If we need any more proof that the world is addicted to gaming, it's in the instruments of the Honda hybrid Insight. All hybrids have gauges to tell you how economically you are driving. In the Insight, they're joined by a row of five 'twigs' that spout leaves and - we swear we're not making this up - flowers, when you're doing well. And they wither and die if you get lead-footed.
This apparently so entranced the buyers in the US market that they were texting, tweeting and facebooking to each other about their daily results and the levels they'd reached.
We managed to get a first sapling to sprout during our brief drive - apparently it takes time to get a full forest - but even though we spent a bit of time trying to kill it off as well, it stayed with us. The Insight will arrive in November after a launch at the Australian International Motor Show in October.
Appearance and fit-out
The Insight was first launched in Australia in 2001, but was discontinued a few years ago in favour of promoting the Civic Hybrid. Built on a Jazz platform, the Insight now returns to Australia as Honda's refreshed attack on the hybrid market with a car that is identifiable straight away, unlike the Civic - which is distinguished from the normal model only be discreet badging.
The Insight's styling has an echo of the Toyota Prius around the rear - dictated under the same aerodynamic laws. It looks modern and sharp, both front and back, and the nipped lines and accents like the blue headlight clusters are eye-drawers.
Cabin space is workable for drive and first passenger, but it's cramped in the rear seat for large adults. However there's enough space in the boot area for a fair bit of luggage at 350 litres, which expands to just over 400 with the use of underfloor storage compartments.
The cockpit is attractive enough, with the signature mesh-accented steering wheel fronting a deep instrument binnacle, but there's a sense of the utilitarian in the hard plastics. Equipment lists for the two spec levels we will get haven't been finalised, but it's been confirmed we will definitely get the front, side and curtain airbags and stability control as standard.
Pricing and market
The lack of luxury is intentional. "Honda wanted to create a car that was affordable for everyone," says the Honda Australia senior director, Lindsay Smalley. "Assuming a favourable exchange rate, we're confident we can come in around the $30,000 mark. The principle is affordable hybrid."
Under the bonnet, a 98kW/123Nm 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine is joined by a 10kW/78Nm electric motor, with the drive going to the front wheels via a continuously-variable transmission (CVT). It has stop-start technology that temporarily cuts the engine when you halt, with variable cylinder management, which can shut down all the valves to reduce pumping losses when you're driving on the electric motor only.
The fuel economy is estimated at about 4.4L/100km, with CO2 emissions coming in at 101g/km. The Prius, by comparison, has an official economy figure of 3.9L/100km with emissions of 89g/km.
So Prius driver saves 0.5 litres ever 100km - and save the planet by 12g/km - but the Prius starts at about $10,000 more than the Insight, which means at least a generation to make up the price difference.
The car feels light and nimble, and it zips around the city streets quite happily at undemanding speeds. But we couldn't awaken any sense of urgency in it when we hit the autobahn. It will do the higher speeds, but it can take a while to wind up to them.
But having said that, the Insight is not intended for racing. While there wouldn't be any problem in having an unhurried cruise on the highway, it's primarily an urban dweller.
The CVT transmission will take a bit of getting used to, as the continuous band system it doesn't have the 'feel' of gear changes. But it's smooth and aids the economy. But when you push the speed to the limit, the engine replies with a bit of noisy protest, and it grumbles a little - but eventually does the job - if you want to tackle a steep slope with a load of two large adults and minimal luggage.
The steering feels vaguely wooden, but it responds adequately for normal driving - and buyers of this car won't tend to get too enthusiastic around corners . it's not that type. The ride on the highways was quite good, but over more pockmarked back roads we could hear and feel the surfaces.
Price: from around $30,000
Engine: 98kW/123Nm 1.3-litre, 10kW/78Nm electric motor,
Transmission: CVT; front-wheel drive
Economy: 4.4L/100km (95RON)
Toyota Prius from $39,900)
Honda Civic Hybrid (35,990)