OKAY, IN THE context of some of the heavyweight shootouts we’ve had in Topcar, you might think this one’s as exciting as watching two unwashed tie-dyed toppies pelting each other with tofu. A 1.3-litre petrol-electric hybrid Honda with a CVT gearbox up against a ubiquitous diesel Volksie Golf isn’t exactly a petrolhead’s idea of ‘died and gone to heaven’, is it?
After driving these two cars for a month over the festive season (penance for being mean to bunny-huggers and tree-gropers in my youth?), there’s a part of me that’s thankful it’s over. But there’s more to this than selfish relief at jumping back behind the wheel of something which offers a jolt of adrenaline instead of just transport.
The Honda Insight and the Volkswagen Golf BlueMotion, launched without much fanfare, might just be two of the most important cars of the year. Not because they’re the solution to ‘sustainable mobility’ as oil runs out and the earth heats up (they’re not), but because they are crucial stop-gap products that will soothe consciences and keep eco-legislators at bay while the search for the Holy Grail continues.
Both the Honda and the Volkswagen claim radically low fuel consumption and CO2 figures, but it’s the real world practicality of these claims and the very different approach followed by each manufacturer which makes this shootout fascinating.
Is that a Prius?
In the one corner we have the Honda Insight, and it looks exactly like we’ve been conditioned to think a hybrid should. In other words, it looks like a Toyota Prius. A sleek, aerodynamic wedge with a tapering rear announces to the world that you’re a responsible citizen and not a polluting bastard like all the other SUV-loving philistines out there.
Honda understandably bridles at the Prius comparison, saying it borrows its shape from the FCX Clarity fuel cell car and that it looks the way it does to boost aerodynamic efficiency.
The Golf, on the other hand, does not look like a Prius at all. It doesn’t have to since it’s not a hybrid. Instead it looks like any of the thousands of other Golfs on our roads. Look closer though and you’ll see all kinds of aerodynamic tweaks that differentiate the BlueMotion. These include low rolling resistance tyres, lightweight alloys, lower suspension, a modified radiator grille, side skirt extensions and a roof edge spoiler. Even the underbody has been given some aerodynamic tweaks to lower the Golf’s drag coefficient. What you end up with is quite a sporty looking Golf with subtle BlueMotion badging that whispers ‘clever driver’ rather than ‘pretentious celebrity’.
Both cars are five-door family hatchbacks retailing for less than R270000 (R259900 for the Honda and R265600 for the VW), but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The Insight’s cabin is surprisingly roomy and mainstream, considering Honda had to incorporate a battery pack into the chassis. While 400 litres of cargo space and flexible seating sounds good on paper, the sloping roofline means that headroom for adults in the back is actually quite tight. The standard spec count is high though, and includes electric windows, climate control, electric mirrors, cruise control, remote central locking, a six-speaker sound system with an iPod/USB port as well as front, side and curtain airbags.
All the controls are within easy reach and easily decipherable. Even though the surfaces are hard plastic, the build quality is solid – as one would expect from Honda.
The classier cabin belongs to the Golf. Not just good, it errs towards premium with soft-touch surfaces and a satisfyingly solid feel to all the switchgear. Adults in the back will actually be able to see out of the side windows. Boot space is 350 litres, but it dwindles to 275 litres if you specify a full-size spare wheel. Standard spec also includes electric windows, aircon, cruise control, electric mirrors, remote central locking as well as front, side and curtain airbags. A pet peeve is the absence of an iPod/USB port. There’s only an AUX-in port to connect your mobile media devices.
So while the Insight nominally pips the Golf on specification and price, the Golf is the better looker inside and out. But what are they like on the road, and which inflicts the least pain on the garage forecourt? That’s going to be the kicker.
