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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Battle of the Hybrids- Insight vs. Prius

Psychologists have said that consumers have a three-week memory of fuel prices. If prices stay constant for more than three weeks, the buying public's decision-making ability becomes myopic and they act as though prices have never been different from what they are in the here and now.

And at this very moment, fuel prices have been below two bucks a gallon for about six weeks. Fuel is so cheap that we're considering igniting 55-gallon drums of the stuff in our front yards just for kicks.

Now, we don't know the hippocampus from a hippopotamus, but our instincts remind us that good times don't last forever. An increase in fuel prices in the near future is practically inevitable, and those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

That's where the all-new 2010 Honda Insight and 2009 Toyota Prius fit in. By shopping for fuel misers like these while gasoline is still cheaper than designer-bottled sugar water, savvy shoppers will dodge long dealership queues in the future and avoid forking out a premium for such cars — like they did in the summer of 2008.

Follow the Follower
You might remember the original Honda Insight. When introduced in 1999, it was the first hybrid vehicle sold in the U.S.A., an affordable technical tour de force that achieved spectacular fuel economy by adding a battery-assisted electric motor to the powertrain. But as a diminutive two-seater, it certainly wasn't a car for the masses.

It took Toyota's introduction of the Prius to stamp the word "hybrid" into the public consciousness and swell the ranks of hypermiling wonks. Boasting an extra pair of doors and a rear seat compared to the early Insight, the Prius was a real car suitable for families. That it looked the part of a hybrid sealed the deal among the socially conscious, and Toyota has ridden this wave of success to new heights, selling 181,221 examples of the Prius in 2007 alone.

In response, Honda has retooled the Insight formula for 2010 into a four-door package that paints a target dead smack on the Prius' nerdy forehead. The Insight's sheet metal is said to be shaped by the wind tunnel, but the general proportions and detailing are far too Prius-like to be coincidental. Honda's intentions with the Insight appear obvious — scale the heights of hybrid sales success by following in the Prius' footsteps.

The Cars
Often found clogging up the passing lanes of freeways all over the country, the Prius is now a common sight on public roads. The 2009 Toyota Prius we tested will blend right in, as it is largely unchanged from earlier models, right down to its 110-horsepower powertrain with its 1.5-liter engine and sophisticated hybrid system comprised of two electric motors and planetary gearsets. (A revised Prius is on the horizon for 2010, but it remains under wraps.)

Our Prius boasted its fuel economy of 48 mpg city/45 mpg highway on its price sticker and it was equipped with the $3,280 Package #5 option, including a navigation system, premium audio, satellite radio capability, Bluetooth, a back-up camera, stability control, cruise control and a few other items. This car is well-equipped but not the most fully loaded Prius variant available and checks in at $27,643.

The all-new 2010 Honda Insight merges an updated version of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system with a 1.3-liter, eight-valve inline-4, and the powertrain produces a combined output of 98 hp and 123 pound-feet of torque. The IMA system slots a 13-hp electric motor between the engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT) and it is juiced by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack behind the rear seats. Lithium-ion batteries would have cut the space requirement in half, chief engineer Yasunari Seki says, but were quickly rejected on the basis of cost.

And cost is the Insight's trump card. Honda's hybrid system is more basic than the Prius' NASA-grade hardware, yet its more affordable cost is the key to delivering the Insight's dirt-cheap sticker price. At least, we think it's dirt cheap. Pricing hasn't been formally announced, so we're going on whispers and hints from the Honda brass. But you can count on the Insight's official EPA fuel-economy rating of 40 mpg city/43 mpg highway, plus the fact that the car will be formally released on Earth Day, April 22, 2009.

Our scrutiny of Honda's marketing data makes us pretty confident that the model we drove — a fully optioned Insight EX with navigation — will sticker for very close to $22,170 with destination. If we're wrong, then we only request that you wait at least three weeks before composing your hate mail.

Static Electricity
When you climb inside a Prius, you're confronted with a decidedly unorthodox dashboard layout. There are no conventional gauges; instead the speed readout and general operational information peek out from a narrow slot at the base of the windshield. The climate control, audio and navigation controls are all embedded in a single, centrally located multifunction screen. Even the "gear" selector sprouts from the dash immediately to the right of the steering wheel. The Prius is a hybrid, dammit, and it won't let you forget that fact.

The Insight, however, trades a little zoominess for much improved function. There's a real gauge cluster in front of the driver and non-virtual heating and ventilation controls that fall immediately to hand. The Insight's cabin also places you in a driving position that's more natural than that of the Prius, and this is further enhanced by the Honda's telescoping steering wheel and height-adjustable seat.

These two latter features aren't available in the Prius, yet it desperately needs both of them. The Toyota's driving position seems scaled to Japanese bodies, not corn-fed American ones, so you can never place the tilt-only steering wheel in quite the right place. Simply put, you sit on the Prius and in the Insight.

