Dreaded Purple Master

Another kind of Insight

As most of you know by now, not long ago, my kids' godfather bought a new car: A Honda Insight, their gasoline/electric hybrid.

A few weeks ago, I drove the Insight to the midtown Borders to return a book. As I left, I noticed someone following me out of the store, hanging back to see which vehicle I went to. I was suspicious. I kept an eye on him in the reflections in the windows of the cars I passed. He didn’t look the mugger type: overweight, longish hair, beard – well, let’s face it, he looked like me.

As I closed in on the Honda, keys in hand, he finally asked, “Is that yours?”

Not wanting to attempt to fully explain the relationship between John and myself, and not willing to simply lie and say the car is mine, I settled on “It belongs to my roommate.”

“Well, tell him congratulations for doing his part for the earth.”

I smiled and nodded, and thanked him. Concern faded to a mixture of relief and roll-the-eyes skepticism. Now, this is something I would simply never do. I mean, starting a conversation with a total stranger in the parking lot? I caught myself thinking of that Saturday Night Live film in which Eddie Murphy “discovered” that white people treat each other entirely differently when black people aren’t around. Perhaps this is the environmentalist version of that: He must have thought I was a kindred spirit. Who else would buy this wonky little car?

While I was thinking this over, he continued. “You know it’s going to get a lot harder to buy these now that Bush is in office.”

Well. What a stereotypical thing to say, I thought. Does he really think that Clinton had anything to do with the availability of hybrid vehicles? Does he really think that Bush can or would block them? Why would he say so, to someone he must assume to be like-minded, if he didn’t believe it?

No, I didn’t say any of that. But I did remember a few things that John said the dealer told him.

“You realize that the environmentalists aren’t buying these,” I said.

He looked at me as if I were a Martian. “What?”

“Yeah. Right-wing conservative gadget freaks are. Curry Honda had five of ‘em originally, and the salesman told my roommate that none of the buyers bought it out of particular concern for the environment. It’s just a neat gadget.” I didn’t volunteer that John probably had much the same reason in mind, not being much of a tree-hugger. I let the fellow assume whatever he wanted to assume.

“Oh.” The more I talked, the more crestfallen he looked. I’m still not sure he believed me, but his faith in the world’s rotation looked a little shaken.

I couldn’t resist. “Yeah. The environmentalists are still buying SUVs. To get out to where the trees are, I guess.”

Gosh, these guys are fun. I let him stand there with his mouth open for a second, then added, “But it is a cool car.”

This at least allowed him to recover enough wit to chat about what kind of mileage it gets (rated 70-75 mpg, but John’s getting just under 60 mpg so far), how it handles, that kind of thing.

Finally he got around to asking how much it cost. I told him. His mouth dropped open again. (As had mine, when I heard. It’s really unbelievably inexpensive for a new car.)

“As I said,” I continued chattily, as if I hadn’t noticed the effect my words are having, “Curry Honda hasn’t been able to sell them. I think Courtesy Honda at Southlake still has a couple: They haven’t marked them down quite as far.”

I hope I left him disappointed that the environmentalists aren’t lining up around the block to buy this vehicle they demanded. It’s my perception, somewhat enforced by the clean-air folks’ failure to embrace these cars, that they aren’t prepared to change their own habits: They just want the rest of us to do so.

The cars are right there in the dealerships. The environmentalists could easily buy them if they wanted to. But they don’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the Insight. I was prepared not to, but it won me over. It’s not a vehicle for all needs, and it doesn’t pretend to be. But what it does, it does very well.

I think this is probably the direction the industry will go. It retains the freedom to go wherever you want (without the need to plug the car in and recharge), while still getting three to four times the gas mileage of anything else on the road. I believe the Toyota hybrid seats four (this Honda version only seats two); I’ve heard a hybrid van is on the way.

And we do consume too much gasoline. I don’t accept the gloomy predictions of the anti-oil crowd (we’ve been ten years from exhausting the planet’s petroleum since at least 1975), but it is a finite resource, and we’ll have to learn how to stretch it or do without it sooner or later.

But if the environmentalists aren’t prepared to lead the way on this, then who do they think is going to buy the things?

Daniel Taylor: Tuesday, May 15, 2001