Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT Review – Affordable Hybrid Shows Price Isn’t Everything

Competitive price, good spec as standard, safe, quality Honda build and engineering

Odd looks, slow, zero charisma, split section in tailgate annoying, cabin plastics look cheap,

Honda Insight?

Side view of a white 2013 Honda Insight IMA Hybrid

Released in 1999, the Honda Insight used was a hybrid car from the get-go, implementing their Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) petrol-electric motors from the very beginning, instead of adding a system to a current model. Little-known is the fact that the Insight was released in North America a whole seven months before its main rival the Toyota Prius.

Originally a rather ugly 2-door, 2-seater, 2009 saw the Insight changed to a more mainstream 5-door, 5-seater car, and as the Insight was also aimed at providing the average person with an affordable hybrid family car, Honda puts it out there as such. We were sent the 2013 Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS to review, so let’s have a look how we got on with this long-serving hybrid…

Exterior. Butt-ugly or beauty?

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First-generation Insights were slippery through the wind due to the aerodynamic properties, but thanks to the awful rear-wheel covers it was ugly, possibly leading to the Prius becoming the green car to be seen in by celebrity owners, and even that wasn’t exactly a looker either. The Insight’s strange looks also had people begging the question; why can’t hybrid’s be normal-looking? Honda still haven’t gone entirely conventional with their latest (2013) Insight though.

While the Insight is now more traditional in design, it’s still isn’t entirely ordinary-looking. Honda state “…it was important for the Insight’s design to express its environmental credentials. It had to look like a ‘green’ car but appear dynamic and fun to drive as well.” Front a front-on view – and especially in the White Orchid pearlescent paint option – the Honda is looks okay, with modern angular shapes and line, along with aggressively styled headlamps.

Honda Insight Hybrid CVT HS front lights

Even here though, the Insight differs itself with eye-catching blue-tinted headlights, fogs and lower indicators and running lights, plus a twisted strip of blue chrome either side of the Honda badge, marking it out as a hybrid vehicle. From the side or front three-quarter view though, the Insight does not look good. Yes, Honda are still trying to make the brain connect this model with being a hybrid, but for me, it simply looks unattractive, and I’d even say the shape is out-dated too. You have to remember this design is from 2009, and with 2014 fast-approaching – as well as manufacturers updating their cars regularly – I think the Insight has fallen behind in this department – it needs an update.

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Around to the rear, and highly noticeable is the long rear hatchback windscreen, which looks like it is part of the roof. This splits and meets another section of vertical glass. And that’s it – there’s nothing else really to say. In summary, aside from the blue-tinted lights at the front,  the Insight is devoid of any exterior flair, and lacks any kind of charisma.

Honda Insight IMA Hybrid badge

Up against its nemesis – the Toyota Prius – although they are similarly designed to a large extent, I think the Insight has the better front end, but the Prius looks far more modern from the side and rear .

You’re not going to purchase the Honda Insight for its looks then, so does it redeem itself elsewhere? Read on…

Interior. Neat or nothing special?

Thankfully, despite the lacklustre exterior, the Insight starts to make more sense once you open the driver’s door. The trim and dash look remain the same for all models, with only the seating trimmed in different materials. The lowest-spec HE & HE-T models gets fabric seating, while the HS & HS-T get part faux leather, part fabric, while only the range-topping HX gets leather seats.

Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS review front seats and cockpit

Aside from choosing between either grey or black fabrics on specs below that, there’s physically no option for leather seats. With the HS on test, the seating came as part faux leather/part fabric, and I actually liked them. The fronts were supportive enough to be comfortable on longer journeys, and they also looked simple, yet modern, and of decent quality too. My only real gripe being that the cushion section felt too short for the legs, and they’d benefit from that being longer from a comfort standpoint.

The rear seating was much the same – comfortable on the side seats, and with good leg room, but the centre section was no-where as nice, as it houses an armrest, and you’re sat much higher and on firmer stuff that the sides too. Despite the roof slanting back, headroom wasn’t really an issue, and the Honda feels airy, and makes good use of the cabin space.

Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS review rear seats

The moment the door is opened, the Insight is instantly recognisable as a Honda. All the buttons and controls are well placed for the driver, – a positive Honda trait. The dash has a nice design, with electric-blue back-lit panels for the radio and heating controls, and a cool touch in that the outer edges of the dials glow blue in the dark.

Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid controls on the door and steering wheel

A touchscreen satellite navigation system with bluetooth is available too, if you go for either the ‘T’ models (HE-T, HS-T) – which’ll add about £1,000 to the price – and it comes standard on the top HX version. If you want to option the same system to either the HE or HS, it’ll cost you £1,595 (yikes!), so it actually works out cheaper to simply go for the ‘T’ versions straight off. Although the system is basic, the speakers put out decent sound, with some surprisingly good bass in there.

Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS review

Even in the lowest HE form, the Insight interior is well kitted-out, and you’re getting good stuff like auxiliary and USB connectors, all-round electric windows, cruise control, climate control, steering wheel controls, electric & heated wing mirrors, front, side and curtain airbags and more.

A couple of slightly geeky facts are that the Insight blows hot air out the vents in an unbelievably short time after the engine is started, even on a really cold morning, and the front heated seats (standard on the HS) warm so quickly and efficiently that your trousers may get culture shock going from freezing to boiling on a winter’s morning.

The drivers console has a good look to it as well. It’s a fairly simplistic layout, housing one dial to tell you whether the electric motor is assisting your progress or being charged, then there’s the main rev counter plus a fuel gauge. Above these, in a separate pod on top of the dash is digital speed readout, the edge of which glows blue or green depending on your driving – blue for sports mode or if you’re hammering it, and the obvious green for careful-going. I’m not entirely convinced on the separate readout, and am undecided on whether it was a little tacky or not.

Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS review

Within the rpm counter, there’s also a little LCD display with information showing – amongst other things – how economically you’re driving with various displays, plus it shows you how the power sources are flowing i.e.; if the electric motor is assisting the engine, or if the petrol engine alone is driving the car or if the engine is charging the batteries etc. Thing is, the blocky black and white display feels dull, and rather dated. It’s definitely something that needs to be modernised.

You’ll quickly notice the Insight’s interior trim plastics are hard and, well, plasticky. Yes, this is another Honda trait, and not such a good one. However, it very much redeems itself, as the fit and finish quality is second-to-none. It is superbly well-built, and there were zero rattles on even the bumpiest road surfaces I travelled over. Something else to point out are that all the buttons and dials feel absolutely positive in their action – like they’ll last a very long time, in other words.

Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS review

A not-so-good point is the CVT auto gear selector. Both the stick and its surrounding trim looked cheap and out-of-place on the Insight. It also clacked noisily too, sounding like old automatic’s used to as you pulled it through Park, Reverse and Neutral to select Drive. I’m surprised at Honda actually, and I think it’s something that’s been missed. That selector needs to do its job more quietly and slickly than it currently does. Another something I really hated was the horizontal split-section in the boot glass. I never got used to it, and it impaired vision too much. Also, the lower half of the glass constantly steamed up in colder weather, leading to the rear heated windscreen being on a lot – in turn effecting less fuel economy negatively.

Boot space is respectable at 408 litres (584 with rear seats-down). Overall, the Insight’s cabin feels modern enough, with a good dash layout and the switchgear and trim fitment is certainly up to the usual high Honda build quality, plus a good spec across the range. The only real negative being that nasty clacky auto selector.

Honda Insight  Hybrid CVT HS Boot space with the seats up

Honda Insight Hybrid CVT HS Boot space with the seats down

Engine and gearbox

Honda offer the Insight with one engine and one gearbox – a 1.3 litre petrol i-VTEC Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) Hybrid 7-speed Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). It’s a clever little engine, and in usual Honda style it’s beautifully engineered too.

Why clever? It’s got Variable Cylinder Management (VCM), that’s why. During either low-speed cruising or deceleration, combustion in the four cylinders stops, and the pots are sealed, meaning the engine’s not working to pump air or fuel. Instead, the electric motor takes over to drive the car. Unlike other hybrids, where you can drive the car on full electrics for a while before the engine kicks in to charge it, the Insight’s is an assistant to the petrol unit, helping with not only the above VCM, but also to add extra power to the car as you accelerate.

Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS review Engine

Honda had been developing the IMA system for 10 years before they put it into the 2009 onwards Insight, and whereas older systems used to just assist the motor, the newer versions – such as the one in this 2013 Insight – are used to actually drive the car too. As mentioned earlier, the motor charges the batteries either on the move, or when you’re decelerating or braking.

The 1.3 litre naturally-aspirated i-VTEC puts out 88 PS (86.7 hp) and 89 lb. ft (121 Nm) of torque. Working alongside it though, the IMA motor produces 14PS and 58 lb. ft (78 Nm) of torque. 0 – 62 mph is reached in a casual 12.5 seconds, and it’ll go onto a maximum speed of 113 mph. The Prius beats the Insight to sixty-two mph by two seconds though, so should you want to race away from the lights like a big sad-case, then the Toyota will beat you. Just… don’t. Two family hybrid’s racing is not a cool look.