If you think this means the Insight has the superior cabin, you'd only be half right. Full-size humans can find space and comfort in the backseat of the Prius, whereas in the Insight they will find only cramps. Your knees have to splay to accommodate the front seatback, while the tumblehome of the Insight's roof eats up precious headroom. You could say that swelled heads fit better in the back of the Prius.

Behind the backseats, it's pretty much a draw in cargo capacity, although Honda claims a bit more volume by the numbers than the Prius. It can also claim more volume of the acoustic variety, as the Honda is noticeably noisier than the Prius, and it doesn't come close to isolating its occupants from road roar and wind hiss in the way that the Toyota does.

Hedonists take note: The Prius boasts a back-up camera, HID headlights and keyless ignition, and you can't find these goodies on any Insight.

Nothing's Shocking
Economy with speed is as common as gravy-flavored ice cream, and these cars proved no exception once we placed our testing equipment on them. The Prius' 110-hp combined output propels it from a standstill to 60 mph in 10.4 seconds (10.1 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), followed by the Insight in 10.9 seconds (10.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). Off the line, however, neither of these hybrids feels as glacial as these numbers suggest thanks to the boost in low-end torque provided by the electric motors.

It's not just in acceleration that the Prius pips the Insight. The Prius also brakes shorter, coming to a halt from 60 mph in 120 feet, 5 feet fewer than the Insight. It also produces a quicker slalom speed, 61.8 mph compared to the Insight's 59.3 mph. Despite the numbers, the Prius' brake pedal feels like a lumpy mattress underfoot as the transition from regenerative braking to pure mechanical braking is clumsy, while the electric-assist steering responds with all the enthusiasm of warm tapioca.

Ride quality is an area where the Prius gets the nod, as it glides over pavement compared to the choppy springiness of the Honda. The flip side of the Honda's firmer suspenders comes in routine handling maneuvers, where it is more alert than the Prius. Likewise, the Insight's quicker and more naturally weighted steering imparts lots of confidence even in everyday driving. This transparency in the feel of the controls paired with the more user-friendly driving position help give the Insight a thin edge in our scoring evaluation.

Fuelish Behavior
The numbers most relevant to these dromedaries relate, of course, to their frugality with fuel. To that end our two drivers hashed out a driving loop of nearly 100 miles, consisting of a mix of city and freeway driving conditions. They topped off the fuel tank of each car at the same fuel pump and drove the loop. Then they switched cars and drove the loop again. They then refilled them at the same fuel pump and recorded the dosage.

To make a long, boring story short, the Prius netted 54.4 mpg to the Insight's 51.5 mpg during our driving loops. These results are considerably better than the EPA estimates for each car since our driving style was conservative to minimize variables in performance and to ensure the cars remained nose-to-tail for the entire drive. Hard-core hypermiling wonks will undoubtedly top even these results.

Perhaps the most loudly voiced objection from both drivers is that the Insight's cruise control consistently undershot the target speed when in Eco-Assist mode. Like a nun armed with a switch, this mode modifies the Insight's behavior to favor fuel-efficiency over drivability and comfort. The Prius, which needs no such supplemental mode to achieve its stellar fuel economy, exhibited no such untoward tendencies.

When Being Green Reduces Your Green
Some of us will make a choice between these two cars based solely on superior fuel economy. But if you're really interested only in the contents of your wallet, some careful assessment of the cost/benefit equation will be illuminating.

It turns out the additional $5,473 required for the privilege of owning a Prius instead of an Insight can buy a lot of fuel. At today's fuel prices, the actual monetary savings earned by the Prius' edge in fuel economy is miniscule, working out to a paltry $70 per year. Paying off the Prius' extra tariff in sticker price with the savings in fuel purchases would require more than 75 years.

Even if fuel prices were to leap to $5 per gallon, a Prius owner would have to drive his car for nearly 413,000 miles just to break even. These calculations use the EPA combined fuel economy numbers — plug in the higher fuel-economy results we measured and the payoff period is measured in lifetimes.

This simple math exercise demonstrates how deceptive a 5-mpg difference can be. Among fuel-sippers like these, this is one occasion where it doesn't pay to be green. It turns out that the 2010 Honda Insight's emphasis on affordability as well as fuel economy puts more dollars in your pocket than the 2009 Toyota Prius.

There's a certain irony in the Insight's victory. In its desire to create a car that wears its hybrid-ness on its sleeve, Honda examined its rival to such a degree that the Insight and the Prius are nearly indistinguishable at a glance. Yet Honda's final product is no Prius clone, and its lack of hybrid-style compromises in the way it drives works to its advantage in this comparison.

Consider the Prius outsmarted. For now.