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
semi-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
1.6 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 .
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.