The 2010 Honda Insight and Toyota Prius

It’s not exactly hot news any longer, but earlier this month Honda and Toyota pre-announced new or improved small hybrid vehicles. In Honda’s case, it was a brand new platform with an old name, the 2010 Honda Insight. In Toyota’s case, it was the redesigned 2010 Prius.

The 2010 Honda Insight

Honda has revealed more information about the new Insight than Toyota has about the next iteration of the Prius, so it’s easier to analyze the Insight’s pluses and minuses. The 5-door Insight’s styling is very similar to that of the Prius (although it can be argued that Toyota borrowed from Honda’s styling of the original Insight when it created the Prius). With the Prius as the benchmark, though, you might sum up by saying that the Insight is less in several regards: The overall size is smaller, the gas engine is smaller, its EPA fuel economy is rated at 40/43 (less than the Prius), and it’s expected to be less expensive than the Prius — although, neither manufacturer has revealed pricing as I write this.

Specifically, the new Honda Insight has a 1.3-liter semisingle-overhead-cam, 8-valve, 4-cylinder engine that makes 98 horsepower. By U.S. standards, that’s a small engine for a car whose curb weight is 2723 pounds. The 10-kilowatt electric motor delivers 13 hp. It should be noted that Honda’s hybrid technology uses a very small “assist” electric motor. (For comparison: Toyota’s 2009 Prius employs a much larger 50-kilowatt, 67-horsepower electric motor. According to Toyota’s preliminary specifications, the 2010 Prius electric motor will make 80 horsepower.)

The Insight has a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) and a nickel-metal hydride battery, a combination found on many other hybrids. The wheelbase is 100.4 inches. Honda’s approach is to go smaller and lighter — a strategy that makes sense given that the power-to-weight ratio is a big issue in hybrid vehicles, and even more importantly, weight has a huge impact on fuel economy.

Pricing is an important part of the Insight value proposition. Although Honda has not released pricing, industry observers have pegged it as possibly starting as low as $18,000 or $19,000, which is several thousand dollars less than the 2009 Prius.

But is less really more? That’s difficult to judge from a spec sheet. The Insight is expected to be available in April. Honda’s Insight website offers detailed specs, but for more information, see the 2010 Honda Insight press release.

Finally, I was let down by the final design and trim out of the 2010 Honda Insight. It doesn’t live up to the concept vehicles that came before it. To me it looks faintly reminiscent of a smaller 2001 Dodge Stratus with a Prius rear end. The front grill looks cheesy. Honda’s U.S. vehicles have, in general, lost their design appeal. My 1989 Accord was gorgeous in comparison with the current day Accord. The 2010 Insight isn’t butt ugly, like the previous generations of the Prius. It’s just bland.

The third-generation 2010 Prius

Toyota is calling this vehicle its “third generation Prius,” but as I predicted in earlier posts, it does not offer a lighter-weight lithium-ion battery pack. There are significant hurdles of safety and manufacturing that Toyota and others have not been able to iron yet pertaining to mass production lithium-ion batteries for hybrid vehicles. Even so, Toyota has managed to upgrade its technology in several significant ways.

The conservative body changes are also not the “pretty Prius” that was heavily rumored last year. The biggest change is is a nearly four-inch pushback of the hump in the roofline and some pillar repositioning to improve aerodynamics and deliver more rear-seat headroom where it’s needed. The cargo area is over two inches wider, and a tad longer. Toyota claims that the redesign also reduces the new Prius’ coefficient of drag to an impressive 0.25 (down from 0.26).

The 2010 Prius gets a larger, higher torque 98-horsepower Atkinson-cycle 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine. Toyota says this larger engine (the old one was 1.61.5 liters) will deliver better fuel economy at highway speeds because it will be strong enough to run in a higher gear range (added for the 2010 Prius), even on inclines. And while this hasn’t been EPA-tested yet, Toyota is predicting 50/ 50 miles per gallon in combined driving.

Several changes are aimed at reducing power consumption. Toyota lightened its electric motivation system by trimming the size and weight of the electric motor, inverter, and transaxle. (Imagine if they paired that with a lighter battery pack.) The new Prius also offers LED low-beam headlights on some trim lines. The air conditioning system has been reengineered for cool-down efficiency.

