How Reliable Is the 2019 Honda Insight?18 min read
Standing out in a crowd isn’t everyone’s bag. Some prefer anonymity. Some people don’t want their car to draw attention. They’d rather not be approached every time they stop for gas or be asked to roll down their window at a stoplight for to field questions about their ride. Toyota’s Camry and Prius are the usual go-tos for wallflower buyers, which means that even wallflowers overlook the Honda Insight.
We noticed. We noticed because we like the way every Insight has driven since Honda introduced the first one over 20 years ago. The new model might not have sent us clamoring for it at the sign-out board, but over 40,000 miles, its no-nonsense attitude toward getting you where you’re going started to win over our staff.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t hearts as much as it was our frontal lobes. The Insight, or Toyota Prius, or any other sub-$30K hybrid doesn’t really play on one’s emotions. None of them look particularly fetching or interesting. In the hybrid world, the Prius’s design comes closest to be considered interesting, but only if you find really ugly things interesting. The Insight looks a lot like a Civic sedan that’s had all the weirdness edited out. Standing next to it reminds us of Buster Bluth’s alma mater’s motto, “A Milford Man is neither seen nor heard.”
It didn’t help the Insight that we ordered it in the exact same color as our long-term 2016 Honda Civic. Let’s say you’re hungry and looking for a car to drive to lunch. As you walk up to the Insight, it’s entirely possible that you might think it’s the old long-termer and mutter to yourself, “Didn’t this car finish its test?”
Test cars are usually scrutinized by family and friends, but the Insight proved invisible, which left us extolling its virtues without any provocation. It has a smooth ride, it’s fuss-free in the way it drives, it gets over 40 mpg, and it has a novel hybrid powertrain. This is all good stuff, even if no one wants to discuss Honda’s engine and transaxle in casual conversation over a table of canapés.
But this hybrid system is fascinating, and if you put that salmon puff down for a minute, we’ll explain: It first debuted in the ninth-generation Honda Accord hybrid, and it blends simplified mechanics with complex controls. In the Insight, this hybrid powertrain consists of an Atkinson-cycle 1.5-liter inline-four, two electric motor-generators, and a couple of gearsets. The drive motor makes 129 horsepower and the gas-burning engine makes 107. The second electric motor acts as the starter, but it’s primarily a generator that’s driven by the engine to produce electricity. Either the drive motor or the engine can move the Insight on its own through fixed gearing (each has its own ratio. But when maximum or even moderate acceleration is called for, the motor and engine combine for a maximum of 151 horsepower. It is almost impossible to tell what mechanical source is turning the wheels at any given time.
While you may not be able to feel that two power sources are working on your behalf, you can definitely hear the engine. Even at a steady cruise at 70 to 80 mph, the four-cylinder drones excessively. Accelerating hard up to those speeds led to many complaints in the Insight’s logbook.
This car ran to 60 mph in less than eight seconds at the beginning and end of the test. Senior editor Joey Capparella wished the regen paddles on the steering wheel functioned more like those found on the Chevrolet Volt and offered greater adjustability, yet he went on to say he “would recommend this car to anyone.” And deputy editor Tony Quiroga gushed: “This car is a zero-fuss, zero BS car and I love it for that. I also like that I have to really work this thing to get it to merge onto the freeway, there’s something satisfying about that.”
Easy at the Pump
Even if it destroys the Prius’s more-than-10-second acceleration time to 60 mph, we must admit that the Insight’s performance metric isn’t really acceleration. It’s all about the mpg. Initially, our long-termer didn’t get exceptional mileage (below 40 mpg), a sacrifice we are chalking up to the Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 winter tires we installed shortly after it arrived in December 2018. Winter tires are great in unfavorable road conditions, but their relatively soft construction increases rolling resistance. Replacing the winter rubber with the original fitment tires improved our car’s fuel economy. Over 40,000 miles, the Insight averaged a strong 41 mpg.
Touring models like our long-termer get slapped with a 48-mpg EPA combined estimate, a 4-mpg hit from the lesser LX and EX models. This mpg demerit is most likely due to the Touring’s larger 17-inch wheels. On our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test, our Insight averaged 46 mpg, a stat backed up by road-trip fuel-economy logs and a number that matches that of the 2017 Toyota Prius in the same test. We should also point out that in our 75-mph test, the Insight scored 1 mpg better than its EPA highway number.
Despite the engine noise inside, we did approve of the Insight’s simple interior design. As in the latest Hondas, there’s a tried-and-true volume knob and no-nonsense climate controls. One editor went so far as to deem the occasionally slow and frustrating infotainment system “passable.”
