x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Honda's first hybrid paved the way for Toyota's popular Prius

The notion of an environmentally friendly car is to many obtuse to the point of being an oxymoron.

The Insight recorded great fuel economy figures but failed to attract significant attention from buyers.
The Insight recorded great fuel economy figures but failed to attract significant attention from buyers.

The notion of an environmentally friendly car is to many obtuse to the point of being an oxymoron. Cynics would argue, and do, most vociferously, that a green car has existed for centuries and is known in common parlance as a bicycle. And yet, in the spirit of saving the planet and generating some positive PR, car manufacturers have poured millions of dollars into creating an enigma; a vehicle that is as friendly to the environment as it is to its owner.

The pioneer in this most verdant of fields was the first Honda Insight. Its name alone betrays its aspirations for greatness: Honda, proactive and principled, leaving its mark on the environment. It was meant to be the car for the new millennium; a car offering that most desirable of comforts, a guilt-free driving experience. Built between 2000 and 2006, it combined a one-litre petrol engine with a 10-kilowatt electric motor. This hybrid powerplant promised exceptional fuel economy, while the lightweight, aerodynamic aluminium shell reduced weight and wind to maximise efficiency. This was a car sold on miles per gallon rather than miles per hour.

Indeed, Car and Driver magazine accepted a challenge by Honda and recorded a staggering 122mpg (1.9 litres per 100 kilometres) on a 300km run from Columbus, Ohio to Detroit. Impressive certainly, but not, in the end, impressive enough. Only 18,000 were sold in its production run, despite the added incentive of tax credits in many countries. The crux of the problem was that, essentially, drivers place fun above frugality on their motoring wish lists. After all, driving is a guilty pleasure.

Most people could catch a bus or train instead, but that wouldn't offer the same thrill. A car is a luxury that has morphed into an essential, and woe betide anyone who will tell a driver otherwise. And so, guilt didn't prove a successful marketing strategy. But the Insight did leave a legacy of sorts. It showed that hybrid technology could be adapted for the road and that eco-cars could roll off a production line. The Toyota Prius, nicknamed by some the "Pious", has now picked up the mantle and its celebrity champions have, if you'll excuse the pun, fuelled sales and helped make it trendy.

But there is one bone I have to pick with both the Insight and the Prius. Why does an eco-car have to look so nerdy? Spare us the bulbous bonnets and covered wheel arches and design something that people will be proud to own, not just for its green credentials, but because it looks nice. I know it's not rocket science but it may just work. tbrooks@thenational.ae