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Honda homes in on target market for 2019 Insight hybrid

Honda hopes the shape of the Insight hybrid will increase its conquest potential.

MINNEAPOLIS — Does this market really need a hybrid sedan?

It doesn’t matter. Honda has one in the redesigned Insight, and its dealers will have to sell it in a market that is shrinking for sedans and getting more crowded for hybrids.

For Honda, that means finding the 2019 Insight a patch of real estate where it doesn’t cannibalize Honda’s Accord Hybrid or Clarity plug-in hybrid, and where it can compete well against the Toyota Prius and challengers such as Hyundai’s Ioniq family and the Kia Niro.

The tight spot has Honda targeting the Insight, which is priced below the Accord and Clarity, at younger buyers who haven’t begun families and are described as “style-, image- and eco-conscious.” The automaker is trying to position the Insight to avoid turf battles with its hybrid sedans and the unelectrified Civic, whose highway fuel economy is estimated at 42 mpg.

Honda has committed at the corporate level to far greater electrification across its lineup, seeking to have two-thirds of its global vehicle sales come from electrified vehicles by 2030, with a faster ramp-up in Europe and more electrified variants of its core nameplates.

But like other automakers facing stricter regulations across the globe, it faces a delicate task in marketing its green vehicles to U.S. customers who have shown more interest in size, utility and driving dynamics than fuel economy.

The Insight, for its part, has a poor record of breaking through. Though it was the first gasoline-electric hybrid sold in the U.S., the nameplate was quickly eclipsed by the Prius as a volume seller and a status symbol.

The 2019 Insight, Honda says, will be the entry point to its expanding electrified lineup. The Accord Hybrid, on the other hand, is costlier, larger and directed at young families. The Clarity plug-in variant, sitting at the top of Honda’s hybrid totem pole, is meant for an older buyer profile.

For younger consumers, Honda says the Insight is a more sophisticated, refined alternative to the “youthful, sporty Civic.” The automaker believes it has found a home for the Insight between the upper end of the Civic and the lower end of the Accord, said Jay Joseph, American Honda’s head of product planning, during a media presentation in Minneapolis. The premise is that it’s a capable, stylish sedan that happens to be a hybrid, capable of 55 mpg in the city and combined fuel economy of 52 mpg. (The top trim gets 48 mpg combined.)

Identity by design

Chasing the king

The first two generations of the Honda Insight lived in the shadow of the Toyota Prius, which became a mainstream symbol of vehicle electrification. Honda hopes things will be different with the third generation.
Year Honda Insight* Toyota Prius
2017 3 108,662
2016 67 136,632
2015 1,458 184,794
2014 3,965 207,372
2013 4,802 234,228
2012 5,846 236,659
2011 15,549 136,463
2010 20,962 140,928
2009 20,572 139,682
*Discontinued after 2014 model year
Source: Automotive News Data Center

Joseph said the Insight’s design will play a critical role in separating it from Honda’s other sedans and shaping its identity when it reaches dealerships this summer. It’s a far cry from the styling of previous generations, which switched from awkward science experiment to Prius clone.

“The key to [its positioning] upfront was separating it physically from the other cars. We chose to invest in giving it unique styling,” Joseph said of the Insight, whose underpinnings are based on the 10th-generation Civic. “Most of what you see and touch on that car is unique to the Insight.”

Honda hopes the modest, Accord-like shape will be an attractive alternative to the polarizing creases of the Prius, while opening up conquest potential to traditional compact sedans such as the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Jetta.

One Midwest dealer said he doesn’t think he’ll be able to move the Insight without incentives, “just like we’re not going to sell the Accords without a lease.”

But Brian Benstock, general manager of Paragon Honda in New York City’s Queens borough, thinks Honda should stick with its disciplined approach on incentives, which he compared to steroids. Brands that develop a habit of pushing heavy incentives too early, he said, risk training consumers not to buy vehicles when they release. Benstock said people will think, “Don’t buy this yet. They’ll be desperate in 60 days.”

Benstock believes the Insight will scoop its fair share of consumers from the Prius based on its sleek design. He said some environmentally inclined buyers may want to make a statement with their electrified vehicles, but he sees an opening among shoppers who want an eco-friendly car with an understated look.

“For those people looking for a big discount on the Accord, maybe the Insight is the answer,” Benstock told Automotive News.

Joseph: Between Civic and Accord

‘Competition’

Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific, says the Insight will present some “very good competition” for the Prius, but he doesn’t expect the Insight to eat heavily into Prius sales. Prius buyers, he said, are a different breed.

AutoPacific forecasts that Insight sales will be around 28,000 in 2019 when it has a full year under its belt. It will come in three trims: the base LX, EX and the loaded Touring. Joseph expects the EX to be the most popular.

The Insight has three drive modes: normal, ECON and sport, which Honda says gives it “sporty-feeling acceleration with sharper throttle response.”

“The stereotype of hybrids is that you’re sacrificing performance for fuel economy,” Sullivan said, though Toyota touts a more sporty Prius. “If they’re truly able to offer something that breaks up the stereotype of being stuck behind a Prius, it’s definitely a compelling reason to look at one if you’re in the market for a hybrid.”

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