Green Dream Comes True

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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.

Ralph Nader, whose book "Dangerous at Any Speed" helped transform car design in the '60s, says the hybrid is only one of the options for fuel efficiency, but "it's important, it's on the ground, it's in the dealerships, it's on the highways and it's promoted by two major auto companies in Japan, which have given the lie to Detroit's sluggishness."

But despite its availability, the hybrid has not fully registered with the public, and Honda is not racing to clarify some of the lurking misconceptions about the car.

My car gets the thumbs-up from valet parkers, L.A.'s arbiters of auto style, and admiring stares from other drivers. Mainly, however, it elicits curiosity. People invariably ask how often I have to plug in the car at an electric charging station, when, in fact, what is so clever about the hybrid is that the electric battery self-charges as the car drives. Very few people know this. Even Honda was slow to catch on. When my friend Blythe Mayne, an Insight pioneer who introduced me to the vehicle, bought hers about a year ago, some of the sales people at her dealer didn't know the car does not need to be plugged in. Honda spokesman Garner agrees that the message has not gotten out and says that the company will launch TV ads to explain the car later this month.

There is also a perception that the hybrid is complicated to drive. Brock Yates, editor at large for Car and Driver magazine, tested the Insight and admits "frankly, I was quite reluctant to get into the car. I had the same prejudices as everyone else. I thought I'd have to deal with these crazy starting procedures and all the complexities that make this thing work." But he was won over: "I was wrong about everything. I find it exceedingly reliable, simple, a pleasure to drive."

My own experience was similar. The engineering is complicated--I couldn't begin to explain how it works--but the driving is easy. All I need to handle are the complexities of the five-speed manual transmission, which is fun, with a little help from flashing arrows on the dashboard telling when to change gears for optimum fuel consumption.

The Insight operates just like a normal stick-shift car, with one startling exception. When you slow down or stop and go into neutral, the engine stops, then is kicked in again by the electric engine when you go back into gear. This Auto Stop prevents burning fuel and expelling pollutants while the car is still, which was unnerving at first. Mayne says that when she bought her Insight, the Honda salespeople didn't explain the Auto Stop to her, and for the first two weeks she restarted her car every time the engine cut out. It took her architect husband, Thom Mayne, to work out what was happening.

Adding to the misconceptions, Honda has assumed a modest market, on the grounds that, says Garner, "only a small number of people will accept a two-seater." Perhaps because I hail from Europe, where petite two-seaters are more common, I find this hard to believe. What about the millions of empty nesters, childless couples and singles in America? Larry Dussault is the 70-year-old founder of Insight Owner magazine, a Web site and subscription magazine with a membership of about 500 of the 5,000 or 6,000 current Insight owners in the U.S. With his children grown, he says, the Insight is the "perfect car for me." It is the perfect car for Mayne too, who ferries around only her younger son.

Besides, what about the millions of two-seater sports cars? Motavalli responds, "the Insight is not a sports car, it's not a fun car like the Miata."

Maybe it doesn't have what Dussault describes as the sports-car "vroom" and it does lag a bit on hills, but the Insight can zip along at well over 80 mph. To my eyes, it's every bit as sexy as the Miata or Bob's Jolly Green Giant, even though, sadly, the latest model only comes in black, red, blue and silver. (I bought a year-old model.) "Not enough people liked the citrus [lime green]," Garner says.

Yates, whose magazine focuses primarily on sports vehicles, said the Insight is misperceived as a low-performance car because of the marketing. The Insight is sold as "responsible, hard-working ... it does all the things the Sierra Club would approve of." By contrast, the Miata is sold as a sporty car for pleasure.

The Sierra Club stamp of approval can be a mixed blessing. Stephen Slaughter is an L.A.-based African American architect on the verge of purchasing a Honda Insight. He says most people in his demographic "aspire to a Cadillac Escalade, the quintessential symbol of success for a thirtysomething African American male." For his peers, he says, this humungous sports utility vehicle, or "Lac" as it is popularly called, reflects "the ability to afford things that are terribly wasteful." Slaughter anticipates laughs or puzzlement from his friends when he drives his new car, but says "the Insight has to do with conservation and ecological and social responsibilities. I'd rather associate myself with those symbols and signs than the other." Plus, he adds, "it's cheap and looks kind of cool."

Given the existence of enough design-and environment-conscious types like Slaughter and Mayne, coupled with the growing legions who would like to reduce their gas bills and take advantage of the government incentives, one would think the future should be rosy for the Insight.

But Honda is vague about how much future it has. Dussault believes the Insight will have a short life. "They've accomplished their goal of creating a test-bed," he says. "The Insight has accomplished its purpose, like the '49 Thunderbird" (the test car for the Thunderbird that became a cult classic).

As far as Lovins is concerned, "historians will record that the Insight and Prius were the harbingers of automaking's greatest revolution in a century." He has started a company to develop a next stage of "Hypercar"--sport utility vehicles with zero emissions and gas consumption of 99 miles per gallon--that he hopes "will save as much oil as OPEC now sells."

For U.S. automakers, the hybrid sports utility vehicle is the Holy Grail. Motavalli says "the car to watch is the Ford Escape, an SUV smaller than the Explorer that will be hybrid in 2003 and claiming 40 miles per gallon."

For now, auto critics and Honda seem to agree that the Insight's primary job is to pave the way for acceptance of a hybrid Honda Civic, which is due to be launched next year and is widely expected to sell in huge numbers.

As for those in the test-bed, "all of us who drive the Insights," says Yates, "are guinea pigs--and very successful ones because we love them." As a guinea pig who is fussy about design, I am proud to be participating in the energy revolution, in a style worthy of the futuristic America of my childhood fantasies.

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."
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