Three Reasons Why Honda’s Winning in the Hybrid Game
Review by Forbes Contributor Christopher Teague
Honda has been making hybrid cars for a long time. Even longer than Toyota with its Prius, at least in North America. Since those early days, nearly 20 years ago now, the landscape has changed and nearly every brand on the market today offers some variation of hybrid, electric, or alternative fuel vehicle. Not everyone gets it right, and while frustrating to many, it isn’t hard to understand why “right” is such a tough target to hit for car companies in the United States.
Our drives are longer, roads bigger, and appetites for larger vehicles stronger than those of our European counterparts, and our vehicle landscape reflects that mentality. Ford and GM, two of the three pillars of our domestic auto industry, will stop producing most of their smaller, more fuel-efficient cars over the next few years in favor of trucks, SUVs, and performance models.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t demand for compact, fuel-efficient vehicles in our country. It means that, in order to succeed in selling them, carmakers have to strike a balance between price, style, and usability.
This is where Honda got it right.
They haven’t hit a home run with every swing, and even great cars like the new Insight have room for improvement, but Honda is winning in the hybrid game today. Here are three reasons why.
In base trim, the Insight starts around $23,000 with destination, which is in line with a Toyota Prius or Hyundai Ioniq. Moving up the trim levels, the Honda’s value proposition becomes much clearer, with a Touring-trimmed Insight landing at just over $28,000. That’s good enough to undercut a similarly-equipped hybrid Ioniq (there’s a plug-in hybrid and an electric version available) by a couple thousand dollars. It also bests the Prius Prime, which requires a move up to the $33,000 Advanced trim before navigation and other options that come with the Insight Touring become standard.
This relatively budget-friendly approach to pricing not only makes the hybrid vehicles more accessible for more people, it helps drive the whole ecosystem forward. As time passes, the race between fully-electric and hybrid vehicles increases. Having more affordable choices available to consumers in either category is a good thing because it pulls more attention and buyers into the segment.
Part of what makes Honda’s hybrid vehicles special is what you don’t notice. I recently took a 2019 Insight for a week-long test and came away impressed with the near-seamless application of rank-and-file hybrid technology that so many other automakers miss.
A great illustration of this point is the regenerative braking system. Enthusiasts will argue that it ruins brake response and pedal feel in most cars, and everyday drivers can be caught off guard by a system that sometimes applies much more stopping force than expected. The use of a blended braking system with traditional discs and regenerative braking from electric motors isn’t unique to Honda, but their attention to detail is. Pressing the brake pedal in a new Insight feels like any other car, with the exception that you can see your braking force translating to battery charge in the car’s instrument panel. Honda will tell you that it’s a competitive advantage in the segment, and after a long drive I’d agree.
This is where the magic happens for Honda’s hybrid vehicles. Though the original Insight beat the Prius to market, the Toyota obviously became the benchmark for efficiency as time passed. Honda had other dedicated hybrid models, but the company began building hybrid versions of its Civic and Accord well in advance of other companies doing the same with their cars and the experience gained over the years is paying dividends for consumers now. The experience is more refined, and the cars utilize hybrid and surrounding technologies in less intrusive ways than vehicles from other manufacturers.
Honda’s approach to packaging their hybrids into existing designs has helped ease anxiety among buyers that don’t want to drive an overly-futuristic vehicle. Though the original Insight was as funky-future as any vehicle in history, subsequent cars in Honda’s hybrid lineup haven’t been. This is important because for many people, cars like the Prius are too forward-thinking in their designs.
People in some circles also attach a stigma to driving hybrids (go watch diesel truck “rolling coal” videos if you want to mix some anger into your day), so driving a car that screams ENVIRONMENT may not draw the right kinds of attention. With the latest Insight and even the new Clarity, Honda has packaged standalone models with cutting edge technology that look… normal. Without a closer look, there is nothing about the cars that stands out as, and for many buyers that’s where the rubber meets the road.