With CO2 emissions between 96 – 99 g/km – depending on the wheel size you option – you’re currently looking at paying exactly zero car tax in the UK (Nov. ’13), leading to a slightly warm and cozy feeling when that tax reminder letter plops through your letterbox.

The CVT 7-speed automatic gearbox comes with paddle shifters as standard, as well as a ‘S’ for a (sort of) sport mode, giving you higher change-points. I was glad of the paddle’s in all honesty, as they made the drive more interesting than just a standard selector, and should you want to overtake, the option’s there to drop it a couple of cogs and give it the beans. The opposite of how you should drive a hybrid, then.

Ready to roll? Let’s drive!

A first point to notice is how the Insight starts. Instantly. The engine fires into life amazingly quickly, starting as soon as you even begin to turn the key in the barrel, and there’s not even a millisecond’s hesitation. Fastest I’ve ever come across, in fact. It’s a reassuring thing that sort of engineering, and archetypal of a Honda.

The 1.3 litre petrol engine is quiet too, with very little noise filtering through to the cabin. Pull the auto lever into drive -which clacks in position horribly – and the Insight sets off smoothly and quietly, the CVT transmission changing gears so smoothly you barely notice it working.

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Driving in a careful manner to conserve fuel is what the Insight is all about, and to drive it hard or quickly all the time kind of defeats the purpose of owning the Insight. Push the bright-green ECON button, and it adapts your driving style to optimise fuel economy, making gear changes smoother, optimises the throttle angle to smooth out acceleration – as drivers often press the accelerator down further than is needed apparently – thus maximising the use of the fuel. Power is also limited and torque reduced by 4%, but it doesn’t hold you back so much that it’s frustrating or a struggle to get up to speed, as was the case with the system on the Mitsubishi Outlander we tested. More regenerative brake energy is collected, fan blower speed is reduced and air conditioning is cut out at Idle Stop Mode too, amongst other things.

A very interesting – and respectable – statement by Honda is ‘While [other manufacturers] chase the best EU laboratory test figures for fuel economy and emissions – Honda has instead concentrated on developing a car that will deliver better fuel economy in the ‘real world’… delivering the kind of economy our customers can see and experience every day, whether driving with the heater and head lights on during the winter or with the stereo pumping and the air con hard at work heat of the summer.’

On that note, official (EU test) MPG figures are; Urban: 65.7, extra urban: 70.6, combined: 68.9. Back in the real world, going by the live readout I was averaging around 40 -45 mpg on short hops in heavy city traffic, around 55 – 60 mpg in lighter traffic on flowing 40 mph roads, and around 50 – 55 miles-per-gallon at 70 mph.

Driving the Honda Insight IMA Hybrid CVT HS

On that, the Idle Stop Mode – or engine stop/start – works smoothly enough to be barely noticeable, cutting out and re-starting the engine with little vibration or jerkiness. The only problem I had was that on some journeys the Idle Stop Mode refused to cut the engine when I came to a halt, and I couldn’t fathom why as the engine would be up to temperature, the air-con and rear ‘screen heater weren’t being used, fan speed was on low, as was the radio volume, and only the daytime running lights were on. Strange.

Switch off the ECON and the Insight livens up immediately, and whilst this isn’t exactly a quick car, there’s enough of a briskness in acceleration to get up to motorway speeds with ease. Driving for economy’s sake can become quite boring, and occasionally you do get the urge to give the Honda Insight a bit of a caning purely for the sake of it. If your right foot is needs a bit of exercise after only pushing the accelerator halfway for every journey, then pull the gear lever into ‘Sport’, use the paddle shifters to drop the ‘box a couple of cogs, and give it the beans!

After all, this is a VTEC and hence they like to be revved with gusto in order to wring out every ounce of power. Indeed, the max power figure is quoted at being hit at 5,800 rpm, with the VTEC system felt working as you pass the 4,500 rpm mark. The Sport mode allows higher revving before it’ll change up, and while it annoyed me slightly that it wouldn’t let me change down until it deemed it right, limiting the fun, I guess it has to be remembered that this is a hybrid.

Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS review

With regards to the IMA Hybrid system, there was a small-but-noticable amount of jerking at low speeds when the engine cut back in after it had been running in electric mode.

