Among the handful of people who might actually enjoy seeing gasoline return to $4 a gallon, let's include marketing managers for the 2010 Honda Insight and 2010 Toyota Prius, a pair of all-new hybrids set to do battle this spring.
They'll be successful with gas at $2 a gallon, but they'd likely be smash hits if gasoline prices go back up.
Though both names are familiar, these are two new cars. The Honda Insight introduced gasoline-electric hybrids to the U.S. market in 1999, but that car was a little hot dog-shaped two-seater that never sold in big volume.
Toyota was a little later to the hybrid party with the Prius, but it was a four-door with a usable rear seat, and it became a far bigger hit than the Insight. It still sells well — the Prius accounts for more than half the hybrid cars sold in America.
For 2010, the Insight is back, but it's an entirely different car — in fact, the resemblance to the Prius is undeniable. It's a four-door hatchback with room for five, powered by a 1.3-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine, aided by an electric motor.
The 2010 Prius is slightly larger than the 2009 model it replaces, and is classified as a midsize car, while the Insight is a compact. Really, the difference in interior space is not that noticeable. The Prius' 1.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine is now 1.8 liters, and while the basic hybrid battery pack is essentially the same as in 2009, the rest of the drive system is, Toyota says, 90 percent new.
Here are the dueling hybrids in a nutshell.
2010 Honda InsightWhile Honda still makes the Civic Hybrid, the new Insight is the first hybrid-only Honda since that original two-seat Insight. It's a handsome car, with room for two adults in the rear, three in a squeeze.
The base-model Insight lists for just less than $20,000, but don't expect to see many at that price on dealer lots. The test Insight had the navigation system with voice activation, and listed for $23,770. Fuel mileage is EPA-rated at 40 mpg in the city, 43 mpg on the highway. I averaged just more than 43 mpg.
2010 Toyota PriusKnowing in advance that the Insight was coming, Toyota stepped up the makeover for the 2010 Prius, and it's impressive: There will be a base model likely priced above the current starting price of around $22,000, but add options, and it seems certain the Prius can top $30,000.
Options include a sunroof with a solar panel that doesn't generate electricity for running the car, but for running fans inside the car that can keep the interior cooler while the Prius is parked in the sun. There's also a feature that can actually parallel-park the Prius on its own, with the driver's hands literally off the steering wheel.
Add those two features to leather upholstery and a navigation system, and the Prius becomes almost a luxury hybrid.
Toyota won't release prices of the new Prius for a month or so, closer to its arrival at dealers. But it has released mileage figures: It's EPA-rated at 51 mpg in the city, 48 mpg on the highway.
Why is the city mileage better than the highway mileage? Because the Prius can run on electric-only power at speeds up to 25 miles per hour, and depending on the charge level for the battery, for a distance of almost a mile, using no gasoline at all. I averaged 51.8 mpg in the Prius.
Which is better?So the biggest question from customers cross-shopping the Insight and the Prius is likely to be this: If the Insight has a smaller gasoline engine, why does it get worse mileage than the Prius?
The answer is because the Prius is a "full" hybrid, meaning it can move along on electric power alone. The Insight is considered a "mild" hybrid, meaning the gasoline engine is always turning. With both cars, the gas engine stops at a red light. With the Insight, it restarts when you take your foot off the brake. With the Prius, it can accelerate — slowly — on electric power alone before the gas engine starts up.
Actually, though, it isn't quite that simple, due to Honda's new "integrated assist" feature: While all the internal components of the gas engine are always rotating as the car drives down the road, under certain, limited conditions — rolling downhill, for instance — the onboard computer can actually cut the gasoline supply to the engine, while the electric motor does the work.
In essence, the car is operating on battery power alone, but since the engine is always turning, you don't get the stealthy, silent-running experience you do in a Prius.
That said, for pure driving experience, I slightly prefer the Honda. The new Prius steers and handles much better than the current model, but the Honda has a sportier feel, and I'd submit that it's the better-looking car.
If I lived in a big city, though, and was constantly caught in heavy stop-and-go traffic, the Prius would be the better buy in the long run.
Both cars are aimed carefully at their target markets, and both score direct hits. One of these is likely to be the 2010 car of the year.
Steven Cole Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 407-420-5699, or through his blog at Enginehead.com.