Perhaps more importantly for those in colder climes, the heating system is more efficient in the 2010 Prius. I get about 5 miles per gallon less in the dead of winter in my 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The Prius probably doesn’t take this much of a hit because it was designed from scratch as a hybrid. The Highlander Hybrid’s heat is slow to take effect, so you really need the anemic heated seat to get through a New England winter. The gas engine has to run more frequently to make cabin heat. On really cold days, I’m not driving for gas mileage — I’m driving to warm up!

The new Prius has several new systems and functions that may be more glitzy than truly useful. But they’re also kind of cool. For example, an optional sliding-glass moonroof contains solar panels that can power a ventilation system even when the car is parked and off. It reduces cabin temperature on sunny days, reducing the initial cool-down period for air conditioning.

Some of the more advanced — and clearly in need of real-world testing — features include Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Keep Assist, the Pre-Collision System, and Intelligent Parking Assist. Each of these uses technology designed to save you from yourself, and, as such, I’m not a big fan. On the other hand, I haven’t tried them either.

Toyota’s 2010 Prius website is a triumph of form over function that doesn’t actually impart much more than basic bullet points about what’s new. Even the pictures of the new Prius there are based on a late prototype, not the final vehicle. The 2010 Prius press release is far more detailed. Check it out for more information. Until there are more hard facts on the 2010 Prius, you can refer to the 2009 Prius specs for details, since many things — such as its 106.3-inch wheelbase — are unchanged.

My On-Paper Assessment

It should be noted that while both the Insight and Prius are 5-door hatchbacks, the Prius is larger than the Insight. It’s also likely that the Prius base price will be at least $2,000 more than that of the Insight, and the cost delta could be as much as $5,000. Toyota is very busy watching its bottom line these days. The point: These cars are not really quite in the same class. If you want a low-cost hybrid that gets over 40 mpg and has a back seat and a fifth door, the Honda may be just fine for your needs.

Based on the specs we have to date, however, for me it would be no contest in favor of the Prius. I believe performance, both in terms of pick up and gas mileage, will be better in the Toyota hybrid. (The Honda is very likely to offer better handling.) The Prius also offers more cargo space. These are the most important things to me.

In the real world where people have varying priorities, there’s more than enough room for two 5-door hybrids. Both vehicles will be successful, and despite their similarity in appearance, will appeal to different types of buyers.

15 Responses to “The 2010 Honda Insight and Toyota Prius”

  1. FireEngineer Says:

    The Gen 2 Prius was a 1.5 liter, sorry minor quibble. The new solar/moonroof is very nice, but only will be coming as one package. The solar will only operate the vent fan to keep the cabin somewhat cooler, so no purpose other than that. The solar option also gives you the ability to turn the AC on, by remote control, before you reach the car. It will run for about 3 minutes and then shut down to save charge on the hybrid battery.
    While they look nice the LED headlamps are not quite as bright as the current HID lamps. Word is right now that the LED lamps cannot be had with the moonroof.
    The intelligent parking assist has been an option on Japanese cars since 2004, so proven. The radar cruise control, lane assist and pre-collision are carried from the Lexus line. The same with the new for Prius exhaust heat recovery, was previously on Lexus vehicles.
    Thank goodness the fuel tank bladder is gone.
    The EPA will be 50 MPG, but if you get the optional 17 inch wheels expect to drop 3 MPG accordaing to Toyotas own testing.
    The new Prius is a good step up from the original. It’s base price should be close to the current model. However, Toyota probably won’t have a model with all the option, it’s cost would be to close to the Lexus 250h.

  2. Scot Says:

    Right you are, 1.5 liters on the gas engine of the previous-generation Prius. I’ll fix in the story.

    The main advantage of the solar panel is to cut down on the need to run your air conditioning at full blast to push out the hot air. I agree, it’s of limited use. I opted to skip the remote air conditioning feature. Both of these features seem to me to be more glitz than useful. You could just open all your windows. My 1995 Nissan Maxima offered a feature that lowered all the windows part way from the key fob. I’d rather have that feature than these bells and whistles.

    — Scot

  3. ke11eyman Says:

    What is a “semi-overhead-cam” engine? Why do you say that a 98 hp engine is small for a car that weighs 2723 (Insight), when the Prius also has a 98 hp engine and weighs 200 pounds more?

