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The new Honda Insight hybrid is doing well in Japan. Since going on sale on Feb. 6, Honda has received 18,000 orders or about three times its initial target. Of course, the novelty of a new model will account for some of the orders and a big ad campaign featuring characters from the Peanuts cartoon strip has drummed up interest. Still, it is a commendable performance given Japan’s auto sales are plunging. In January, the most recent month for which sales data is available, industry sales were down 32.4% compared to a year earlier. Honda hopes to sell about 5,000 Insights a month in Japan over the course of the year.
The Insight is benefiting from its relatively low price. In Japan, the Insight starts from 1.89 million yen or about $19,000. That’s almost the same as the $19,800 price, which Honda confirmed yesterday, and less than a Prius. It’s harder to say what, if anything, a solid debut in Japan means for the Insight’s U.S. sales potential. Honda is certainly aiming high and hopes to sell 100,000 a year in the U.S. However, competition from the new Prius will be stiff even if Honda says the Insight isn’t competing directly with its larger rival. And U.S. hybrid sales are slumping—down 29% in February, compared to a year earlier.
That said, hybrid sales are falling less quickly than the market as a whole despite the current Prius, which dominates hybrid sales, being six years old and about to be replaced. It’s feasible that, in addition to the credit crunch and impact of lower gas prices, many would-be hybrid buyers have deferred splashing out on the new model because they are waiting for the new Insight and Prius models to arrive in U.S. showrooms.
I got to briefly try out he Japan spec version of the Insight recently. I was fairly impressed. It drove nicely enough and I enjoyed the Eco Assist functions which help drivers improve fuel efficiency by driving more smoothly. I was also liked the good all-round visibility—that’s useful when driving on Tokyo’s congested roads. I also cycle and am painfully aware of how difficult it is for many drivers to spot those of us on two wheels. I did have one gripe, though. I wonder if there is enough room in the back. At 6’1”, I found it was a bit of a squeeze sitting behind the driver’s seat.