Perhaps the best introductions in keeping with the 2009 Canadian International Auto Show’s The New Era theme were those of Honda and Toyota, who both revealed the latest versions of their hybrid-electric sedans to great fanfare.

Both automakers have a long history of hybrid technology, but while Toyota currently gets the “green” vibe from the public, it was actually Honda who first introduced North America to hybrid propulsion with the original Insight in 2000.

Designed as a frugal, two-seat runabout, the Insight was widely respected for its technology and stellar fuel consumption numbers.

However, once Toyota released its revolutionary Prius in 2001 in a traditional, more desirable and usable sedan body, the Insight quickly faded into the background.

Toyota was justifiably confident during the new Prius’ introduction in Toronto.

“Many companies have been talking about their plans to deliver the car of the future, and Canadians will see many promising future technologies at the Canadian International Auto Show this week. With the new Prius, however, we are telling Canadians they can have the car of the future right now ... this spring, when it goes on sale across Canada,” noted Stephen Beatty, managing director of Toyota Canada Inc.

The new Prius looks very similar to previous versions, but most of the effort was concentrated under the skin.

Toyota engineers focused their efforts on achieving a combined fuel consumption of 3.8L/100km — a seven per cent improvement — while offering more power.

Meanwhile, Honda has promised that its new four-door Insight will be the most inexpensive hybrid to purchase when it goes on sale later this year. The Insight’s overall shape is remarkably similar to the Prius, but that’s more likely the result of wind-tunnel testing to aid aerodynamic efficiency.

Some other things to note are that while the Prius is significantly larger than the Insight, the cabins are nearly the same size.

Also, while the Prius can drive solely on electricity around town at lower speeds, depending on conditions, the Insight really can’t. Its electric motor is only there to assist the hyper-efficient gasoline engine.

That’s why despite the Insight being smaller and lighter, it only registers a (still-impressive) 4.7L/100km combined fuel consumption rating. For comparison, a regular Honda Civic averages 6.4L/100km.

Pricing should bring expectations back in line, though. While a current Prius starts at around $28,000 (and expect the new version to remain close to that), Honda has stated that it wants to significantly undercut Toyota with the Insight, so consumers should pray for a $21,000 sticker.

Both hybrids are on track for release this spring, and while it would be foolish to declare a victor yet, in the end it’s the public who wins by having more choice than ever when it comes to energy-conscious cars.

Two to tango

HONDA INSIGHT
EPA rating: Compact
Price: $21,000 (estimated)
Engine: 1.3L I4
HP: 98
Torque: 123
Fuel mileage (combined, L/100 km): 4.7
Seats: 5
Neat feature: Navigation

TOYOTA PRIUS
EPA rating: Mid-sized
Price: $28,000 (estimated)
Engine: 1.8L I4
HP: 134
Torque: 258
Fuel mileage (combined, L/100 km): 3.8
Seats: 5
Neat feature: Self-parking