Many think that the Toyota Prius was the first hybrid in the United States. While yes it was the first hybrid, the Honda Insight was actually here before Prius.
So why is Honda not the leader if they were here first? I want to point out some key differences in why Toyota took the lead and Prius became the leader for all hybrid vehicles to date.
Toyota Prius Vs Honda Insight First Generation
The Honda Insight was a knee jerk reaction to the Toyota Prius. When Honda found out that Toyota was making a hybrid vehicle, they immediately jumped on board and made one of their own. While the Insight was really promising, offering unheard of fuel economy (up to about 75 mpg) and a choice between standard and automatic transmissions, it still had flaws.
The little two seater while practical for a commuter, it was impractical for many other things. The small cargo area made it impractical for hauling much more than a few groceries and if had any height, the leg room could be a bit tight.
The sturdy little 1.3 liter 3 cylinder engine was the reason for the great economy but was also a very interesting breed. It used a 0w-20 engine oil (which oddly enough could come in a conventional at that time) and also had indexed spark plugs.
The hybrid part of the car was also interesting. Branded as a "mild" hybrid Honda's version, called Integrated Motor Assist, was only there to help alleviate, stress placed on the gas engine. It literally does assist in acceleration and uphill climbs but outside of that it really does not do much to help in economy. The battery was and still is quite a joke. The 144v Ni-MH pack quickly fell prey to many problems which still burden many of the first generation Insight cars and the Civic Hybrids as well.
I really think that Honda never finished developing the Insight, which has really hindered their progress in building a better hybrid vehicle.
The Toyota Prius. A little back story on the Prius, back in 1997, this car was released in Japan. Toyota had been developing the car since 1993 and released the very first version a few years later.
There were 4 doors, carried more passengers, had 301.6 volts in the high voltage battery, and still managed to get 45+ mpg. This car was so much better put together. It used regular oil, regular high mileage spark plugs, and acted much more like a normal car. It trumped the Insight, not only in production but in technology as well.
The Toyota Prius not only outsold the Insight (and later Civic Hybrid) but it out classed it in technology as well. The Toyota Hybrid system was much more effective and had far less issues. Even if the battery was depleted the car could still run and drive (albeit slower) but it would not leave you stranded.
Prius dominated the segment when it came out and made Honda look ridiculous.
Advancements Between Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid
The Toyota Prius has incrementally improved the Prius generation after generation. The same cannot be said of the Honda Hybrid.
Prius Gen 2 has been an icon in the automotive world. It shed weight, gained some more miles per gallon and even got a massive face lift (though this is still a debate with many on how good this actually looks). The Toyota Hybrid system also got some reworking as well. It dropped the 301.6v battery in favor of a 201.6v battery, and added a boost converter that allowed Prius to better utilize the stored energy.
Prius also had quite a few small things that are very notable here as well. They added a system called "Smart Key" that allowed people to keep the key fob in their pocket at all times and still drive the car. They used a push button start system that was revolutionary for the time period.
Toyota also envisioned the future of infotainment (not that you could say that now) but they had things like a 6 disc cd changer and even an Aux port for your Ipod. Mind Blown. Bluetooth was also an option in the Touring package, along with HID headlights as well.
Toyota really made the Prius a very forward thinking automobile, and even today it still is the hybrid that most people associate with. It was and is, the game changer for the hybrid automotive scene.
Honda cannot say the same thing about their cars, instead they knee jerked again and tried to compete with Toyota by creating a "Prius Like" hybrid. So they took a Civic, put in Insight technology (with a 4 cylinder 1.3L engine) and kept the 144v round cell pack. This resulted in a more functional car, with more problems.
CVT transmissions problems, HV battery problems, and 12v battery charging issues were just a few major problems that plagued the first Civic Hybrids. Gen 2 Civic Hybrid had a slightly larger pack, and a slightly better transmission, but still was nothing to write home about.
One thing I will give Honda credit for though, is that their interior decor was very aesthetically pleasing. I actually enjoyed the 2nd gen Honda interior better than my current 07 2nd gen Prius. Still, the issues alone, I would not own one, hence the reason I own the Prius and not the Honda.
More Support For Prius Over Honda
Just due to the sheer number of Prius cars on the road, the support and community is far superior. Honda has made quite a gathering, but owners are finding that once the problems start coming, it is really expensive to maintain. Battery packs are $1500 to $2500 depending on where you are getting them from. Also, it is not as easy to just put a new module into a Honda pack. It requires a massive undertaking, and if you are going to only replace one stick, you will find your sorry self doing the project over, because that is not a solid repair.
Toyota packs do require a massive undertaking, but they are much easier to work on. Modules are far more common just due to the sheer number of cars that are on the road. Prius packs get better benefits from a rebalancing process, but for just playing whack-a-mole with modules, you can sometimes get a far superior repair. Not only that but the following for Prius is much larger due to how many of them are still on the road today.
Personally, I have owned a first and second generation Honda Civic Hybrid and a second generation Toyota Prius (still driving it). As I have stated before I really love the interior of the Honda, but the Prius has far less issues to deal with. You can find more Civic hybrids with bad transmissions and batteries out there for cheaper, but if you are someone who likes to not worry if you car will break down or not, drive a Prius.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading about the Honda Hybrid vs Toyota Prius. Check out my other story Why the first generation Prius is better than either generation Nissan Leaf.
See you in the next story where I am discussing why the Toyota Prius AWD-e is the best one yet and why car enthusiasts and average car guys loathe the Toyota Prius. Also, see my recent story to check if your Toyota Prius is part of the recent airbag recall.
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Peter Neilson is an automotive consultant specializing in electric cars and hybrid battery technologies. He is an automotive technology instructor at Columbia Basin College. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Automotive Service Technology from Weber State University. Peter can be reached on Linkedin and you can tweet him at The_hybrid_guy on Twitter.