Handling is sportier than you’d think, with a decent suspension setup that allows the Insight to flow well over bad road surfaces, speed bumps and potholes, while still keeping body roll at a respectable level too. Motorway driving is a breeze, and while acceleration isn’t huge from those kinds of speeds should you want to pass someone, there’s enough there to do it without frustration.

Safety equipment and tech is at a good level on the Insight, and as standard you’re getting the aforementioned airbags in the front, front side and advanced curtain airbags for the sides, plus ABS, traction control, electronic brakeforce distribution, stability assist, hill-start assist and emergency brake assist.

All said, the Insight rides and drives decently, and while it’s not a quick or exciting car, there are elements of fun to be had should you metaphorically poke the little VTEC engine with a pointy stick.

Price

Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS review

Honda’s aim from the start was to provide an affordable hybrid car – later on, family-sized one – and with the Insight they’ve achieved that, thanks to a well-developed cost-effective IMA hybrid system. The base HE model comes well-spec’d as standard, and is priced at £20,100 (Nov. ’13), moving up to £23,190 for the range-topping HX version. Personally, I would go for the second-to-top HS-T model at £21,920 as it has all the luxuries and extra’s you need.

The Honda Insight’s main rival is obviously the Toyota Prius. The Prius is the more expensive car, starting at £21,845 and going up to £25,145, but it does have a slightly higher spec level than the Insight, by sporting (as standard) equipment like a touchscreen multimedia system with reverse camera, a heads-up display, bluetooth and electric lumbar support for the driver. No cruise control on the base model though, whereas the Insight does.

Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT verdict & score 

The Insight is a car built in the current typical Honda way. The interior has plastics that are tap-hard, rather than soft, and while overall it’s nothing really special or stand-outish, it is comfortable, with Honda-quality (solid, long-lasting), and the switchgear is mounted and designed with the driver in mind. Still, I can’t see why Honda are still making cars with plasticky trim when most others are moving away from that.

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The exterior does nothing to inspire or excite me either, and while Honda have deliberately styled it to still appear like a hybrid car within a person’s psyche, I don’t see the point of that, and I believe the design would sway a buyer away from the Insight, rather than towards. I don’t think the Insight will appeal to younger buyers, but then Honda do have the CR-Z Hybrid Coupé if you want more dynamic looks.

The 1.3 petrol is superbly engineered, but lacks decent power and torque, while the Integrated Motor Assist a good cost-effective way of building a hybrid that works well without you being aware that it’s cutting in and out constantly.

Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS review

As an afterthought, I believe that as with the Honda CR-V, the Insight lacks any kind of soul and is absolutely emotionless. It is robotic, in that it will do everything you want, probably almost flawlessly, every day, for all the years you own it. You will never have to fear it breaking down (how many Honda’s do you see waiting for recovery), the engine will fire each time without hesitation every day of winter, and every button and dial will work perfectly until the day the car’s engine finally dies. For all that, if you want a car with personality, this is not it.

Do you own a 2013>Honda Insight? What are your views on it, and what are the best and worst points? Share your thoughts and leave a comment below!

Exterior  5
Interior  5.5
Engine  5.5
Hybrid system  6.5
Gearbox (auto)  5.5
Price  6.5
Drive & ride  5
Overall Score  5.5 / 10 

  Specs

Model (as tested)  2013 Honda Insight 1.3 i-VTEC IMA Hybrid CVT HS
Spec includes  Cruise control, heated front seats, climate control, daytime running lights, tinted rear windows, cruise control, USB & aux-in sockets, part faux leather seats,  See specs for more
Options you should spec  HS-T model
The Competition  Toyota Prius
Price  (Nov. ’13) HS-spec: £20,925
Engine  1.3 litre, 4-cylinder, naturally-aspirated i-VTEC petrol + Integrated Motor Assist electric motor
Power, Torque, CO2  88 PS and 89 lb. ft (121 Nm) of torque, + 14PS and 58 lb. ft (78 Nm) from IMA motor | CO2: 96 – 99 g/km (auto)
Drive, Gears (as tested)  Front wheel drive | 7-speed automatic
Top Speed, 0 – 60 mph, Euro NCAP  Max speed (ltd): 113 mph | 0 – 62 mph: 12.5 seconds | 5-star Euro NCAP rating
Fuel economy (UK mpg)  Urban: 65.7, Extra urban: 70.6, Combined: 68.9
Weight (kerb)  1,243 kilograms (2,740 lbs)
Websites  Honda UK, Honda USA, Honda Worldwide

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Words: Chris Davies | Tested by: Chris Davies | Photography: Chris Davies, Matthew Davies

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