With gas back above $4 USD per gallon, we test Honda’s challenger against Toyota’s best-selling fuel-sipper
I’ve hardly driven 100 feet out of our parking lot before I’m already talking to myself: “Wow, this thing’s steering and brakes feel worlds better than the Prius.”
I prefer doing nighttime comparison testing. As folks settle into bed, roads become a distraction-free test loop of rapid-fire stop signs and traffic lights, surface changes and lumpy railroad tracks, freeway acceleration and lane changes. All your key everyday questions answered in a compact, nonstop 15 minutes. But the key—importantly—is to repeat it. Again and again until neither car has anything left to tell you. By midnight, the cars are finally starting to repeat their stories, and I stop. Which one to take home? I search my pockets for both sets of keys, lock the Prius, and move my stuff into the Insight.
This is going to need a little explanation.
The Prius and Insight—Toyota’s and Honda’s halo hybrids—have clashed before. Or at least their nameplates have, as their previous two skirmishes have actually been repeated first-time encounters. As Toyota has been methodically maturing the Prius over the years, Honda has thrown completely different conceptions of the Insight at the wall to see if anything sticks. So far, nothing has.
The original Prius was a dowdy, snub-nosed sedan powered by something called Hybrid Synergy Drive, which ultimately turned out to be the blueprint for the hybrid era’s best technology. The contemporary Insight couldn’t have been more different: a streamlined, two-seat aluminum capsule propelled by Honda’s smart but simpler Integrated Motor Assist. Nowadays, it’s an interesting collectible.
Toyota’s next edition unveiled its polarizing Prius silhouette, while its third edition refined the recipe and even spawned a mini litter of Prius variants (the smaller C and bigger V). This is when Honda re-entered the ring with its second shot at the Insight—an unfortunate Prius on the cheap. It was a lozenge-shaped, four-door, five-seat hatchback with not quite the Prius’ fuel economy and not quite the Prius’ interior packaging; it didn’t have the Prius’ MSRP, either. In retrospect, it was a crafty tactic doomed by a numbingly dull actual car. It is not an interesting collectible.
However, for various reasons, the favorable winds at the Prius’ back have been subsiding. Its salad days of being green-cred catnip for the climate-concerned have wilted. Gas prices dropped and stabilized (although they’ve recently crept back above $4 USD a gallon in Los Angeles). Hybrid technology is now widespread; say “hybrid,” and not everybody automatically shouts back “Prius” anymore.
Surprisingly, Toyota openly admits that the new Japanese-market Prius AWD-e is now in the U.S. to rake for new takers in the frosty parts of the county, but its RAV4 Hybrid is destined to be its new, best-selling hybrid. So with even the Prius struggling—and the sedan segment in general fighting for its life—this is a truly terrible moment for Honda to create a new Insight based on (you guessed it) a sedan.
The current 10th-generation Civic is the Insight’s origin. Visually, Honda has warmed and resculpted the Civic’s modeling clay for a Gen Z audience. Besides the hybrid drivetrain, there are sharpened lines, upmarket connectivity features, and pricing that’s just enough below the base Accord to leave some monthly pocket change for student loans.
Parked beside each other, beneath the light of the lot’s lampposts, the Prius and Insight seem about the same size. But the tape measure shows the Insight is 3.6 inches longer and 2.3 inches wider; the Prius is 2.3 inches taller. That last number might make you wonder about headroom, but my 6-foot-1 frame still fits perfectly fine in the front and rear rows of both cars, so honestly, don’t worry about it. The official front legroom dimensions report as identical, but particularly long-legged drivers may find the Prius’ seat tracks extend farther beyond this official measuring point.
Speaking of which, both cars’ rear kneeroom left a comfortable inch (behind a comfortable driving position for myself). But getting out of both back seats requires similar gymnastics—retract your feet, swivel around, and, yeah, you dip your head slightly as you rise.
Psychologically, the Prius’ interior has a sense of everything being slightly puffed, making the rear seats feel fractionally more confining. And although a greater percentage of the Honda’s cabin is wrapped in soft-touch materials, the Prius puts cush where it counts with seat surfaces that have a tender, soft-squish feel that’s subtly more pleasing.
Let’s step around to each car’s rear to pop open their hatches and trunklids. (Uber/Lyft drivers, click your pens to start taking notes.) The footprint of the Prius’ load floor is larger, and its hatchback allows items to be stacked taller if you remove or unhook the cargo cover. There’s no such flexibility with the Insight’s trunk. Another plus: The Prius’ yawning hatch makes tossing in suitcases a cinch; you’ll have to thread them into the Insight’s shallower trunklid opening. Drop their rear seat backs, though, and the tables turn a bit. (This part matters less for ride-hail drivers than couples going to Ikea or away on long weekends.) The Honda’s seats fold flatter, though both create a step up to a plateau that’s a snag when you’re sliding in long boxes.
