Written by Gary and Genie Anderson
WEDNESDAY, 01 JULY 2009
Photo Courtesy Of Honda
The Honda Insight, pictured, is more fuel efficient than the Toyota Camry Hybrid, but the Camry has a luxurious edge, according to the Andersons.
With prices for regular gas creeping past $3 a gallon again, and several new hybrids on the market, we were pleased this past month to have two hybrids in our driveway to review, the 2010 Honda Insight and the 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid.
Because these two vehicles aren’t quite comparable – the Insight is aimed at the desire for ultimate fuel efficiency, while the Camry is a more luxurious vehicle enhanced by its “hybridness” – we thought they should be compared to their direct counterparts, the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid.
You would be forgiven, even by the designers of the car, if you mistook the Insight for a Toyota Prius. The resemblance between the two seems intentional rather than coincidental. Because a number of commentators and blogs have suggested that driving a Prius is a form of vehicular one-upmanship, the Insight’s clonelike Prius look certainly allows drivers who wish to project an environmental image to drive the Insight with confidence.
In other respects, however, Toyota has already raised the bar with its recent introduction of the second-generation Prius. The Insight is an excellent vehicle, is built with Honda’s normal attention to quality, costs a little less than the Prius and is quite comparable to the first-generation Prius.
However, based on comparative specifications, and a brief exposure to the new Prius, we’d have to say that the improvements Toyota has made in the new version tip the scale slightly in its favor.
Moving up the scale a bit toward comfort and size at the expense of fuel efficiency and price, we also drove the Toyota Camry Hybrid this month. Its direct competitor in the Honda stable is the Civic Hybrid. Demand for both of these models hasn’t been at all comparable to the Prius, which many observers believe is because they don’t have a distinctive look of their own. In all respects other than powertrain and cargo space (sacrificed to accommodate the extra batteries), they are identical to the nonhybrid Civic and Camry.
We can’t say that we are enthusiastic about the Prius/Insight appearance. However, that’s not going to factor into the equation for the buyer considering these models, because the two cars are virtually identical and intentionally distinctive.
Their quirky looks are claimed by the designers to be driven by the desire for improvement in aerodynamics and provision for ample cargo space. Though friends who own these cars claim they’ve gotten used to the split rear window necessitated by the hatchback design and good cargo space, we found it disconcerting to see two windows every time we looked into the rearview mirror.
We did like the styling of both the more upscale Civic and Camry. Honda and Toyota have done a nice job of putting together neat packages that are handsome without being trendy, and they both are quite functional in their interior packaging.
The Civic Hybrid and Camry Hybrid are also comparable to one another in price, which is surprising given that the Camry is a much larger car, with its longer length and wheelbase translating directly into more legroom for rear passengers. However, that additional size also translates directly into 800 pounds of additional curb weight, which may help explain why the Camry offers the lowest fuel efficiency of these four hybrids.
When reviewing other cars, we would normally move on at this point to discuss performance and handling, but we suspect that anyone who has gotten very far in considering these cars really doesn’t care. That’s fortunate, because neither handling nor performance is the strong suit of any of these four cars.
Don’t get us wrong; we have no complaints, especially in the handling department. All four cars are perfectly safe at normal speeds and when undertaking normal maneuvering, up to and including abrupt lane changes to avoid collisions. In fact, we note that the new Prius is getting kudos for improvements in the precision of its handling, and the Insight’s handling is comparable to any other small car its size, hybrid or not.
The point is simply that anyone interested in how fast they can take an on-ramp, or negotiate a backroad curve, would be totally dissatisfied with the performance of the Insight and Prius. In fact, if you are driving a typical high-performance car, keep in mind that the small hybrid ahead of you isn’t going slow on the on-ramp because it wants to irritate you. While many sedans can reach up to traffic speeds today in less than 6 seconds, it takes the Prius and Insight more than 10 seconds to get to that same speed.
No, the whole point of these little hybrids is how well they perform as transportation appliances, designed to move people and cargo from point A to point B at the lowest cost per mile.
When considered in those terms, we have to come to the conclusion that the new Prius is probably the better buy, though a loyal Honda buyer wouldn’t be disappointed with the Insight.
If the potential fuel cost savings from the higher mileage rating of the Prius is factored against its higher purchase price (a calculation conveniently provided on the Toyota customer Web site), total ownership costs are nearly the same.
Though sharing many design cues, the Prius is slightly larger than the Insight, which provides more rear passenger space and more cargo space. The interior of the new Prius also is slightly more luxurious. Our only quibbles with the Prius are that we don’t like its center-mounted gauge read-outs and felt a little hemmed in by the high center console.
On the other hand, the comparison between the Civic and the Camry isn’t quite so straightforward. The Camry is fancier, and has much more space for rear passengers than the Civic, with the advantage going to the Camry. However, the Civic gets better mileage than the Camry – nearly identical with the Insight, as a matter of fact – and it is less expensive. Run the numbers of total ownership cost, and the advantage goes to the Civic.
With either the Civic or the Camry, you’ll also get a car that is larger and more luxurious than the Insight or Prius. You’ll just have to decide how important it is to you to tell the world of your environmental consciousness.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.