Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jeremy Clarkson on the Honda Insight

Jeremy Clarkson's review of the new Honda Insight hybrid is that special sort of bad review, one that's a delight to read regardless of any knowledge or interest in the thing reviewed. It hits two separate pleasure centers in my brain: The one that reacts to articulate and creative bad-mouthing and another that lights up at the misfortune of popular people or things.

Jeremy Clarkson is one of the three hosts of the BBC's car show, Top Gear, a show so entertaining and well-produced, that you wonder when American TV is going to knock it off and fuck it up. What's so uniquely British about the show, and why it can never be made so well in the States, is that the hosts are not afraid to say that a car sucks. Whether it's a new Ferrari or a new Ford, they will give very candid and thoughtful reviews.

First, a quick background on the car. If the Insight is Honda's answer to the Toyota Prius, it's more a muttered reply. While the Prius gets 51 mpg city and 48 highway, the Insight gets less: 40 mpg city and 43 mpg highway. But it costs less and has a shiny new ad blitz on TV.

"Much has been written about the Insight," writes Clarkson in the Times Online. "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."

But how is it to drive?
"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 problems are myriad and systemic, he says, so it isn't easy to isolate them. The "constant variable transmission," or CVT, makes the car seem as if it has a slipping clutch. The engine sounds:
"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."
He continues:
"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."
If Clarkson's right about all of this, the celebrations for a new era of hybrid trnasport are premature. It's nearly greenwashing. The technology just isn't quite there yet, and we're probably better off buying diesels, or better yet, converting diesels to bio-diesels. Is it really better to ditch a perfectly good used car for a brand new Prius or Insight? Doubtful. But a whole lot of people who don't like cars much anyway can feel like they're helping.

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