No great surprise
Both cars are surprisingly normal to drive. Not necessarily fun, but normal like any other family hatch without any pretensions to having the word ‘hot’ preceding it. There’s no fancy hybrid trickery involved in getting the Insight to start up. Insert a normal key, turn and the car starts, engage ‘D’ on the shifter, release the handbrake and off you go. It’s a seamless experience, even with the stop/start function that cuts the engine when you come to a halt in traffic or at stop signs and robots. Unlike the Prius, the 10.3kW electric motor doesn’t fully decouple from the 1.3-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. Instead the two work together to deliver 73kW of power and 167Nm of torque. It’s not a lot, but combine that with good body control and reasonable steering feedback and you could almost say it’s enough.
But there’s a vegetarian at this chicken barbecue that spoils things, and that’s the CVT gearbox. Trying to accelerate quickly, or get to the top of a hill, is a painful experience as the engine wails away painfully. Maybe it’s another way to get you to drive slowly and more economically, because slower is a lot more rewarding in the Insight than trying to go quickly. Not only will the backlight on the speedometer glow a healthy green instead of deathly blue if you tickle the throttle instead of mashing it, but another display will rate your driving style in plants. One plant means you love hunting Bambis with a high-powered rifle. Five plants means you know people with first names like Leonardo and Cameron. Note to Honda: a display featuring a Cameron stripping down to her bikini one piece at a time might be considered a real reward for driving slowly and smoothly. A digital plant outline? Not much of a reward. Still, it’s a bit of entertainment to relieve the tedium.
The 1.6-litre diesel Volkswagen, with a five-speed manual shifter and standard Golf dynamics, doesn’t try the guilt-trip trick. Instead it relies on its aerodynamic tweaks and an optimised common rail turbodiesel to deliver almost 1000km on a tank of 50ppm fuel.
The gear ratios are long, which is fine as long as you can stay in the torque curve. We found the car bogged down slightly in the shift from first to second, especially when going up a hill. The stop/start system requires a bit more cranial exercise (into neutral at the traffic light, foot off the clutch and the engine dies, depress the clutch as the light changes and shift to first and the engine sputters to life again). After a day it becomes second nature. But it’s as a long distance cruiser that the Golf really excels.
It’s quiet and refined, and there’s something hugely gratifying about seeing your fuel consumption hovering below five litres per 100km as you sail along at 120kph. With 77kW of power and 250Nm of torque available from 1500rpm, it’s got enough shove to move you comfortably past slower traffic. Because those gear ratios are so long, it’s one of the few modern manual cars on the road today where we can comfortably say we don’t miss a sixth gear.
At the end of our month together and with roughly 1000km under the belt in each car it was time to put the manufacturers’ claims to the test at the petrol pump and on the test track. Honda says the Insight’s fuel consumption (in the Euro-spec combined cycle) is 4.6 litres/100km, which equates to a theoretical range of 870km from the 40-litre tank, and that it would accelerate from 0-100kph in 12.5 seconds. Volkswagen claims the BlueMotion Golf’s fuel consumption is a staggering 3.8 litres/100kph, translating to a range of 1447km on the 55-litre tank, and that it makes the 0-100kph sprint in 11.3 seconds.
As far as fuel consumption goes, we didn’t even come close. We drove sensibly and carefully in real-world conditions and recorded both consumption figures before our fuel draining track test, but the best we could do in the Insight using a full tank of fuel was 6.4 litres/100km, which means we covered 625km on a tank. On track we found the Honda more than a second faster than claimed from 0-100kph, even though the in-gear acceleration times were woeful.
The Golf just missed the 1000km mark on a full tank of fuel, with a consumption figure of 5.7 litres/100km taking us to 970km on a tank. On track the Golf accelerated from 0 to 100kph in 10.5 seconds, also faster than the claimed time.
So no cigar on the fuel front, though there is an initial purchase upside: with CO2 emissions of 108g/km for the Insight and 99g/km for the Golf, both cars comfortably beat the carbon emissions tax threshold of 120g/km.
In the end it was an easy choice to make. While we enjoyed Honda’s other hybrid, the CR-Z, as a good looking car which is a pleasure to drive, we were less enamoured with the Insight. Not only was the Golf the better looking car with the classier interior and the better drive, but the diesel solidly trounced the hybrid where it counts – at the pumps.