Although both cars ignite their powertrains with the push of a button, the acoustical theatrics and obtuse logic of the Prius Limited’s 11.6-inch touchscreen just about ruins the car for me. As a silly soundtrack starts playing, 24 interminable seconds pass from the starter button press to the screen’s accessibility (for instance, being able to change the fan speed). And the soap-opera Muzak doesn’t end when you switch the car off—it carries on again and doesn’t pause when you open the door. Frankly, whenever anybody was standing close by in a parking lot, I’d just sit there and wait for it to finish, to remove the possibility of proximity embarrassment as I got out.
At first tap, the Prius’ big screen seems like a lower-resolution, mini version of the Tesla’s. It’s not. Let’s say it has some peculiar rules. Sometimes you have to rotary swipe through icons to get where you want; other functions are masked beneath obtuse layers. To test whether my befuddlement was just me, I deployed the Device-Savvy Kid Test (DSKT): I timed my 13-year-old son, who’s never seen either car’s interface before, as he tried to change the Prius’ temperature and fan speed. For 19.8 seconds, he stared and mistapped before solving the riddle. Next challenge: “Let’s listen to the Beatles channel on SiriusXM.” He cracked his knuckles and did it in 21.1 seconds.
By contrast, the Insight’s screen fires up in 12.0 seconds and shuts down in less than 1.0. I don’t know whether his recognizing its similarity to the swipeable iPhone interface counts as cheating, but the DSKT temp/fan-change was a quicker 18.5 seconds, and the zero-to-Beatles time dropped to a fast 5.0 seconds. The Insight’s interface is a promising blend of physical and virtual controls. Personally, I’d go for a lower-trim Prius (and the simpler screen) just to avoid the upmarket version’s hassle.
As for the user interface of everything that’s not a screen in the middle of the dash, your thoughts on the cars’ interiors will probably depend on which of the 16 Myers–Briggs personality types you are. Do you perceive the Insight’s interior as dully conventional or tastefully familiar? Is the Prius modern-edgy or wacko-ugly? As a purely functional matter, I grew to prefer the Prius’ high-positioned, dash-center speed display (always visible whereas the Insight’s was often blocked by the steering wheel). And the Prius’ easy-to-master toggle shifter is quickly stirred without ever needing a single glance down. Conversely, despite the Insight shifter’s distinctively shaped buttons, I was always distracted by a glance down at it anyway.
Let’s get ready to drive, then. Reaching around the steering wheels to press both cars’ start buttons brings some electrical hums and illuminates their instrument displays in the dark night.
Explaining the differences between Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive and Honda’s two-motor system can easily sprawl into a dissertation along the lines of Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism against Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical pessimism.
Here’s my “Dilbert” cartoon version. Prius: Its front wheels are always powered by its primary 71-hp electric motor, with its 91-hp 1.8-liter engine able to combine forces with it at any speed through a complicated whirligig mechanism. And sometimes the contraption also weaves in a second electric motor that’s either a starter motor or, at other times, a generator. If a bathroom scale could measure horsepower instead of weight, all these different power-making parts would peak at 121 hp.
Insight? Its front wheels are powered by a 129-hp electric motor that initially moves the car as an EV. But press the accelerator further, and its 107-hp 1.5-liter engine fires up to spin a generator to keep the motor fed. At even higher speeds, the engine more efficiently mechanically clutches to the wheels through a single gear ratio. Put all this stuff on that same scale, and it tops out at 152 hp. As I creep out of the parking lot, the Insight’s engine alights so subtly that it’s almost undetectable—whereas the Prius’ raises a sudden, thrummy noise.
If you check the specs, those 121 and 152 numbers sensibly align with the cars’ respective 9.8- and 7.4-second 0–60 times. But they certainly don’t jibe with my subjective impressions on my test loop, where the Prius feels much, much friskier when you dab the pedal off the line. Why? That aforementioned planetary whirligig allows its engine to more quickly inject the power it does have.
The same thing happens with steering turn-in: The Prius bites sooner. If you’re hammering around quickly (as road test editor Chris Walton did around our figure-eight course), its peak lateral grip is almost humorously high. Who’d imagine a Prius cornering at 0.9 g? That’s better than a Fiat 124 Spider, Mercedes-AMG GLE 43, or a Jaguar XF S Sportbrake, for you doubters out there. By contrast, the Insight steers with a slightly wooden feel off center, but after that it’s deliciously linear with an intuitive buildup of effort.
