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By Brady Holt
If you’re shopping for an affordable hybrid, chances are you’re looking at the best-selling Toyota Prius or its Hyundai Ioniq rival, which the Sentinel reviewed earlier this year.
But there’s a new rival to these compact hatchbacks: the 2019 Honda Insight, essentially a gas-electric version of the Civic sedan, only designed to blend in rather than stand out.
With a competitive starting price of $23,725 and EPA ratings of up to 52 mpg in mixed driving, the new Insight is a new small sedan that’s an appealing fit for puttering around Montgomery County.
Nineteen years ago, the first-generation Insight was the first hybrid sold in the United States. Like the dozens of models that followed it, that Insight combined a gasoline engine with an electric motor. Thanks to the electric motor’s help, the engine needed less gasoline, improving gas mileage.
That’s the same approach that continues today, only in a greatly improved package. The first-generation Insight was a two-seat hatchback, a diminutive transportation pod built mainly to sip fuel. Today’s model combines comfortable seating for four (five in a pinch) with even better gas mileage. In today’s EPA testing, the first-generation Insight managed 47 mpg with its optional automatic transmission — 5 mpg less than the bigger, heavier 2019 model.
The Insight is the spiritual successor to the Civic Hybrid, a gas-electric Civic sedan that Honda sold from 2003 to 2015. Honda is hoping to combine the Insight’s name recognition with the everyday functionality that won fans for the Civic Hybrid over the years.
The Civic Hybrid did see fewer and fewer fans toward the end of its life — but a likely culprit was a dwindling fuel economy advantage. The 2015 Civic Hybrid averaged 44 mpg, not only worse than the competing Prius but even than Honda’s own larger Accord Hybrid.
The 2019 Insight is rated at 52 mpg in the base LX and midlevel EX trims, and 48 mpg in the tested top-level Touring. The 52-mpg rating matches the most-common Prius configuration (an extra-miserly Eco version manages 56 mpg).
Like the Prius, the Insight can accelerate at low speeds in all-electric mode and also sometimes switch off the engine even at highway speeds. However, the tested Insight returned highway mileage in the low-40s — in line with a gas-only Civic.
The Insight also doesn’t have the sporty feel of the Civic. Thanks to its electric motor, the Insight accelerates silently at low speeds, but when you need any extra oomph, the gas engine activates with an unhappy drone. And while there’s a selectable sport mode, the steering and handling responses remain muted. That’s not to say the Insight is terribly slow, noisy or otherwise unpleasant to drive — just that it’s not especially sporty. The same applies to the Prius and Ioniq.
The Insight’s interior quality trumps those competitors, though, especially in the generously leather-trimmed Touring trim. The Prius in particular focuses on futuristic styling over plush build quality, while the Insight and Ioniq offer user-friendly controls and the latest smartphone connectivity, but anonymous interior styling.
The Insight also doesn’t try to look hybrid-like on the outside — similar to the Civic Hybrid but unlike the previous two Insight generations. It’s more like a toned-down Civic sedan. For a Honda hybrid that looks out of the ordinary, upgrade to the $34,295 Clarity, a midsize plug-in hybrid that can go up to 48 miles on an electric charge before needing help from its gas engine.
Because the Insight is a sedan instead of a hatchback, you don’t get a big open-cargo hold if you fold down the rear seat, as you would in the Ioniq or Prius. The Insight does at least have a nice 15 cubic feet of trunk space, among the best of today’s compact sedans.
Overall, the Insight won’t be your first choice for highway driving, carrying cargo or standing out visually. But for refinement, fuel economy and value, you won’t want to overlook this Honda.
Visit tinyurl.com/insight-sentinel to see more photos of the tested 2019 Honda Insight.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.