Friday, May 1, 2009

In the battle of the gas-electric hybrids, Honda and Toyota have staked out different territories.

With its 2010 Insight, Honda is vying to have the world’s cheapest hybrid. When it went on sale in March, Honda Executive Vice President Dick Colliver said, “Hybrid technology is now entering a new era, where it can also make financial sense for a broader range of customers.”

With the 2010 Prius, Toyota has amped up the level of convenience features for a more premium appeal. Both the Insight and Prius hold five people in varying degrees of comfort; both are five-door hatchbacks. So what are some of the more notable differences between the two?

It’s not the looks. Honda may say the Insight’s exterior combines design elements from the original Insight model and its hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity, but let’s be honest: the new Insight looks like the Prius.

The Insight comes in two models: Prices start with the LX at $20,470, which is less than the Honda Civic Hybrid at $24,320. The more premium version of the Insight, the EX, starts at $21,970. Available exclusively on the EX model is a navigation system add-on, which brings the cost to $23,770. All prices include the destination charge.

Although the Insight’s interior looks rather low-grade, it is more affordable than the Prius.

The all-new 2010 Prius will come in one grade with four different standard equipment packages. Toyota is expected to announce pricing later in April or early in May. The current 2009 model starts at $22,745, and the top-of-the-line 2009 Prius Touring model starts at $25,015.

While the Insight currently has the advantage when it comes to price, the third-generation Prius wins when it comes to fuel economy. The 2010 Prius is rated at 51 miles per gallon in the city, 48 mpg on the highway and 50 mpg combined. The Insight is rated at 40-mpg city, 43-mpg highway and 41 mpg combined.

Passengers in the rear seat of the Prius are likely to be more comfortable, since it has significantly more legroom (36 inches) than the Insight (33.5 inches). The Prius wins when it comes to cargo space, too: the Insight has 15.9 cubic feet of trunk space to the Prius’ 21.6 cubic feet. When the rear seat is folded down, the Insight can hold 31.5 cubic feet to the Prius’ 39.6.

The Prius has a slight edge with safety technology, too. All Prius and Insight models have six airbags as standard equipment (front, side and head curtain airbags). Both have driver and front-passenger active head restraints that help prevent whiplash in a rear-end crash. And both come standard with anti-lock brakes. The Prius, however, has an airbag to protect the driver’s knees.

Electronic stability control, which works to keep vehicles from sliding out of control, is standard on all versions of the Prius. If you want that feature on the Insight, you must buy the more expensive EX model.

Both manufacturers use small, four-cylinder gasoline engines and electric motors. The Insight has an 88-horsepower, 1.3-liter engine and a 13-hp electric motor, for a total of 98 hp. (With hybrids, the maximum horsepower of the engine and the electric motor is less than adding the two ratings.)

The Prius has a larger 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine and an 80-hp electric motor for a combined 134 hp, which Toyota says is a 24-hp improvement over the previous generation.

One big difference between the two is the type of hybrid system each has. While both can run on electric power alone while cruising, the Prius can start and accelerate in electric-only mode; the Insight cannot. Toyota says that in the electric-only mode the Prius can drive “at low speeds for about a mile, if conditions permit,” which most likely means on a flat surface.

When gasoline cost $4 a gallon a year ago, hybrids had a 2.7 percent share of the market and stayed on dealer lots for 25 days, according to data by J.D. Power and Associates. Now that gas fluctuates around $2, hybrid sales are just 1.9 percent of industry sales and remain on lots for 36 days.

Choice is good news for consumers since it means more opportunities to do something good for the environment. But will consumers care?

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