Automotive criticism

I have often said that ANY subject can be made interesting by good writing. As an example, I have often used writing about cars. I’m not all that interested in them, but I enjoy reading good writing about them. Consider, for example, Car Talk with Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers. Just as there are literary critics, movie critics, and food critics, there are car critics. The most entertaining of the breed has to be Jeremy Clarkson, one of the hosts of one of my favorite television shows, BBC’s Top Gear. Here is his take on Honda’s new hybrid, the Insight:

Much has been written about the Insight, Honda’s new low-priced hybrid. 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. The beginning of days.

So far, though, you have not been told what it’s like as a car; as a tool for moving you, your friends and your things from place to place.

So here goes. 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 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.

There’s more. Normally, Hondas feel as though they have been screwed together by eye surgeons. This one, however, feels as if it’s been made from steel so thin, you could read through it. And the seats, finished in pleblon, are designed specifically, it seems, to ruin your skeleton. This is hairy-shirted eco-ism at its very worst.

However, as a result of all this, prices start at £15,490 — that’s £3,000 or so less than the cost of the Prius. But at least with the Toyota there is no indication that you’re driving a car with two motors. In the Insight you are constantly reminded, not only by the idiotic dashboard, which shows leaves growing on a tree when you ease off the throttle (pass the sick bucket), but by the noise and the ride and the seats. And also by the hybrid system Honda has fitted.

In a Prius the electric motor can, though almost never does, power the car on its own. In the Honda the electric motor is designed to “assist” the petrol engine, providing more get-up-and-go when the need arises. The net result is this: in a Prius the transformation from electricity to petrol is subtle. In the Honda there are all sorts of jerks and clunks.

Jeremy is not just trying to be funny. He is not just making fun of the car. He is dealing with actual technical problems in the vehicle. And if you read the rest of the review, you will find that he is not against alternative energy at all and that he has positive suggestions for how the automotive industry could proceed. He makes the point that for a new automotive technology to succeed, it will need to be at least as good and preferably better than what people currently have; otherwise, they won’t buy it. He gives credit to Prius, but puts his hope in hydrogen technology.

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  • WebMonk

    I read this review a couple weeks ago and laughed my head off! Good writing, no, scratch that. Fantastic writing! The evocation there is top notch!

  • WebMonk

    I read this review a couple weeks ago and laughed my head off! Good writing, no, scratch that. Fantastic writing! The evocation there is top notch!