It was a decade ago that Toyota started the hybrid revolution in the U.S. with its first-generation Prius – and now, American car buyers have many hybrid options available.
Hybrids run the gamut of price and performance. At the low end, there's Honda's Insight, a $19,800 five-door hatchback; at the top of the market, there's BMW's $102,300 ActiveHybrid 7 Series sedan. Let's look a bit more closely at the cheapest hybrid options – after all, saving fuel and money is one of the main reasons to drive a hybrid vehicle.
The Insight is, in fact, the cheapest hybrid available in the U.S. Its packaging is modeled after Toyota's popular Prius; they even look quite similar. The Insight beat the previous-generation Prius in this January 2009 head-to-head comparison – but the Prius was redesigned for 2010, and some reviewers like the new, $21,000 Prius better.
In that camp is Consumer Reports, the influential product-review magazine. David Champion, the director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center, said the Insight "is the most disappointing Honda [the magazine had] tested in a long time." He called it a "noisy, stiff-riding car with clumsy handling."
Yet Car and Driver, in a 2009 comparison test, lauded the Insight's more carlike qualities. The magazine noted that "the brake pedal is firmer and less quirky" than the Prius' – and said the little Honda possessed "a sense of involvement and control that was sorely lacking in the [Toyota]."
On balance, it appears that the Insight and Prius are similar. Both have very strong reliability ratings from Consumer Reports, and both are useful as commuter vehicles. Each has its strengths: The Prius, by consensus, is quieter and more comfortable; the Insight is more fun to drive and a bit cheaper.
But one important factor does tip in the Prius' favor: fuel economy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Insight gets 40 miles per gallon in the city, 43 on the highway and 41 overall; the Prius scores 51 in the city, 48 in highway driving and 50 overall.
In the real world, of course, mileage depends on a number of factors. But there's no way around the fact that the Prius scores better in the government's mileage tests. And for hybrid buyers looking to squeeze every last drop of fuel, the superior fuel economy figures posted by the Prius may give it a slight edge.