  4. Scot Says:

    Good questions, especially given that I wrote “semi” when I should have written “single.” SOHC stands for Single Overhead Cam. And I’ll correct that. As for what it is, I’d have to spend several paragraphs to explain how an engine works, and the variations on how they work. Similarly, I would have to spend a lot of space to explain what random-access memory (RAM) means too. I’m sorry if you don’t understand these things, but some understanding is expected. Or you could Google it.

    Horsepower is only one measure of power delivered by an engine. Another is torque. The maximum power delivery also comes at a different engine RPM. If you have to rev up pretty high to reach maximum horsepower, for example, that’s not going to translate into peppy performance, especially if you’re not driving a manual transmission. With a hybrid vehicle, you also need to analyze the power delivered by the electric motor. According to Toyota, the net horsepower of the 2010 Prius hybrid system (combining both gas engine and electric motor), is 134 horsepower. The gas engine makes 105 lb-ft of torque and the electric motor delivers 153 lb-ft.

    The story I wrote was a basic comparison of specifications, not a review. I’m reporting merely what information Honda and Toyota have offered publicly about the two vehicles, which are not even for sale yet. So, the true analysis of the performance of the two gas engines in these vehicles will have to wait for hands-on test drives.

    Finally, I didn’t say that 98 hp was small for the Insight’s weight. My main point was that a 1.3-liter engine seemed small for that weight, especially given the small size and power output of the electric motor.

    — Scot

  5. brucemccrory Says:

    This obsession with numbers, look, and motivation is familiar. My own cars are a product of several years of critical research, of which casual on-the-street queries have yielded more accurate results. Numbers research is important, however.

    Prius, or Insight clone, I have never gotten over the Jetson’s-like fashion statement presented in the early Honda product. Our latest vehicle upgrade included a test of the Prius. It was definitely a futuristic experience, and not really to our comfort level. Questions like, “is it running, and why isn’t there a video of the road ahead so we can see where we are going, too …” drifted back to the “bodyguard” salesman, who *we* asked to join us in the test drive. Being more inclined toward defensive and avoidance driving, we decided to follow our ingrained habits and instincts.

    Finally, considering hybrids implies a conscience greater than, hopefully, a marketing groomed display symbol. ‘Conservation minded’ has always been our focus. Some of us baby boomers were actually trained by parents who lived in the Depression Era, then raised us on War surplus bargains. I never researched the carbon impact of the Prius, but suspect my 1970 Renault R-10 which sipped 32gpm at 5mph below valve-float (110 mph) was more light-footed. It could even mount hills that 4-wheelers played on, with far less energy expenditure. And, when it was too costly for college days was turned over to Dad, who re-tuned it for 45 mpg.

    Critical thinking is good. It is one of those lessons from youth. Social history repeats itself.


  6. JETninja Says:

    An editor of the LA Times drove the new Insight and his lasting comment when in comparing it to the current Prius (not driven the new one yet, but doubt it will change) is that the Honda like all Honda’s is fun to drive, good handling and the driver feels more a part of it. The Prius is like driving your Microwave. (his comment!) Same could always be said in Civic vs Corolla, Accord vs Camray, etc. Depends on what you want out of a car.
    My DD is a ’95 M3 (modded, 300hp, 3000lbs, 50/50 weight distribution, rwd, and 25mpg) so you know where I stand…Smilles per mile. But a fun reliable Hybrid is a good thing…..I’m still afraid of where those used up batteries will end up, and the Pit where the materials to make them is dug up is just plain scary…..

  7. Scot Says:

    I love Honda’s performance orientation and excellence in drivetrain engineering too, but I have my doubts that this is more fun to drive than the Prius in all ways. I’ll give you that the Insight will almost certainly be more tossable. I bet it handles better than the Prius. That isn’t a Toyota strength on most of its platforms.

    But when you do the math on the propulsion systems in both vehicles, it doesn’t bode well for the Honda. One of the things that the electric motors add is grunt. I see this every day in driving my Toyota Highlander Hybrid. It howls like a banshee, but when you tromp on it, the Highlander gets up and goes. And that’s because both the engine and the traction system come on simultaneously under load.

