Barely ten years ago, buyers in search of a hybrid motor car had only two real options; the original Toyota Prius and Honda's rather oddball two-seater Insight. Prius Mark 1 was an undistinguished design, cloaking its innovation beneath a skin of stunning blandness. In stark contrast, the first Insight was quirky and futuristic, with faired in rear wheels, a compact footprint and genuinely exceptional fuel economy. Toyota quickly caught on, and the second generation Prius marked a bolder design direction, establishing the teardrop form that has since come to signify hybrid power to the world.
By pushing the Prius name as a byword for hybrid, Toyota managed to corner vast swathes of this nascent market, leaving Honda scrabbling about for scraps. It didn't help that subsequent Honda hybrids - the Civic, for example - don't exactly shout about their abilities. So we're happy to report that the new generation Insight marks a quiet return to form, albeit by apeing the slippery yet practical form of the Prius.
If nothing else, the new Honda Insight demonstrates that hybrids have truly come of age. The practical four-door body, sensible price and functional, well-built interior is pitched squarely at the sober-minded consumer in the market for economical, trouble-free motoring with just a slight whiff of techno-futurism. On the road, the Insight is competent but hardly thrilling, smooth and responsive but also somewhat sluggish, a trait for which it can hardly be deplored in the current climate.
Honda has thoughtfully instilled the Insight with a soupcon of artificial intelligence, thanks to the dashboard Eco Assist meter that sprouts more and more green leaves in response to a gentle, fuel-sipping driving style. Switch off the ECON button and start mashing the pedals and your hard-won greenery is ruthlessly pruned.
For all its efficiency, inside and outside, we can't help feeling that the Insight is still something of a stop-gap. Within the next 12 to 18 months, hybrid systems will have been rolled out by almost all the major car makers, meaning that hybrids will no longer be differentiated from their fossil-fuelled siblings. We're still awaiting the appearance of a truly avant-garde car, one that demonstrates that low-cost motoring is truly at the forefront of cutting edge innovation.