True to Honda’s reputation, the Insight proved to be very reliable. It required just three scheduled stops, with the interval and details of what services required determined by the onboard computer. The requested stops came every 11,000-or-so miles, the most expensive and comprehensive of which was the third and final one. That stop requires an oil change (but not the oil filter), a tire rotation, a lengthy list of checks, a new cabin air filter, and calls for the engine air filter to be replaced. It ran $169. If that “not the filter” bit caused pause, good, because it does to us as well. Honda says its filters are good for two oil-change cycles.
Long-term cars don’t get hall passes and the Insight is no exception. We were hard on it, as evidenced by the $3665 in damage we racked up. In its second week of service a pothole knocked the right-front tire out of commission ($181). When spring rolled around, we discovered that the air conditioning didn’t work. Dealer techs determined that road debris had damaged the A/C condenser, which set us back $1125. Tailgating in the name of efficiency was costly, too. A stone thrown airborne by a truck tire tried to become a front-seat passenger and the resulting crack was too large to repair, so we parted ways with $865 for a new windshield and another $120 to the dealership so it could calibrate the camera and sensors under the glass. Later we had a stone chip filled for $60.
The final bit of damage came when a raccoon wandered into our path and took out the bumper cover and miscellaneous trim pieces. Our local body shop charged $1314 for the repair. Perhaps the raccoon missed seeing the anonymous Insight.
Judged by sales, the Prius is the gold standard of hybrid cars. Toyota sells three of them for every Insight that Honda sends into the world. No matter how easy it is to live with, or how well-mannered and pleasing it is to drive, the Insight falls behind the Prius year after year. More people should take notice. It got our attention, even though we occasionally mistook it for a Civic.
Months in Fleet: 13 months Current Mileage: 40,044 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 41 mpg
Fuel Tank Size: 10.6 gal Observed Fuel Range: 430 miles
Service: $399 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0
Damage and Destruction: $3665
As we approach the 40,000-mile endpoint of our time with the Honda Insight, we can’t help thinking of that moment in Forrest Gump when the title character stops running across the country and, with complete disregard for his followers keeping pace over the past umpteen months, decides to go home. Now, we’re not saying the Insight is dull or simple, but just that it goes about its own business with a stoic competence that we find endearing. It gets to work and does its job without a single complaint. It is a commuter savant.
Regardless of whether or not it is fun to drive, that no-nonsense approach makes the Insight our kind of car. It has even won over numerous staffers who initially discarded the Insight as a weeniemobile. “Eight months later, the Insight earns redemption,” starts one logbook entry. Early gripes about seat comfort, mainly that there wasn’t enough lumbar support or too much lumber support, have ceased. Maybe we finally broke in the Insight’s seatback, like a nice pair of leather hiking boots. We’re rarely going to reach for the Insight over our long-term Honda Civic Type R, especially since we’ve fitted the latter with snazzy 18-inch BBS wheels for the winter, but the zero-drama experience and efficiency of the Insight appeals to the logical adult inside of us.
Beyond gasoline, scheduled service, and windshield-washer solvent, the Insight hasn’t needed anything and continues to affirm the adage that Hondas are reliable rides. We’ve had the car for 11 months, and it hasn’t so much as thrown a check engine light (damage caused by us notwithstanding). The low-fuel warning light comes on with some frequency, but that is only because the fuel tank is so tiny. Staffers own lawnmowers with fuel capacities that rival the Insight’s 10.6-gallon tank. Those lawnmowers don’t average 41 mpg, although Honda does make a lawnmower with a higher top speed than the Insight.
Because we are so close to the end of our time with the Insight, we opted not to swap the car onto its winter tires, a set of Bridgestone Blizzak WS80s, because of the simple fact that we’ll soon test the car again at the 40K-mile mark and we don’t want to swap tires back and forth. If the Insight didn’t have decent all-season rubber from the start, we’d certainly make the change to winters. Being one of the only cars in our fleet currently not on winter tires has made it a little more popular around lunchtime and on our commutes, if only because all-season tires generate a bit less road noise than most winter tires.
Since the Insight’s last update, it has braved Chicago-area highways a couple of times on the way to Wisconsin and Minnesota, jaunted up to Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula as well as parts of its Upper Peninsula, and ventured to Nashville. One day soon it’ll go back to Honda, and the people who rely on it to get them around without fuss may be more vocal about its absence.
Months in Fleet: 11 months Current Mileage: 36,945 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 41 mpg
Fuel Tank Size: 10.6 gal Observed Fuel Range: 430 miles
Service: $399 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0
Damage and Destruction: $2321
Like a good pair of jeans, our long-term 2019 Honda Insight has only gotten better with age. No, it hasn’t suddenly found a knack for ripping through corners on the tail of the Civic Type R that shares our long-term garage. And we haven’t discovered the controls to convert what is an otherwise standard compact-car rear seat into a sliding and reclining davenport with sprawling legroom. Nor did we learn of a secret transmission mode that limits its droning on the highway. However, the Insight has improved on the one thing it is designed to do: sip fuel.
We record every fuel stop for every test car. Occasionally a fill-up is missed, and we do some creative arithmetic to eliminate those miles from our observed-fuel-economy calculation. A bunch of missed fill-ups will artificially increase the number, but we didn’t miss logging a single stop for gasoline in the Insight. Over the life of a long-termer, we may see the fuel-economy needle move 1 mpg between updates, but our Insight’s economy jumped 8 percent since our last check-in, from an average of 38 mpg to 41 mpg. The Honda has ventured on more trips of late, but even the in-town, urban-driving tanks have improved. Bottom line, the overall trend is more efficiency, and we’re at a bit of a loss for the reason.
Weather and fuel could be factors, but they’re potentially offsetting as it’s warmer in the summer months (not great for efficiency), and winter-blend fuel generally is not to be found in Michigan come spring (better for efficiency). Plus, prior to our last update, we removed the Honda’s winter tires, which rob any car of fuel economy due to their increased rolling resistance. A larger percentage of highway miles will certainly tip the needle in favor of efficiency, but 3 mpg is a haymaker of a swing. While we can’t pin the improvement to a single change, we assume it is a combination of a bunch of variables out of our control.
The staff continues to have its expectations tempered by the Insight’s performance. Print director Tony Quiroga calls it a “no fuss, zero-BS car,” and for that reason he loves it. “Perfect commuter,” says copy chief Carolyn Pavia-Rauchman. You’re not going to find much better praise for a small hybrid.
Equally good, our wallet withdrawals from scheduled maintenance certainly haven’t changed much. Routine service, just two stops, has cost us but $230 in total. We have, however, racked up quite a tally in the “oops, we broke it” department. In addition to the previously mentioned busted air-conditioning condenser, windshield replacement, and punctured tire, we had a couple of chips in the new windshield filled for $60. Forking over $2321 for avoidable damages on a car that costs just more than 10 times that amount unquestionably is a face-palm moment. Come to think of it, if we’re continually picking up stone chips and cracked windshields, the staff is probably keeping pace with traffic or enticing it to get out of our way, so maybe the uptick in fuel economy isn’t due to more highway driving but from increased drafting behind other vehicles. Either way, we will take it as a win and keep chugging to 40,000 miles.
Months in Fleet: 9 months Current Mileage: 28,975 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 41 mpg
Fuel-Tank Size: 10.6 gal Observed Fuel Range: 430 miles
Service: $230 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0
Damage and Destruction: $2321
Lonely is the life of a hybrid in the Car and Driver long-term fleet. Extra lonely is the life of the long-termer with the current honor of being the least powerful. Like the last kid sitting on the bench at recess, our 2019 Honda Insight‘s key hangs on our car board, last to be picked for the hunger games we call lunch. But that’s okay, because while the familiarity of moderately paced city driving may breed contempt in some of our staff, the Insight mostly acquits itself with crafty tech, comfortable seats, and decent fuel economy.
The Insight’s droning engine, which we covered previously, is the main reason staffers shy away from taking the car on long trips. But those who have done so have returned with a better respect for the Honda. “I did enjoy it more than I thought I would,” said associate editor Annie White after a weekend romp from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Maryland and back. The seats prove more than adequate for an extended voyage, which is something the Insight’s tiny, 10.6-gallon fuel tank makes difficult to experience. The meager fuel supply means we’ve had to stop for refills every 350 or so miles. It is worth noting that a similar Insight beat its 45-mpg EPA highway estimate by 2 mpg on our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test. That’s not too shabby for a car that starts at less than $25K, although our loaded Touring model tops the order sheet with a $28,985 as-tested price.
Our Insight’s roughly 14,000 miles thus far have not been completely uneventful. In early April, once Michigan began its two-month thaw, we noticed the car’s A/C was not working. After a quick look, our local dealer found that the condenser (a heat exchanger that looks like a radiator in the front of the car) had been damaged by what we assume was road debris. Replacing the condenser and recharging the system relieved us of $1125. We also had to replace a cracked windshield for $865, which on its own didn’t seem outrageous. But learning that the cameras and sensors hidden beneath it in the rearview-mirror housing require a $120 calibration had the silent feel of extortion. On the upside, service is practically pocket change. The Insight’s onboard computer has so far called for just one service, an “A1” in Honda speak, which translated to an oil change and tire rotation that set us back a whopping $67.
In addition to contributing to the car’s droning highway character, the winter tires we fitted in January, a set of perfectly fine OE-size Bridgestone Blizzak WS80s, hampered the Insight’s fuel economy a bit. At about a third of the way through our test, we’re now averaging 38 mpg, up 1 mpg from the initial miles set on winter tires.
