A teardrop-shaped liftback coupe with faired-in rear wheels that rocked a hybrid powertrain, a manual gearbox and biblical efficiency. Twenty years later and Honda’s little hybrid is all grown up, with a mature form factor and very little of the quirkiness that made the original such a cult classic. However, with maturity often comes wisdom. So then, what has the 2021 Honda Insight Touring learned after two decades and three generations?
The 2021 Honda Insight would be a great car to rob a bank with. It’s so anonymous that up until two months ago, I completely forgot it existed until a delivery driver showed up at my doorstep in one. To style the Insight, Honda just Ctrl+C > Ctrl+V’d the Accord’s front end styling onto a Civic and added a more mature set of tail lights and rear bumper.
The result is a reasonably agreeable, extremely conservative, exceedingly mature design that looks like an amalgamation of every other car Honda makes right now. However, this is a good thing. The Insight looks like what the Civic should’ve looked like all along. It’s familiar without being outdated, mature without being too boring and above all-else, overarchingly handsome.
Inside the Insight, the story largely continues. By adding a swath of very nice leather here and some higher-end switchgear there, they’ve created a cabin that’s markedly nicer than the one in the outgoing Civic. The steering wheel and digital cluster are both out of the Accord and both feel rather nice. It’s the same deal with the electronic shifter borrowed from the Pilot. Small, incremental improvements to a familiar form. However, as it is really just a Civic, the Insight’s cabin shares some benefits and some foibles.
On the plus side, interior space is prodigal for a compact sedan. There’s absolutely heaps of legroom both front and rear, and headroom isn’t bad either. The Hogwarts staircase centre console remains wonderful, offering seemingly endless combinations of cupholder accessibility, general storage and armrest length courtesy of sliding, removable elements. The Insight’s seats themselves are also quite comfortable, offering fair thigh and lumbar support and good upper back support compared to the rest of the small hybrid segment. They aren’t exactly high-end orthopedic seats but they’re definitely better than the thrones in a Corolla Hybrid.
On the minus side, the premium stereo in the Insight Touring simply isn’t very good. Dynamic range is poor, staging is adequate at best and the subwoofer doesn’t blend particularly well with the rest of the speakers to fill out the low frequencies. Mind you, the premium stereo in the outgoing Civic wasn’t very good either, so it all seems to track. The infotainment UX is also very busy, with functions spread out across more tiles than in Parliament House.
Powering the Insight is a 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine mated to a 1.2 kWh lithium-ion battery pack and a 96 kW synchronous AC electric motor. Combined system output of 151 horsepower and 197 lb.-ft. of torque is put to the ground through a continuously variable transmission. While nearly 200 lb.-ft. of torque sounds quite stout in theory, the resulting acceleration is best described as adequate. The CVT files the edge off the electrified torque hit while lazy, eco-friendly powertrain calibration means that the first half of throttle pedal travel doesn’t really do anything. Stamp your foot through the carpet and you’re met with acceleration similar to that of a regular, naturally-aspirated Civic.
While the Insight’s powertrain is right about par for the course, its chassis shows some serious potential. While not as willing to rotate under trail braking as a Prius or Corolla Hybrid, the Insight packs quick, well-weighted steering and a surprisingly balanced handling signature. There’s a surprising amount of grip on offer despite the eco-friendly low rolling resistance tires and the chassis feels genuinely capable up to 7/10ths. There’s much more steering feel on offer here than on a Corolla Hybrid, a pleasant reminder that Honda’s chassis engineers really know what they’re doing.
Perhaps more important than the Insight’s handling is the feeling of confident solidity in its ride. The well-weighted steering, stiff structure and properly tuned dampers give the Insight a near-premium feel that’s a cut above what Toyota’s Prius has to offer. Add in well-placed sound reduction materials and good ergonomics, and the Insight is a great car to chop some proper miles in.
Talking about ride and handling is all well and good, but let’s face it, people buy hybrids for their efficiency. So let’s talk about that. Unlike prior Insights, this latest one is a proper series-parallel hybrid and can run on electric power alone for very short distances. In addition, the Insight’s 96-kilowatt electric motor ensures it can glide on electric power even at highway speeds. While this sounds like a serious upgrade from older Insight models, we only saw an average of five litres per hundred kilometres. It’s a good round number and only a tick worse than the government’s combined rating of 4.9 L/100km, but one easily eclipsed by most hybrid cars on the market.
Here’s another slightly disappointing number. $28,490. That’s the base price of the Insight in Canada. A Toyota Corolla Hybrid starts at $25,190 and tops out at $27,260 while a Hyundai Elantra Hybrid starts at $24,699, tops out at $26,999 and offers even more tech than the Insight or the Corolla. Our loaded Touring-trim tester stickered for even more though, $32,190 to be precise. At that price, people who really want to save on fuel can buy a well-specced Prius, or a Prius Prime plug-in hybrid once the government grant’s factored in, or a Kia Niro PHEV once the government grant’s factored in, or even a 2022 Chevrolet Bolt EV once the government grant for that thing is factored in.
Therein lies the only real issue of the Honda Insight. It’s the right car but at the wrong time. Honda had done their research, perfected their technology and released a wiser, more mature, more advanced Insight. Just two years into its model cycle, the world has moved on completely. Real penny-pinchers will likely be looking for more efficient alternatives, but for those looking for a refined, comfortable, mature small hybrid, the 2021 Honda Insight Touring might be just the thing.