Trivia question: What was the first hybrid automobile delivered to the United States, back in 1999? If you answered, the Honda Insight, congratulations! The Insight beat Toyota’s Prius to market by a few months, but Honda’s hybrids have mostly languished in Toyota’s shadow ever since. The new Insight deserves to change that impression. It matches the Prius’s EPA rating of 4.5 liters/100 kilometers (52 miles per gallon) combined city/highway driving, and it triumphs in design, power, price, and performance.
The Insight’s hybrid system starts with a 1.5-liter, 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) gasoline engine for which Honda claims an impressive 40.5 percent thermal efficiency. That engine is paired with the industry’s first permanent-magnet drive motors that contain no heavy rare-earth metals. A powerful motor drives the front axle and a secondary motor operates as a starter and generator. Combined, the two produce 113 kW (151 horses), 25 percent more than the Prius’s 90 kW (121 hp).
Accelerate slowly from a stoplight and the Insight will run exclusively on battery power, with the combustion engine decoupled from the drivetrain. The Insight is a serial hybrid, with electricity alone propelling the wheels while the engine putters discreetly to generate more juice for the motor or to charge the battery. But under hard acceleration, the Honda can also run as a parallel hybrid: A mechanical clutch connects the engine directly to the front wheels to supplement the electric motor.
In my test drive, the complex system worked in pleasing fashion, aside from some small-engine racket when you really mash the gas pedal. My own test mileage was even better than the EPA’s: I got about 4.3 L/100 km (55 mpg) in the city and better than 50 mpg overall.
Best of all, the Insight starts at just US $23,795. If there’s a better, below-$30,000 hybrid on the market today, I haven’t driven it.