Final Inspection

Honda Insight Doomed From Start

The Insight was too small when it needed to be big, too fuel-efficient when it wasn't necessary, not around when people cared about fuel economy and not fuel-efficient enough when they sort of did.

News that Honda has killed its second-generation Insight begs the question why it is so darn tough for an automaker known for its green-ness to sell a hybrid.

The Insight, famously, was the first gas-electric hybrid sold in the U.S., arriving in December 1999, seven months ahead of Toyota’s first-generation Prius.

While the car boasted eye-popping fuel economy, 70 mpg (3.4 L/100 km) highway – an all-time record for certification from the EPA – the price of regular unleaded in the U.S. that month was only $1.25-$1.26, equivalent to $1.76-$1.77 today.

That wasn’t stinging enough to motivate Americans to abandon the giant SUVs they were so in love with in the late 1990s.

The extra-high mileage largely was due to the tiny proportions of the original Insight, which could accommodate just two passengers.

Cargo-carrying ability also was woefully lacking, and in its first year only a manual transmission was offered, because Americans love to row their own gears – not.

First-generation Insight sales hit their zenith in 2001, with 4,276 sold, WardsAuto data shows. Toyota Prius deliveries that same year totaled 15,556.

And Prius sales only got stronger, surpassing 20,000 in 2002 and 24,000 in 2003.

By 2004, the first full year on the market for the game-changing, second-generation Prius, deliveries of the Toyota hybrid hit 53,991.

The next year Prius sales doubled. You know the rest.

Honda waited too long to answer back to the bigger, but still-awfully-darn-fuel-efficient Prius. The automaker let the Insight languish on the market in the mid-2000s, and sales fell below 1,000 units per year.

Honda finally pulled the plug on the car in 2006, announcing a second-generation model would arrive…in 2009.

Yes, it was a ridiculously long wait, and Honda missed a golden opportunity to market the hybrid to Americans in the summer of 2008, when an historic gas-price spike saw regular unleaded soar to $4 per gallon.

It didn’t help matters that when the Insight arrived in spring 2009 so did the third-generation Prius. Many news stories and auto reviews compared the cars, and the Insight, rightfully, came out looking the worse of the two.

While Honda had corrected a lot of the wrongs of the first-gen Insight, mainly by growing it into a 5-seater with generous cargo room, the car still was smaller than the Prius and it still used Honda’s less-competitive mild-hybrid Integrated Motor Assist system.

Honda claimed the Insight could run on electric-power-only in certain circumstances but few reviewers, including yours truly, ever witnessed that.

Second-gen Insight fuel economy, estimated at 40/43 mpg (5.8-5.4 L/100 km) city/highway, underperformed the bigger, third-gen Prius’ 50/49 mpg (4.7-4.8 L/100 km) ratings.

So, to summarize, the Insight was too small when it needed to be big, too fuel-efficient when it wasn’t necessary, not around when Americans gave a damn about fuel economy and not fuel-efficient enough when they sort of did.

But one thing I’ve learned covering Honda is that it is a tenacious company. I fully expect a new dedicated hybrid from them, this time with the automaker’s new full-hybrid system found in the ’14 Accord Hybrid.

Will it still be called Insight? I don’t have any, er, insight on that but I vote no. It represents too many failed attempts.

cschweinberg@wardsauto.com

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Mar 4, 2014

It never pays to try to be all things to all people. Pick your battles, want to be the highest mileage game in town, capitalize on that. Chasing after someone's lunch? You're going to lose. There is a concept known as disruptive innovation or disruptive technology whereupon you make something so cheap and so one-purpose, people buy it because there's no down-side to trying it. Car companies simply will not embrace a dirt cheap electric car that has no amenities, just basic transport to and from work or the grocery store. Wind-up windows, no radio, no a/c, just wheels and a seat.
The last thing I'm going to do is spend a fortune trying to save pennies.

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