Understated efficiency
THE GOOD
  • Excellent fuel economy
  • Comfortable and spacious cabin
  • Fine road manners
THE BAD
  • Excessive engine drone
  • Interface can be slow

For those wishing to drive in smooth anonymity while saving plenty on fuel, the 2021 Honda Insight could be the ticket.

This hybrid sedan is roomy and comfortable, and shows classic Honda poise and verve on twisty roads. However, the droning powertrain is a constant reminder of its green intentions.

Styling: 7/10

“Anonymous” best describes the Honda Insight’s styling. It’s essentially a Civic with the edges filed off, and here in a dark grey finish it all but disappears into the automotive landscape. That certainly has its merits – especially for those seeking an effective getaway vehicle. “Witnesses say the robbers made off in a... car.”

But the Insight is not ugly (ahem... Prius), and that counts for something. At $300 a pop, optional paint colours – Platinum White Pearl, Radiant Red Metallic, and Cosmic Blue – will give this wallflower more pizazz.

Safety: 8/10

This top Touring trim comes with a comprehensive suite of safety systems and driver aids: blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and keeping assist, parking sensors, forward collision warning and automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, and traffic sign recognition. The collision warning and lane-departure assist and are too eager at times, with the latter annoyingly nudging the steering wheel just a bit too much. A button on the lower left dash can turn it off.

The radar-based adaptive cruise control works well, following traffic with smooth obedience. Full LED lighting both front and back is standard fare, as are hill start assist, speed-sensitive wipers, and automatic high-beams.

Practicality: 7.5/10

Despite having a raked roofline, the Insight offers adult-friendly rear confines. Unlike the Toyota Prius, the Insight isn’t a liftback, so we don’t get the benefits of a big cargo hold. Still, the Insight’s trunk opening is large, with a low liftover height, and it brags a 416-L capacity. The battery pack is under the rear seats, so it doesn’t impinge on trunk volume. The 60/40-split folding rear bench stows nearly flat, allowing for storage of long items.

Up front is plenty of useful storage, highlighted by a deep storage bin in the centre console with dividers and a sliding – and removable – insert. The door pockets are long and deep, and just to the right of the shift buttons sits a rubberized pad for cell phones.

User Friendliness: 8/10

The Insight’s low-slung driving position might be a bit off-putting for some, but once positioned in the well-tailored cabin, it’s an easy car to operate. In the best Honda tradition, the driver’s cluster serves up large and well-lit gauges, here rendered digitally. There’s a pair of rotary knobs for temperature adjustment, with the rest of the HVAC functions being controlled by well-marked analogue buttons.

There are two USB ports and a 12-volt outlet in the centre console. The row of buttons for gear selection is a bit awkward, and the system certainly doesn’t save on space, but it’s easy enough to get used to.

The Insight’s eight-inch touchscreen sports a clear and intuitive menu structure. Four hard buttons and a volume knob on the left give some analogue control, although a tuning knob would be nice. More generally, the system can be slow to react at times to inputs.

Forward visibility is good, but the Insight’s thick C-pillars and tall rear deck create significant blind spots around back.

Features: 8/10

The Touring moniker designates top trim status in Honda-world, and as such, the Insight Touring comes quite well equipped. Perforated leather abounds, and the cabin quality is a step up from the Civic on which the Insight is based. The steering wheel is heated, as are the outboard rear seats, but there is no ventilation or lumbar adjustment for the heated front chairs (eight-way power driver, four-way power passenger). Navigation with bilingual voice recognition is standard in the Touring, as is an upgraded 452-watt, 10-speaker audio system. Included are a subscription-based Wi-Fi hotspot, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and satellite radio.

Power: 7/10

Honda’s hybrid approach is novel in that it primarily uses a 129-hp, 197 lb-ft electric motor to move the Insight around; the gas engine mostly acts as generator, its speed changing only in sync with how much power is needed at the moment. Consequently, the four-cylinder basically does its own thing independent of the accelerator pedal. When the computers deem it more efficient to do so, a clutch engages that connects the engine directly to the drive wheels so that it may directly assist the electric motor.

However, all this fuel-saving tech can muster decent accelerative forces when called upon, so the Insight is far from a tree-hugging sitting duck. But the accompanying noise from the spinning engine isn’t exactly pleasant.

Comfort: 8.5/10

Unusual engine noises aside, the Insight impresses with its solid structure, lack of wind noise, and smooth ride. Active noise cancellation is standard. Some might wish for more supportive front seats, as these chairs are wide and not particularly well bolstered, but they are cushy and score points for long distance comfort. Rear-seat passengers enjoy decent legroom, and only the tallest will find the roofline too low.

On a particularly toasty day, the Insight’s HVAC system delivered quiet and even cooling. The Insight’s ride is controlled and firm but rarely intrusive; it’s only sharp impacts that make their way into the cabin.

Driving Feel: 8.5/10

Dynamically, the Insight Touring drives like a Honda, feeling well engineered and offering a satisfying connection between driver, car, and road. As this is not a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), all-electric operation is limited to short stretches, but you can hum around a parking lot or endure a bit of stop-and-go traffic in electric silence.

The paddles behind the steering wheel give control over three levels of regenerative braking performance. The left paddles increase regenerative braking, and the right paddle reduces it. It’s not enough for one-pedal operation, but using them does help with battery charging.

I found myself operating the Insight mostly in its sport mode, as it made the car just that much more enjoyable to drive; livelier with better throttle response, and suffering less from engine drone. Strangely, the exhaust note gets a bit more gravelly when in sport, with some faux mojo piped through the speakers.

Fuel Economy: 9/10

As most owners of the Honda Insight Touring will do, I drove it like a regular sedan. I wasn’t holding up traffic while hypermiling in an attempt to beat the Insight’s official 4.6 L/100 km city, 5.3 highway, and 4.9 combined consumption rates.

I drove a lot in sport mode just because it was, well, more pleasant. Impressive, then, that my test week concluded with a heart-warming 5.0 L/100 km – and this from mostly highway driving which, if you look at the numbers, is the least efficient environment for the Honda Insight.

Value: 7/10

The base Insight, at $30,190 including a non-negotiable $1,700 freight charge, is a better value proposition than this ritzier and leather-trimmed $33,890 Touring. The Insight Hybrid is priced a bit higher than the Toyota Corolla Hybrid, a reflection of the Honda’s more premium feel. However, the elephant in the room is the dashingly-styled Hyundai Elantra Hybrid that gets best-in-class fuel economy, the usual barrage of features, a dual-clutch transmission, and a five-year/100,000-km warranty – all for less money.

The Verdict

There’s no question that 2021 Honda Insight ownership rewards with exceptional fuel economy, and, in the case of this Touring trim, a near-luxury experience. And there’s also no denying the Honda’s fine road manners, high levels of comfort, and trusted reliability. Nevertheless, both the Toyota Corolla Hybrid and Hyundai Elantra Hybrid are even more sanctimonious than the Honda when it comes to sipping fossil fuels. And they’re less expensive, too.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 1.5L   Model Tested 2021 Honda Insight Hybrid Touring
Engine Cylinders Hybrid I4   Base Price $32,190
Peak Horsepower 151 hp net   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque N/A   Destination Fee $1,700
Fuel Economy 4.6 / 5.3 / 4.9 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $34,374
Cargo Space 416 L  
Optional Equipment
$384 – Protection Package, $384