Although gas remains below $3 per gallon for now, with the oil spill in the Gulf and tensions in the Middle East, it’s just a matter of time. If you want to be prepared for the impending increase, or simply want to decrease your petroleum consumption and carbon footprint, a hybrid car is a great choice.

    This year, Honda has revived the Insight name for its latest hybrid. The original Insight, which was the first hybrid in the U.S., was a small two-seater with rear fender skirts and futuristic styling. The new Insight is a four-door, five-seat hatchback with more traditional styling.

    In profile, the Insight could be mistaken for the Toyota Prius, but it has a bit more aggressive tail lights. Inside, it’s the typically excellent Honda interior. Automatic climate control switches cascade down the dash to the right of the gauge cluster and are well marked and easy to use. Manually adjustable seats and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel save weight.

    The sloping hatchback design creates a large rear cargo area easily accessed through the hatch. The 60/40 folding rear seat creates a huge, flat cargo area. With the seats up, there’s decent room for rear seat passengers, although leg room is somewhat dependent on the generosity of front seat passengers. Rearward vision is somewhat awkward through the sloping rear hatch.

    The Insight is powered by a 1.3 liter 4-cylinder engine coupled with an electric motor good for 111 horsepower that feeds power through a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to the front wheels. Gas mileage is 40 city, 43 highway. Six airbags and ABS brakes with electronic brake distribution contribute to safety.

    Fortunately, the Insight drives like a Honda, with a nice taut, sporty suspension and responsive steering. The ride is quiet and comfortable. The engine turns off when you stop, and there’s a slight hesitation before it turns back on when you step on the accelerator. Acceleration is good, but not overwhelming, as expected in a hybrid, and the CVT transmission probably makes it seem slower than it actually is, though when you step on the pedal, you can make it move.

    According to Mike Jackson, general sales manager at Honda of Frontenac, “The new Insight offers a simple hybrid system joining a small engine with an electric motor. It offers a good ride, good handling and safety, and all at a very attractive price for a hybrid.” Prices start at just under $20,000 for an LX, and around $21,300 for a better-equipped (including stability control) EX.

    The most popular hybrid over the last decade has been the Toyota Prius, which has been updated for 2010. Although you have to look close to see any differences from the previous generation Prius, improvements are beneath the skin.

    Like the Insight, the Prius is a hatchback with a large rear cargo area that can be expanded by folding down the rear seats. Backseat room is more generous than in the Insight and comfortable for average to large/tall adults. The dash is centered in the middle of the car with all digital displays, including one that keeps you apprised of battery/engine use. A ‘floating’ center stack between the seats contains the gear selector and other controls and looks really cool while giving the interior a very modern look.

    Unlike the Insight, the Prius can run solely on electric power at low speeds and has a button you can press to stay all electric up to about 24 mph. Like the Insight, the Prius shuts off when you’re stopped. Because the engine generally kicks in while you’re moving, its return is hardly noticeable. For some reason, the Prius has a different type of gear selector that takes some getting used to and may be confusing to new Prius drivers. Seven airbags combine with stability control and anti-lock brakes to provide passenger safety.

    The ride is comfortable, as expected from a Toyota, but the handling isn’t quite as responsive as the Honda’s.  Handling and acceleration are adequate for most situations, especially for the way most hybrid owners drive their cars, although on a steep hill it can feel slightly underpowered. After all, this is a car you buy for mileage, not performance. If gas prices go down and you want to add a little zip there’s a ‘sport’ mode that improves acceleration and power. Braking is good and you can kind of feel the regenerative braking going on that feeds electricity to the battery.

    Power emanates from a 1.8 liter gas engine combined with an electric motor that together offer 134 horsepower. A CVT transmission feeds power to the front wheels. Gas mileage is an impressive 51 city, 48 highway.

    Nick Watson, sales rep. at Weiss Toyota/Scion, says, “The Prius is a true hybrid and can run on battery power alone. Toyota hybrid batteries have proven very reliable. Though it looks like a small car, it has lots of interior space while offering legendary reliability.” Prices range from $22,800 to $28,000, depending on trim level.

*Robert W. Paster is also an attorney in private practice, concentrating in estate planning and probate; see">