The Second-Gen Honda Insight Might Have Looked a Lot Cooler if It Skipped Late-Stage Design Tweaks

We dug up some interesting docs on the second-gen Insight's development.

Cars are complicated beasts, created by a collaboration of several teams that include engineers, designers, marketing people, focus groups, and more. It takes a lot to make a tasty sausage, so to speak, although we don’t always get to see how the sausage comes together. And sometimes, the recipe changes halfway through. I think the second-generation Honda Insight is a car that was altered late in its cooking process.

Whilst going through my phone, I found these images of an old Honda Insight styling buck (essentially a clay model that previews the design of a vehicle) that I’d pulled from the now-defunct Autos of Interest site. It inspired me to get in touch with Honda, and the company’s reps sent me some interesting documents about the car’s development that inspired me to write this post.

Now, the second-generation Honda Insight isn’t a particularly thrilling embodiment of automotive design. When it came out, most auto journalists called it a Prius lookalike, with the same four-door kammback shape. The car’s proportions weren’t anything anyone looked at with declarations of joy. It’s got a short wheelbase and tippy stance, but whatever, it was a cheap Hybrid from Honda, so executives must have figured it would sell itself (it didn’t).

Yet, this earlier design study of the Insight shows a much more dynamic-looking car. OK, stay with me here. I know I even lost some of the CB team chatting about the differences between what I’ve called “Honda Insight v A 1.1.” You’ll find even more pictures of early gen-two Insight images on this site InsightMan.com, by the way, assuming it’s still up when you click the link.

This Insight has a slightly lower roofline and longer wheelbase. The wheels themselves seem to be pushed more towards the corners, and are slightly bigger and wider. The overall shape is lower, sleeker, and sexier than what we got. If the second-gen Insight had looked like this when it hit the streets, maybe it would have done a bit better in the market.

That leads me to my next question – why did it change? Was it aerodynamics? Did the parameters of the project change?

My theory, backed up by only the conjecture in my brain, was that the first four-door Honda Insight was initially a Civic-based design but switched to a Fit-based design partway through. That would explain the faster, sleeker, lower silhouette that the relatively low-slung Civic of that era would have lent the Insight. However, Honda had aimed to make the Insight as cheap as possible; its introduction had it priced to be the cheapest four-door hybrid car on sale for a while. A Civic-based design likely would have been more expensive than a Fit-based design, as the Fit is a cheaper, more basic platform to work with.

Now, that’s all me talking out of my ass. I don’t actually know… but I feel like I’m on the right track here. But Honda did get back to me with some very curious information about the Insight’s development, along with an interview (in Japanese) with a designer. I used Google’s translation tech to get some info, and Honda’s PR representative gave me some translated lines, too.

“At first we have made Image model as Hybrid Car [referring to sleek looking initial styling model]. After that, the concept was changed [a] little bit, and we proposed Middle Stage Model [second concept]. And finally we consider B and C reasons, and completed the production model,” said the representative, in an email sent to me.

“Reason A: Review according to the product concept. The original concept was to create a new car with good fuel efficiency, From the middle, a car that can be driven by a family toward the Japanese market, We decided to make it a little larger and consider the appearance. Reason B: Review according to production technology. Whether it can be made at the factory. Reason C: Review according to regulations. Pedestrian protection, etc,” the Honda representative sent me, seemingly directly translated from Japanese. The language is a bit broken, but you can get the gist of the insight (hehe) shared here: the initial concept was revised due to what seems to be production feasibility and possibly impact and crash standards.

I guess that kind of made sense, but the response I got from Honda still left me with more questions, so I used Google translate on the source material so could find out myself.

The Second-Gen Honda Insight Might Have Looked a Lot Cooler if It Skipped Late-Stage Design Tweaks
Image: Honda
The Second-Gen Honda Insight Might Have Looked a Lot Cooler if It Skipped Late-Stage Design Tweaks
Image: Honda

From what I can gander, the Insight was developed to be a hit both in Japan and in the United States. It seems like the designers wanted to make a car that was affordable and more spacious, especially for us larger Americans – so the ergonomics of the project changed partway through the project to fit larger, taller adults more comfortably. From there, you can infer that the Insight’s more rakish initial concept shape was too expensive to manufacture for its desired price point.

It also appears that the packaging of the initial concept would have possibly been too compromised, since Honda was aiming for more of a volume seller in the United States, and an eco-car with a small interior probably wouldn’t have done as well. The rough translation from Japanese to English makes a lot of mention of catering to the United States, and what our tastes would be.

Unfortunately, design aside, the 2010 Insight wasn’t one of Honda’s best efforts all around; its IMA Hybrid system of this era is known for being inferior to Toyota’s. Fuel economy and driving dynamics weren’t very good, the car got terrible reviews, and at the end of the day, the Insight was ugly. At least the initial concept was good-looking, with its wedge shape and wheels pushed out to the corners.

Honda should have kept the original recipe though, would’ve tasted better. Er, I mean, looked cooler.

Kevin Williams

Kevin WilliamsKevin's been into cars his entire life, anything from the tiny kei cars in Japan, to the maybe not-so-good American barges of the 1980s. He's flipped more than 25 cars, only lost money twice, and has known how to make his dollar stretch as far as it can. If he ain't talking about cars, he's probably snacking on something sweet and cakey. Contact the author here.