ORLANDO, Fla. — First came ripples of Insight.
Not ripples of deep thought or precsience, but instead, ripples caused by a quirky, iconoclastic, little car: a hybrid gasoline-electric from Honda that would capture an excited, if small and eclectic market to sustain it from 1999 to 2006.
But the ripples became a wave after Toyota jumped into the pond with its Prius, putting Honda and Toyota way ahead of the pack.
In explaining its original Prius, which arrived in the United States a year after the Insight, Ed La Rocque, Toyota's national small car manager, said the company wanted to "make a difference and change the way people think about transportation."
Toyota had company, of course, and the wave continued to swell. Other cars, trucks and SUVs soon joined the market, and hybrids continue to attract new followers and manufacturers. But as on any race track — hot tar or industrial — what goes around comes around (unless it crashes).
So coming off the last turn and heading into another lap are the 2010 revamped Prius and the 2010 reborn Insight, seeking more "mavens, adopters, pioneers," as La Rocque said of Prius buyers.
While bigger and more traditionally car-like in its appearance than the original Insight (hint: George Jetson would have been an Insight owner were he grounded), the reborn version remains a smaller car with a smaller engine (1.3 liters vs. 1.8) than the Prius.
And yet the Prius, which we drove here on Florida byways, while it has more power, somehow has a better gas mileage rating: 51 miles per gallon city and 48 highway, versus 40 city/43 highway.
Hardly a race, you say?
There's more to this race than just fuel consumption. Cost and cost recovery, as always with hybrids, is a considerable factor. Long argued, calculated and tested has been the question of how long and over how many miles will it take to get back the premium (in the past as high as $5,000) slapped onto hybrid prices — this in a time where plenty of small cars with no hybrid system and no premium still reach or approach 40 miles per gallon.
And yet, if the Prius we drove can truly reach the estimated fuel ratings, it could be a game changer. But still there's a cost recovery conundrum. That's because the Insight's base price is $2,000 to $3,000 below most hybrids.
It is hard not to conclude that the Insight pricing — starting at just under $20,000 — caused Toyota to promise a base model at $21,000, a grand less than its current $22,000 base model, but still a work in progress.
It's unclear whether the mileage estimates for the Prius will hold up — I never managed, in testing, to get the previous estimated overall fuel efficiency, though I did drive in cold weather where the hybrid system is less efficient.
But my, what a car, what an improvement on an already popular car.
It is a far more quiet, roomier (mostly in the rear, where a roof apex moved back about four inches to amplify headroom and where legroom has been added by reshaping the front seats) and a hell of a lot more fun to drive. And should fun get you into trouble, it now has seven airbags with a knee bag added, and standard ABS and stability control.
It also replaces the uncomfortable, problematic driver's seat with a six-way adjustable seat.
And available to the greenest of the green is a power moonroof with solar panels to help run a fan to cool the interior when the car is parked.
Also available for when the car is moving is a beanie cap with propellor atop to be worn by the front seat passenger who, on cloudy days, can simply open the moonroof, plug into a 12-volt jack, raise his seat until the prop hits wind, and generate extra juice that way.
But seriously, this car's larger powerplant, at 98-horsepower, has 22 more ponies thundering (OK, cantering) under the hood and provides 105 lbs.-ft. of torque (up by 23), which is the basso backup muscle to the soprano surge of horsepower — like Paulie having Tony's back on the television series.
And a way cool feature is the choice among button-activated driving modes: EV allows engine-off rolling at up to 25 miles per hour for about a mile. ECO mode tones down the throttle and air conditioning (and some performance) to save fuel. And POWER mode is for those moments when you're willing to give up some mileage for some raw (OK, medium rare) power.
Other than the quietude of starting, standing or rolling slowly, this car, on open road and highway, feels more like a "normal'" car than the past model.
Its surge in passing is never in doubt — be safe, but don't hesitate. Its suspension is far tighter, a huge plus in a car whose performance needs to offer tactile driver feedback.
The center control stack is a multi-display screen that offers all the information you need and flows through control buttons to a nifty Park/Neutral/Drive/Backup stub of a shift-knob.
So will Prius win this race?
I'm not sure that's as important as is the question of whether or not these two world-beaters can drag ever more car companies into building — using lightweight smaller cars, clean diesel or electricty — a global tsunami of fuel efficient vehicles for the masses who will need and demand them.
Read more from Wheels columnist Royal Ford: