It's been roughly 10 years since Honda debuted the first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle to the US market. That vehicle was the 2000 Insight, an aluminum-bodied 70mpg eco-technological tour de force. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to describe the Insight as an eco-exotic, with its combination of cutting edge drivetrain technology (IMA, or Integrated Motor Assist) and super lightweight aluminum body construction.
Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive technology trailed Honda in the US market by about a year, but their HSD-powered Prius debuted in Japan nearly two years ahead of the Insight. The Prius wouldn't make it to the U.S. market until after it had received a mid-cycle model update. This version went on sale in the USA in 2000, and from that point it took surprisingly little time for the Prius to surpass the Insight's sales volume. In response, Honda expanded their Hybrid lineup a few years later, adding the Civic Hybrid in 2002, and in 2004, the Accord Hybrid. Even with three models flying the IMA flag, the Prius continued to outsell Honda's entire hybrid lineup.
Through these three models, Honda has taken several distinct market approaches, but the core IMA gasoline/electric technology has remained largely unchanged. The original Insight was Honda's most ambitious approach to date, seeking the maximum possible fuel economy with few compromises against that goal. The Civic Hybrid was designed to deliver superior fuel economy in an "everyday" mainstream family package. The Accord Hybrid was designed to deliver a blend of superior "V6-plus" performance with the fuel economy of a typical 4-cylinder engine.
None of these approaches have really resonated to the degree that Honda had hoped, so Honda is tacking in another direction with the 2010 Insight: unique "hybrid" styling with sufficient room for a family, exceptional real world fuel economy (thanks in part to an intelligent driver "coaching" system), and a class-leading sticker price. While the car is still packed with technology, much of it is carried over from existing Honda Hybrids; the bulk of Honda's engineering efforts have been applied towards making Hybrid technology affordable for the masses.
The 2010 edition of the Insight is also designed to be built in much greater volumes than the original Insight, with Honda initially targeting sales of 100,000 units in North America, and an additional 100,000 units sold elsewhere in the world. There are already rumors suggesting that Honda is working on making arrangements to increase those figures. The Insight went on sale in Japan on January 22nd and has been met with exceedingly strong demand.
The US version of the Insight will be offered in two trim levels: LX and EX, with an optional navigation system available on EX models. The LX will serve as the "gateway" model to hybrid technology, and comes equipped with typical Honda "LX-grade" level features such as a 4-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo (with aux input), power windows with auto up/down for the driver, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, remote keyless entry, 60/40 split folding rear seat, standard CVT transmission, power exterior mirrors, automatic climate control, outside temperature gauge, 15" steel wheels, a standard security alarm, and a rear wiper. The EX model is expected to be the top selling trim level and adds 15" alloy wheels, VSA (Vehicle Stability Assist), a special "7-speed" sport mode for the CVT, an upgraded stereo with USB ipod connectivity and a set of tweeters, turn signals on the wing mirrors, heated exterior mirrors, cruise control, center console storage/armrest, vanity mirrors, variable intermittent wipers, map and glovebox lights, and seatback pockets. The Navi option adds bluetooth handsfree link as well as steering wheel/voice controls for the stereo, navi, and bluetooth.
Honda expects the EX to represent the bulk (65%) of Insights that are sold, with the LX representing 25% of the mix, and the fully loaded EX-navi model accounting for the last 10%.