One comment in the Insight’s logbook noted that the engine’s startup was uncharacteristically lumpy, so much so that passengers could feel the 1.5-liter chugging at idle. It smoothed out in a few miles yet has since been noticed on more than one occasion. While it’s not so rough as to warrant a separate trip to the dealer, we’ll be sure to ask the service techs to take a close look at the Insight’s engine mounts when it goes in for its next scheduled service. Such is the life of the loneliest long-term car in our fleet.
Months in Fleet: 5 months Current Mileage: 13,834 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 38 mpg
Fuel-Tank Size: 10.6 gal Observed Fuel Range: 390 miles
Service: $67 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0
Damage and Destruction: $2261
No, your eyes are not deceiving you. From 5000 feet it may look like we got another long-term Civic sedan in Cosmic Blue hue and Touring trim, just like the one that left our office months ago, but a Civic this Insight is not. Not that there is anything wrong with the color; we just prefer a little more differentiation among our fleet cars. But it so happens that Honda has positioned its third-gen Insight to be a lot more like the 10Best-winning Civic than ever before.
No more is the Insight an ultraniche product that looks different from anything else in the showroom. The Insight essentially takes the place of a Civic hybrid by sharing its architecture and Indiana assembly facility with the Civic sedan. Gone is the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system—a motor sandwiched between engine and transmission—which Prius owners turned up their noses at. Fun fact unrelated to this Insight: the term “mild hybrid” was coined by Toyota marketers selling the more complex Prius to poke at the relative simplicity of the first Insight.
This new Insight, however, has adopted a version of the hybrid transaxle from the Accord hybrid, and it isn’t really even a transmission because it never changes gears—both engine and motor drive the wheels via direct drive. It is simple in that sense but complex in its control strategy. As in a Prius, there are two AC motors and an Atkinson-cycle engine. At lower speeds, the 129-hp drive motor provides propulsion through a 2.45:1 direct drive. The second motor is primarily a generator driven by the 1.5-liter inline-four, but at higher speeds, the engine is capable of directly driving the wheels through a 0.81:1 ratio. Maximum thrust is achieved through a combination of the drive motor and engine, which provide at most a combined 151 horsepower.
It was this transaxle’s combination of macro simple and micro complex that drew us to want 40,000 miles with the car. Interestingly, this is one of the few vehicles in which we have evaluated every generation with a long-term test. In the first-gen Insight test, we learned that you had to work very hard to get less than 40 mpg. The second-gen test confirmed the Insight was infinitely better to drive than its contemporary Prius.
While we haven’t been able to replicate the 43 mpg we averaged in a test last year, driving the Insight is a wonderfully pleasant thing. All signs point to the third-gen combining the experiences we had with the previous two Insights, albeit with a few caveats—the first being the 37 mpg we’ve averaged. That’s more than 10 mpg worse than its EPA combined estimate, and there may be a totally understandable reason. When the Insight showed up last month, we immediately put winter tires on it. The Bridgestone Blizzak WS80, which in the OE size of 215/50R-17 cost $689 (without installation), surely hurt fuel economy because of their increased rolling resistance, but how much will be determined when we put the all-season Continentals back on this spring.
And as far as pleasantness behind the wheel, that only applies to “normal” driving. Hustle the Honda hybrid outside of a gentle cruise and the buzziness of the 1.5-liter engine, incessantly spinning the generator to keep up with demand, envelops the cabin. The first time you need max thrust when merging onto the highway, you’re taken aback by the uncouth drone; once up to speed on the freeway, the Insight settles down and feels like a grown-up Civic.
In $28,985 Touring spec, a $4030 premium over a mid-grade Insight EX, brings rain-sensing wipers, a sunroof, LED fog lights, dual-zone climate control, leather seats, heated front seats, navigation, and a 10-speaker audio system (up from eight in the EX and six in the LX). The base Insight LX starts just $1230 below the EX but lacks Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability, which are integrated with an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, found in EX and Touring trims.
On its initial trip to the test track, our long-term Insight performed as expected, accelerating to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds. That’s quick enough to earn the Insight rocket-ship status among its peers—the Hyundai Ioniq is more than a second in the rear, and a Prius needs more than a 10 count to hit 60. The Insight stopped from 70 mph in 179 feet and stuck to the skidpad with 0.83 g in lateral acceleration.
Neither of those chassis scores are anything to brag about, yet somehow the Insight exudes a sense of sophistication and refinement from behind the wheel—that is, as long as you keep the engine out of the noisy trawls of maximum power. We doubt we’ll stay out of that noisy range too much as we solider toward the 40,000-mile finish line, but we’ll try.
Months in Fleet: 1 month Current Mileage: 3919 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 37 mpg
Fuel Tank Size: 10.6 gal Observed Fuel Range: 390
Service: $0 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0
Damage and Destruction: $151