it’s possible that the 100,000-unit US sales target is achievable.  I believe that much of the Insight’s prospects for success will rest on the behavior of oil prices, and therefore prices at the pump, over the next year or two.  If they stay low, I don’t see how Honda can possibly sell 100,000 Insights, as consumers will assume that the $4 per gallon prices of July 2008 were a one-time fluke, and Honda might wish that they hadn’t canceled V8 development and the NSX sports car.  If prices spike again, however, consumers will flock to cars like the Insight and Prius.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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4 Comments

  1. I wouldn’t give Toyota too much props for being able to match Gen1 Insight’s aerodynamics. Time passes, people learn, plus –though I can’t cite any specifics, but I recall reading this– it’s easier to shape airflow over a larger car than a smaller car. In fact, the inherently poorer aerodynamics are one reason why today’s small cars (like the new Fit) really don’t offer outstanding highway MPG.

    However, as much as I loathe Toyota, the new Prius does look a lot better than either the Gen2 Insight or the old Prius. It’s easier to look better than the Honda as they’ve completely lost their eyesight and brains (see Pilot, Acura). It’s then a pity that the Lexus HS250 looks as ghastly as it does, like a Corolla with a few nips and tucks. The only reason to get the Lexus is the legendary customer service, otherwise “Why?”

  2. In Europe,the Fit/Jazz comes with a 1338cc engine.Add GDI for more power,increased fuel economy and lower emissions-here you have a car to rival the insight and prius for much less.As for green factor,how many sets of batteries will a Prius use in the 32 years the article speaks of? where are they manufactured and how are they disposed of?

  3. This is a very informative post! I got a lot out of it. However, I can’t see how it makes sense unless gas costs at least four dollars a gallon

  4. I think Toyota is dreaming if they think they will sell 180,000 units, almost everyone who buys the Insight would have been a potential Prius buyer, and at a $3000 price differential the Honda is the easy choice to make.

    If I absolutely had to chose a hybrid to buy, it would be the Ford Fusion though. Much better looking, and the electric engine alone can get it up to 47 mph.

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