As a child growing up in the Georgian city of Bath, England, my fantasy environment was the futuristic America of skyscrapers and McDonald's milkshakes and fast, gutsy cars, like the Jolly Green Giant Chevrolet owned by my father's rich friend, Bob, in London. But later, as a bicycle-riding architecture student, my fascination for American machine-age culture was tempered by repugnance at its wastefulness and excess. Then I moved to Los Angeles and was faced with reconciling my dueling impulses when buying a car. Was there a car with the gusto of the Jolly Green Giant that was also "green"? A car that married form and environmental function? No. Not until the Honda Insight came along.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 27, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Nader book--An article on hybrid cars in Thursday's Southern California Living section misstated the title of a book by Ralph Nader. The correct title is "Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile."
Small, sleek, with gas consumption of 50-plus miles per gallon, and affordable at around $20,000, this two-seater, hybrid, Ultra Low Emission Vehicle oozed virtue and style. It wed form and function with its brilliant part-electric, part-gas engine tucked into a snug, light, aerodynamic body with styling that brought to mind a baby Citroen DS. And it came in my favorite, a zingy lime-green. Not a giant--in fact the opposite of the grotesque sport utility vehicles that rule the road--but jolly, lime-green, and "green!" It seemed designed for the congested, polluted streets of Los Angeles, especially now that the cost of gas is going up.
But since buying this cutie I've been pondering, given all the pluses, why isn't everyone driving one? Is there a prejudice against such fuel-efficient modes of transport? Why isn't the Honda Insight the hottest thing on four wheels since, say, the Mazda Miata? Where is the buzz, the advertising blitzkrieg?
Art Garner, manager of public relations for American Honda Motor Co., based in Torrance, explained that the Insight is essentially a test car that is being heavily subsidized by the company--to the tune of several thousand dollars per car--in order to test market for the hybrid vehicles. Honda is making only 10,000 per year at its plant in Japan, of which 5,000 are imported to the U.S. "We are not making money off these cars," Garner says. He believes car buyers won't want to pay more than the current sticker price of about $20,000, but he adds, "it is a development car that will pay big dividends in the future."
To that end Honda is promoting it in print and on TV, Garner says, but not too much.
It is not unusual for car companies to be hesitant about launching a new technology. Jim Motavalli, editor of E-The Environmental Magazine and author of "Forward Drive: The Race to Build 'Clean' Cars for the Future" points to the failure of General Motors' fully electric EV1, launched in 1996. In five years, he says, GM leased only 600 cars..
I first spoke to Garner in May, but since that time word-of-mouth has increased as gas prices have risen. A month later, when we spoke again, he reported Honda had sold 900 Insights nationwide in May, up from 570 in April. In addition, the Insight is now available with automatic transmission.
The Toyota Prius, which sells for $20,450, is also a hybrid, but it seats five and has automatic transmission; so far it has proven more popular than the Insight. The Prius has seen a 30% increase in sales since April, but to my eye its Corolla-like appearance is not nearly as good-looking as the Insight. Toyota is currently exporting 12,000 cars per year to the U.S. and demand exceeds supply, according to Ernest Bastien, corporate vehicle marketing manager for Toyota USA, also in Torrance.
Amory Lovins, chief executive officer at the Rocky Mountain Institute and co-author of "Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution," is a self-described happy Insight driver. He says the surge in popularity of these cars "hints at significant unmet demand for superclean, super-efficient vehicles--of all sizes and shapes."
Meanwhile, support is in the offing from state and local initiatives. Taking a cue from the White House, which touted tax credits for hybrid drivers in its Energy Plan, the California Energy Commission is finalizing plans, says Susan Brown, manager of the commission's Transportation Technology Office, to introduce later this year an incentive of $500 per "highly efficient clean vehicle," probably in the form of a rebate through dealers. They are also going to introduce a "best-in-class" ranking in terms of fuel efficiency. The Insight currently ranks highest in the two-seater category and the Toyota Prius tops its class. At a local level, the Air Quality Management District is about to introduce a labeling program to help buyers identify Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicles--including the Prius--and Ultra Low Emission Vehicles--such as the Insight.