Honda's hybrid headache

honda-insight_lg6.jpg

Pretty much everyone knows that the Toyota Prius now has a competitor — the Honda Insight, available as a base model starting at $19,800.

Writing in The Sunday Times, Jeremy Clarkson offers his opinion of the world’s latest automotive miracle:

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.

Ouch. I’ll let Mr. Clarkson explain:

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.

Maybe we Americans (and Britons) are spoiled, but for the last 90 years or so, automotive “innovations” have always resulted in improvements in vehicle performance and the experience of driving. I shudder when I contemplate the end of the golden era of the automobile.

On the other hand, Toyota reports that orders for its new 2010 Prius have now topped 75,000. The Prius is now in its tenth model year in the United States (2001? Could it really have been that long ago?) and its third major design and engineering overhaul. The 2010 model is expected to be available in the United States in October. From the looks of things, if you want to buy a hybrid you’d probably be better off waiting ’till then.

Even though I’ve been a little rough on hybrids in my previous car posts, I really don’t have much against them. Toyota seems to have come up with a satisfactorily-performing (if a bit overpriced) vehicle that is dependable and very fuel efficient. The downside to hybrid technology is that it adds yet another layer of complexity to the mechanics of the car, and that’s why (along with the relatively steep sticker price) I think people have been hesitant about buying them.

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