The Honda Insight: How Eco-Prigs Suffer, Insufferably

When you subscribe to a car-sharing service, you are at the mercy of other people, in more ways than one. It was Christmas Eve afternoon, and the cold wind along the Hudson was blowing through an empty parking space where the Mazda3 I was signed up to drive for two days was supposed to be. The car had not been returned yet, the customer-service representative on my phone was saying, very apologetically. But there was another car.

I could see it. It was a Honda Insight hybrid. Or I could go hunting somewhere else—downtown, across town?—for the one other car that was left anywhere, a Nissan Sentra. I had booked a Sentra once before, a drab and cheap-feeling thing. If I wasted the time now to go get it, I’d be stuck wondering if the Mazda had made it back while I was running around for the depressing Nissan. I had to get on the road. So I had to get on the road in a Honda Insight.

That is the thing, you see, with the car sharing. It’s not just that you have to put up with the particular other people who are returning or not returning your car-share cars. It’s that the car-sharing company tries to supply a certain range of vehicles, to suit a range of tastes—a narrowish, upmarketish range, but even so. You have to put up with other people’s ideas of what a car should be.

It can be educational, trying out someone else’s kind of car. The Volvo S40 was claustrophobia-inducing; Volvo clearly had no idea how to scale down its big-car interiors for a little sedan. The Audi A3—I stepped on the gas getting onto the Triborough Bridge, and it ironed a little Teutonically crisp crease into space-time: Hier ist da!* So that’s why people spend the money.

But what kind of pinched, gloomy deviant has a taste for a Honda Insight? The coffin-like, over-computerized cabin oddly reminded me of when I was stuck with a Ford Explorer from Avis—this was a cramped virtuemobile instead of a bloated slobmobile, but still, fundamentally, both were made for people who despise driving.

I have nothing against small, efficient cars. I love cars like that. I used to have a mid-’80s Honda Civic sedan that could cover the 380-odd miles from Maryland to Boston on a single 10-gallon tank of gas. That car was happy going 85 miles per hour. You could fit three people, a guitar, a bass, two amplifiers, and a drum kit inside it. The Honda engineers were geniuses with space.

Shoot, the car I’d wanted was only a little Mazda. I’d driven the hatch version before, and it had felt a bit like that old Civic—much more powerful (and less fuel-efficient), but the same lightweight, nimble quality. And a generous interior for the size.

There was nothing generous about the Insight. At a stoplight, I called up the specs on my phone out of morbid curiosity: a half-inch less front headroom than the Mazda, 2.2 inches less shoulder room, 2.1 inches less hip room. Subtract an extra inch all around for the back seat. For what? A body plagiarized from the already ugly Toyota Prius, and an official mpg rating barely better than what I used to get from a non-hybrid Civic built a quarter-century ago.

Clearly the mileage isn’t the point. The point is that the Insight is a miserable car. The only reason to buy it is because you know cars are wicked, and you want to be punished for having one. It is a cage-free egg-white omelet, unsalted, served over half a rice cake.

This may actually be ecologically sound. There’s a whole strain of criticism that says our conventional approach to efficiency, especially where it relates to cars, is self-defeating—that when cars conserve fuel, driving becomes cheaper and easier, which induces people to drive more. The true cure for the environmental damage done by automobiles is to make driving as difficult and unpleasant as possible.

Here, then, is a car to remind you that you really shouldn’t be driving at all. Forget about running any wasteful shopping errands in the Insight. You can’t fit cargo into it anyway. Or you can fit some, but anything taller than one grocery bag will cover up the rear window.

Between that rear window and the aerodynamically tucked rear corners, the Insight is willfully blind to other vehicles. The driver sits in a solipsistic cocoon, cut off from the community of traffic, focused on the color-shifting battery-status light glowing behind the speedometer number—waiting for the car to deliver an Eco Score at the end of each trip, the payoff to a boring personal video game. So much for public spirit.

[* Per comment below, I originally mistyped the German.]