If things were head to head right now, the Honda’s handling and braking behavior sets the Insight apart. Twisting into a corner, that sweet steering feel is accompanied by well-damped, one-piece body motion—whereas the Prius felt like a collection of parts with a common destination. Ride quality? The Honda absorbed the railroad tracks like a ShamWow, though it tended to heave more on freeway undulations.
Step into its brakes, and the Insight’s pedal feels linear and predictable (and ultimately stops the car in 14 fewer feet, too). Honda also delivers on its Gen Z driving-aid promises: At 70 mph (113 km/h) on the freeway, its adaptive cruise control (set to its closest gap) provides an acceptable 115-foot following distance. By contrast, the Toyota’s 129-foot 70-mph (113-km/h) following distance is painfully cautious, and it brakes awkwardly behind slowing traffic. To be honest, I wouldn’t even use it.
The Insight’s one big quirk, though, is its engine noise when it climbs any kind of grade. At just enough incline, the engine suddenly dials up its volume, stepping from 67.0 dBA to 71.1 (at 70 mph (113 km/h)); the Prius gets louder, too, of course (rising from 67.2 dBA to 68.4), but because it winds its volume knob slowly, your reaction is like the slowly boiling frog. You don’t notice it’s happening.
Prius locked, I move my gear into the Insight and head off down Interstate 405. At $29,110 USD, the Insight is $4,020 USD cheaper than the similarly trimmed Prius, and its 51-mpg (4.6-L/100 km) EPA city mileage is, in truth, insignificantly less than the Prius’ 54 (4.4 L/100 km).
I don’t mean to erase their differences, but when you get to efficiency numbers as high as these, the extra fuel burned per mile is very, very small (for instance, at the Insight’s 45-mpg (5.2-L/100 km) highway number, it consumes only 0.2 more gallons per 100 miles (160 km) than the Prius and its 50 mpg (4.7 L/100 km)).
For sure, the Prius remains the go-to car for ride-hail jockeys. I’ll point again at its cargo volume, hatchback opening, and responsiveness in traffic. But after 20 years and two foul balls with its first two editions, for everyday commuters like us, it appears Honda engineers finally saw the relationship of cause and effect and delivered the Insight we wanted and needed.
|2019 Honda Insight Hybrid Touring||2019 Toyota Prius Hybrid Limited|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||I-4, alum block/head + permanent-magnet AC synchronous electric motor||Atkinson cycle I-4, alum block/head + permanent-magnet AC synchronous electric motor|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||91.4 cu in/1,498 cc||109.7 cu in/1,797 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||107 hp @ 6,000 rpm (gas), plus 129 hp (elec); 152 hp combined||96 hp @ 5,200 rpm (gas), plus 71 hp (elec); 121 hp combined|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||99 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm, plus 197 lb-ft (elec)||105 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm (gas), plus 120 lb-ft (elec)|
|REDLINE||Not indicated (6,600-rpm limit)||Not indicated|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||20.1 lb/hp||25.6 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||1-speed automatic||Cont variable auto|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO||3.42:1/8.39:1 (elec), 2.75:1 (gas)||3.48:1/2.83:1|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||11.1-in vented disc; 10.2-in disc, ABS||10.0-in vented disc; 10.2-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum||6.5 x 15-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||215/50R17 91H (M+S) Continental ProContact TX||195/65R15 91S (M+S) Bridgestone Ecopia EP422 Plus|
|WHEELBASE||106.3 in||106.3 in|
|TRACK, F/R||60.9/61.6 in||59.4/59.8 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||183.6 x 71.6 x 55.6 in||180.0 x 69.3 x 57.9 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||35.7 ft||35.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,058 lb||3,101 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||61/39%||61/39%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.5/36.6 in||39.4/37.4 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.3/37.4 in||42.3/33.4 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.9/55.0 in||55.0/53.0 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||14.7 cu ft||27.4 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.6 sec||3.2 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||4.0||5.4|
|QUARTER MILE||15.9 sec @ 86.8 mph||17.4 sec @ 79.8 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||117 ft||131 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.84 g (avg)||0.90 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.0 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)||26.3 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||NA rpm||NA rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$29,110||$34,786|
|AIRBAGS||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee, front passenger thigh|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles (8 yrs/100,000 miles, hybrid components)||5 yrs/60,000 miles (8 yrs/100,000 miles, hybrid components)|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||3 yrs/36,000 miles||2 yrs/Unlimited miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||10.6 gal + 1.10 kW-h Lithium-ion battery||11.3 gal + 0.75 kW-h Lithium-ion battery|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||44.6/57.5/49.6 mpg||50.0/54.7/52.0 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||51/45/48 mpg||54/50/52 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||66/75 kW-hrs/100 miles||62/67 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.40 lb/mile||0.37 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|