Much has been written about the Insight, Honda’s new low-priced hybrid. We’ve been told how much carbon dioxide it produces, how its dashboard encourages frugal driving by glowing green when you’re easy on the throttle and how it is the dawn of all things. The beginning of days.
So far, though, you have not been told what it’s like as a car; as a tool for moving you, your friends and your things from place to place.
So here goes. It’s terrible. Biblically terrible. Possibly the worst new car money can buy. It’s the first car I’ve ever considered crashing into a tree, on purpose, so I didn’t have to drive it any more.
The biggest problem, and it’s taken me a while to work this out, because all the other problems are so vast and so cancerous, is the gearbox. For reasons known only to itself, Honda has fitted the Insight with something called constantly variable transmission (CVT).
It doesn’t work. Put your foot down in a normal car and the revs climb in tandem with the speed. In a CVT car, the revs spool up quickly and then the speed rises to match them. It feels like the clutch is slipping. It feels horrid.
And the sound is worse. The Honda’s petrol engine is a much-shaved, built-for-economy, low-friction 1.3 that, at full chat, makes a noise worse than someone else’s crying baby on an airliner. It’s worse than the sound of your parachute failing to open. Really, to get an idea of how awful it is, you’d have to sit a dog on a ham slicer.
So you’re sitting there with the engine screaming its head off, and your ears bleeding, and you’re doing only 23mph because that’s about the top speed, and you’re thinking things can’t get any worse, and then they do because you run over a small piece of grit.
Because the Honda has two motors, one that runs on petrol and one that runs on batteries, it is more expensive to make than a car that has one. But since the whole point of this car is that it could be sold for less than Toyota’s Smugmobile, the engineers have plainly peeled the suspension components to the bone. The result is a ride that beggars belief.
There’s more. Normally, Hondas feel as though they have been screwed together by eye surgeons. This one, however, feels as if it’s been made from steel so thin, you could read through it. And the seats, finished in pleblon, are designed specifically, it seems, to ruin your skeleton. This is hairy-shirted eco-ism at its very worst.
However, as a result of all this, prices start at £15,490 — that’s £3,000 or so less than the cost of the Prius. But at least with the Toyota there is no indication that you’re driving a car with two motors. In the Insight you are constantly reminded, not only by the idiotic dashboard, which shows leaves growing on a tree when you ease off the throttle (pass the sick bucket), but by the noise and the ride and the seats. And also by the hybrid system Honda has fitted.
In a Prius the electric motor can, though almost never does, power the car on its own. In the Honda the electric motor is designed to “assist” the petrol engine, providing more get-up-and-go when the need arises. The net result is this: in a Prius the transformation from electricity to petrol is subtle. In the Honda there are all sorts of jerks and clunks.
And for what? For sure, you could get 60 or more mpg if you were careful. And that’s not bad for a spacious five-door hatchback. But for the same money
you could have a Golf diesel, which
will be even more economical. And hasn’t been built out of rice paper to keep costs down.
Of course, I am well aware that there are a great many people in the world who believe that the burning of fossil fuels will one day kill all the Dutch and that something must be done.
They will see the poor ride, the woeful performance, the awful noise and the spine-bending seats as a price worth paying. But what about the eco-cost of building the car in the first place?
Honda has produced a graph that seems to suggest that making the Insight is only marginally more energy-hungry than making a normal car. And that the slight difference is more than negated by the resultant fuel savings.
Hmmm. I would not accuse Honda of telling porkies. That would be foolish. But I cannot see how making a car with two motors costs the same in terms of resources as making a car with one.
The nickel for the battery has to come from somewhere. Canada, usually. It has to be shipped to Japan, not on a sailing boat, I presume. And then it must be converted, not in a tree house, into a battery, and then that battery must be transported, not on an ox cart, to the Insight production plant in Suzuka. And then the finished car has to be shipped, not by Thor Heyerdahl, to Britain, where it can be transported, not by wind, to the home of a man with a beard who thinks he’s doing the world a favour.
Why doesn’t he just buy a Range Rover, which is made from local components, just down the road? No, really — weird-beards buy locally produced meat and vegetables for eco-reasons. So why not apply the same logic to cars?
At this point you will probably dismiss what I’m saying as the rantings of a petrolhead, and think that I have my head in the sand.
That’s not true. While I have yet to be convinced that man’s 3% contribution to the planet’s greenhouse gases affects the climate, I do recognise that oil is a finite resource and that as it becomes more scarce, the political ramifications could well be dire. I therefore absolutely accept the urgent need for alternative fuels.
But let me be clear that hybrid cars are designed solely to milk the guilt genes of the smug and the foolish. And that pure electric cars, such as the G-Wiz and the Tesla, don’t work at all because they are just too inconvenient.
Since about 1917 the car industry has not had a technological revolution — unlike, say, the world of communications or film. There has never been a 3G moment at Peugeot nor a need to embrace DVD at Nissan. There has been no VHS/Betamax battle between Fiat and Renault.
Car makers, then, have had nearly a century to develop and hone the principles of suck, squeeze, bang, blow. And they have become very good at it.
But now comes the need to throw away the heart of the beast, the internal combustion engine, and start again. And, critically, the first of the new cars with their new power systems must be better than the last of the old ones. Or no one will buy them. That’s a tall order. That’s like dragging Didier Drogba onto a cricket pitch and expecting him to be better than Ian Botham.
And here’s the kicker. That’s exactly what Honda has done with its other eco-car, the Clarity. Instead of using a petrol engine to charge up the electric motor’s batteries, as happens on the Insight, the Clarity uses hydrogen: the most abundant gas in the universe.
The only waste product is water. The car feels like a car. And, best of all, the power it produces is so enormous, it can be used by day to get you to 120mph and by night to run all the electrical appliances in your house. This is not science fiction. There is a fleet of Claritys running around California right now.
There are problems to be overcome. Making hydrogen is a fuel-hungry process, and there is no infrastructure. But Alexander Fleming didn’t look at his mould and think, “Oh dear, no one will put that in their mouth”, and give up.
I would have hoped, therefore, that Honda had diverted every penny it had into making hydrogen work rather than stopping off on the way to make a half-arsed halfway house for fools and madmen.
The only hope I have is that there are enough fools and madmen out there who will buy an Insight to look sanctimonious outside the school gates. And that the cash this generates can be used to develop something a bit more constructive.