    We should soon start seeing early reviews of the 2010 Prius, but I would be very surprised if the Honda can beat the Prius on acceleration times.

    — Scot

  8. Scot Says:


    I agree that the Prius takes some getting used to. My hybrid is much more conventional in operation. I drove a friend to the airport not long after I got my first Highlander Hybrid. When we got to the airport parking lot, they had a special, convenient parking area for hybrids. I followed the signs to that area, and my friend asked me what I was doing. I said, “this is a hybrid.” She was incredulous. “Really?” She said that twice. You really wouldn’t know if you didn’t know. And many hybrids are that way — Toyota opted to make the Prius stand out.

    My wife hated the Prius. Ultimately, she decided the way back was too small for a full grocery shopping and the two kids’ car seats overwhelmed the back seats (this was a 2006 Prius). But what she hated most was the glitzy display in the front. She thought it was distracting and also gimmicky. So, I think that feeds into some of your comments, Bruce.

    But I would argue your point. The Prius is a relatively inexpensive vehicle that offers a lot of utility and versatility in a small mid-size car. If Toyota is making money on the Prius, it isn’t much. The 5-door design is eminently practical, and the thing really does get 40+ miles per gallon, and that’s both around town and on the highway. The pre-2010 models actually did better around town. And for many of us, around town is where we do most of our driving.

    I think if you commute long distances by freeway, that it probably does make more sense to consider a fuel-efficient gas-engine small car (Toyota’s latest Corolla and Honda’s Civic, as well as their smaller Fit and Yaris models, are good choices).

  9. scuzzy Says:

    These cars are certainly engineering marvels, but it’s difficult to get excited over such ugly cars. While that’s a matter of opinion, I’d rather not drive a “fashion statement”.

    When the cars get more of a mainstream look, I’ll be much more interested in taking one for a test drive.

    Regardless, I appreciate your writings on the subject.

  10. ke11eyman Says:

    Scott – I fully understand the diffence between flat heads, overhead valve, single overhead cam and even double overhead cam engines. I’ve driven several of each over the years. I just wasn’t sure if you meant single or hemi.
    We used to believe in cubic horsepower, but have come to learn that small free reving engines can produce more horsepower per cubic inch than large slow reving beasts, and do so more economically. I’ve also driven a lot of 100 hp compacts – some were sprightly – others not so much.

  11. Scot Says:

    ke11yman, so if you fully understand then why are you asking a rhetorical question? And, c’mon, a hemi? Yes, I made a mistake. I admitted it. I corrected it. Can we get over it?

    I don’t know who the “we” is in your message, but “free reving” engines and a CVT don’t really go hand in hand. I’d agree with you if Honda’s 1.3-liter engine were mated to a manual transmission, or even a solid automatic say with paddle shifting, but it’s not.

    So you’re saying that neither the displacement nor the horsepower matters. And I would agree with you that a test drive is absolutely required to evaluate any new vehicle. But, then again, this wasn’t a review. It was an analysis of two brand new sets of specifications, including displacement, horsepower, torque, etc. Until we’ve both driven both vehicles, and there’s something more concrete to discuss, I’ll stand by my question about whether a 1.3-liter, 98 hp gas engine assisted by a small 13-hp electric motor has enough oomph for a vehicle that weighs some 2700 pounds.

    I’ll give you an example that I think lends credence to my point. Let’s take the Honda Fit. It’s got a 1.5-liter, 117-hp engine, it weighs 200 pounds less at 2,500 pounds, and Honda offers a 5-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic (and the Fit Sport has paddle shifters). And the Honda Fit is no screamer zero to 60.

  12. JETninja Says:

    Acceleration has nothing to do with handling or car feel (except in one aspect, the butt! Important I agree!) A lot of old Detroit iron was hellbent in a straight line, enter a turn or brake and hold on tight though….There’s also that famous Toyota ability to numb the driver from any road feel or intrusion of the outside world to the senses. If thats your cake, cool. I’ll tell you this, my car when I gas it brings me killer smiles (4.9 0-60, 13.2 1/4), but it’s the insane brakes and ability to corner that really opens my eyes…..(I totally have to re-calibrate myself when I drive our ’07 Oddy Minivan) I don’t expect car like this to be like my M3, but there is a reason why BMW’s, Accord’s, Civics, Mazda 3’s, Pilots and Odyssey’s always win C&D Mag comparos over their counterparts from Toyota/Lexus……

    Remember, the Miata was a huge success, low HP but great handling and feel…..of course if it had another 100hp…..LOL!

    I agree on the CVT thing, drove one car with it and didn’t like it. The Insight does come with Paddles though for some shift action. (just saw a Motorweek test in HD just 10min ago)

    If things were better I’d much rather see the modern diesels here. Turbo versions can be chipped for unreal torque numbers and acceleration, and better mpg then Hybrids. But with the growth in the 3rd world, there is not enough diesel fuel as it is, and not enough plants coming online here to make more, so prices will only climb…….and “Hybrid” is the hip word all over these days. A diesel engine will last a very long time, don’t even want to imagine todays hybrids 10-15yrs down the road. Sad…..

    Cheers Dude!

  13. Scot Says:

    Thanks for the input, I agree with a lot of your points JETninja. You’re right about the paddles. And the fact that this CVT has paddles means that there may be something more to this transmission than some other CVTs. So, maybe there is something there that would maximize the engine’s meager power. I hope so, I hope so. I have to admit, I’m still a bit of a skeptic.

    It’s not like I’m looking for a boy racer hybrid, by the way. I just think that if Honda hasn’t optimized for performance, it’s not going to get adoption in the U.S. market. Hybrids aren’t selling now because oil prices are down. In my area, people have gone back to buying large SUVs because there are heavy discounts on them. But how short-sighted is that? The U.S. needs hybrids that don’t feel like a K car to drive. The early adopters who liked ugly have already adopted. I’ve had high hopes that Honda would expand the hybrid to a whole new class of driver.

    I hate to say it, but I see diesel as a short-term transitional thing for personal people movers. Yes, diesel is more efficient, gallon for gallon. But we need something that’s not petroleum based IMO. Hybrids are also transitional.

    I have no particular concern about hybrid longevity. Yes, any vehicle that has two motive systems has more that can go wrong. But a battery has no moving mechanical parts. In my state, they’re warranted for 10 years. If the battery goes, it’s about the price of a new transmission to replace it.

    It may affect resale value at six years, but depending on oil prices, it’s hard to say which way it will affect it.

    My take, oil prices are going to go back up when the economy returns.

    So … I have bigger things to worry about. 😉

  14. rkwagner Says:

    “But, since the Insight is not quite a “full” hybrid, with a very limited ability to run on pure electric alone like the Toyota Prius, Government Fuel Economy ratings are lower than you might expect – 40 city and 43 highway. But, in our initial drive we were able to get into the 50’s without really trying too hard.”

    The above is from Motorweeks test drive of the new Honda Insight. Having owned many Honda’s in the past and currently driving an Accord Hybrid, I’m willing to bet the Insight will equal or better the Prius. I’ve always gotten better than EPA estimates with my Honda’s.

  15. Scot Says:

    I read the review a few days ago.

    Anyone who owns a hybrid can tell you that it’s easy to have a high gas mileage number, especially after you reset the measurement tool. I’ve had my Highlander Hybrid up in to the 90 mpg range. It’s pretty meaningless. The fact that Motorweek (not exactly the best motor publication on planet earth) got the Insight into the 50s isn’t that significant on its own. This is the same review that also describes the Insight as being “almost peppy.” What does that mean? They also say they they didn’t have high performance expectations and those expectations were fully met. As someone who has written thousands of reviews and edited plenty more, these guys are masters of not saying anything meaningful — or worse, that can be taken two ways.

    Bottom line: I don’t really know whether the Insight does better than the EPA ratings. It might. I don’t know whether its performance is peppy. You are welcome to make as many assumptions and bring-your-own-past-performance points of view as you want to it.

    I am merely comparing the specifications of these two vehicles. That’s it. I actually made very few evaluative statements about either vehicle. I can add a piece of past performance that may be more meaningful: The Civic Hybrid, which is similar in many ways to the Insight, doesn’t get as good gas mileage as the previous Prius. So it does not surprise me that the Insight doesn’t get the EPA rating that the 2009 Prius got. We don’t even know what the 2010’s EPA rating is yet. So there are a lot of unknowns.

    Let’s all wait until we have some real facts.

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