Japan from the inside out

Clarkson on the Honda Insight hybrid

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, May 20, 2009

HAVE YOU EVER seen or heard anyone slam a Japanese-made automobile? Apart from labor unions in North America or Europe, of course.

Honda Insight hybrid

Honda Insight hybrid

My uncle’s opinion is typical of most of those I’ve heard about Japanese cars. Now in his late 80s, he was a young naval officer in World War II, and his adulthood coincided with the zenith of American economic and military power. If anyone might be expected to buy American, it would be him. But he doesn’t—at least not cars, anyway.

Uncle Bob has bought nothing but Toyotas for the past 30 years, and he’s very particular about the kind he buys. “I don’t want any of those Toyotas they build in the United States,” he insists. “I want the ones they make in Japan.”

But today, I read for the first time a review savaging a Japanese automobile–though I admit I spend little time following auto trends. (There are probably plenty of other negative reviews that I haven’t seen.) Jeremy Clarkson, hailed by some as Britain’s premier auto critic, had this to say about the Honda Insight 1.3 IMA SE Hybrid in the Times of London:

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.

It’s not that Mr. Clarkson dislikes either Hondas in particular…

Normally, Hondas feel as though they have been screwed together by eye surgeons.

…or Japanese cars in general. (Here he is talking about the Mazda 6 MPS):

“This really is a magnificent driver’s car.”

In fact, he seems to like Mazdas a lot. It’s just that he really detests this Honda:

The only hope I have is that there are enough fools and madmen out there who will buy an Insight to look sanctimonious outside the school gates. And that the cash this generates can be used to develop something a bit more constructive.

One of the factors informing his opinion of this Honda is that he doesn’t care for hybrids:

“…let me be clear that hybrid cars are designed solely to milk the guilt genes of the smug and the foolish.”

Though he does like another Honda hybrid, the Clarity:

“The car feels like a car. And, best of all, the power it produces is so enormous, it can be used by day to get you to 120mph and by night to run all the electrical appliances in your house. This is not science fiction. There is a fleet of Claritys running around California right now.”

In addition to writing articles for the Times of London, Mr. Clarkson appears on BBC TV in a show called Top Gear. At one time, it was the highest rated show on BBC Two in Great Britain. My cable package includes the BBC World Service, and I’ve seen Top Gear in Japan. It’s quite entertaining, even if you think cars are nothing more than machines to transport people and things from Point A to Point B quickly and conveniently. A friend in England named Paul (who studied kendo in Japan for two years) had this to say in an e-mail about Clarkson’s reputation at home:

Clarkson is a God to some and an arrogant, self-important wanker to others.

There’s enough ammunition for either side in his review of the Honda Insight hybrid!

Now get ready for the best part: The car, which was officially released in February in Japan, became Japan’s first best-selling hybrid ever in April. Last month, Honda sold 10,481 Insights in this country, more than any other model by any other manufacturer. The car was a hit from the minute it debuted on the Japanese market, doubling Honda’s initial target during its first month in showrooms. It went on sale in March in Europe and last month in the United States, where prices start at slightly less than $20,000.

As with the proverbial Frenchmen, can 10,000 Japanese be wrong?

Note: The model names for these vehicles are the ones used overseas. I don’t know what the corresponding models are called in Japan. (They’re not always the same.)

11 Responses to “Clarkson on the Honda Insight hybrid”

  1. Bender said

    I think some, or maybe even most, car enthusiasts like the roar of the internal combustion engine. That’s what a “car” is, and cars with good engines are good cars. But maybe in a few more years, that school of thought may become outdated, like how jets replaced propeller planes (well, not exactly, but you kind of get the analogy). Just a maybe.

    I think the first Insight had a bad design, and it didn’t sell good. It looked too “futuristic”, especially how they half-exposed the rear wheel. The first Prius also had a clumsy look, but the second one was kind of cool, and was a hit.

    Somehow, I’d be disappointed, too, if my German car (no, I don’t have one, thank you. Just an “if”) was assembled in the U.S. or England.

    I also am disappointed at how Japanese automakers sell hot cars in the U.S., while they sell small, box-shaped & inaka-style cars in Japan. Hot cars don’t sell well in Japan, I know. But still, don’t the Japanese deserve better?

  2. ampontan said

    I’m forgetting off the top of my head the name of the Nissan that all the guys that liked hot cars used to buy, particularly when I first got here.

    In the US you often see guys hanging out together until late at night working on a car to soup it up. In Japan I see that more with motorcycles. There’s a long-haired biker down the street that’s about to take over his father’s noodle shop (champon, sara udon) and a small motorcycle shop about a 10 minute walk away where there are always two or three guys until late at night taking motorcycles apart and putting them back together.

    Also, you might have missed this:

    The younger generation isn’t as interested in owning cars. And they sell those box-cars because they’re very popular. I did a translation not so long ago featuring interviews with the designers of the original in that style, and they and their company are thrilled at the success. It suggested that what younger people today want is a moving living room.

  3. Aceface said

    I drove INSIGHT last month for my business.Not a bad car.And definitly worth consideration for the price they are offering.

  4. James A said


    The Nissan GT-R R-35 (AKA – The 911 Killer) came out first in Japan before it did in foreign markets. But you are right that when Japanese want hot cars, they tend to go with foreign brands like Ferrari, Audi, Maserati, etc.

    Once thing I’ve noticed in Japan is that Alfa Romeos are really popular, at least in my neck of the woods (Western Tokyo). I never saw those things in the US. The last time they were popular was when Dustin Hoffman drove one in The Graduate.

  5. Bender said

    It’s the Nissan Skyline you’re talking about, specifically the GT-R. It was a symbol of old, bad Nissan making ridiculous cars only Japanese “maniacs” crave for, and was killed because of that. But then it miraculously sprung from the dead as the hottest car ever.

    I didn’t know that. I recall that the Skyline Coupe, which I think the GT-R is based on, was sold in the U.S. first under the brand Infiniti.

  6. Aceface said

    What about Mitsubishi Lancer evolution?People did buy that long before it was sold overseas….

  7. Ecoutez said

    I rather like the smallish cars in Japan. I’m always impressed by the fact that I can fit comfortably, for long periods of time, into something only slightly larger than a toaster. Especially since I’m 6’4″ (1.93 meters, I think). It does make me question my fellow Americans who claim that they “need the space” in their behemoth vehicles.

  8. Bender said

    MItsubishi? Lancer? You’ll have a hard time finding one in the States. I can understand why, because how they did the rear-end job was quite outdated, and they never bothered to change it. I can see why Mitsubishi is lagging behind Toyota, Honda, and Nissan.

  9. Get A Job, Son! said

    Bender… interesting comment that Japan sells box-shaped cars here but not overseas.
    I read an article about Nissan, that they did (1~2 years ago?) send one of EVERY car they make to Portugal, then invited the worlds Auto journalists to test them all. The key comments from the journalists was “why do you keep the best cars in Japan? these are great, stylish and will sell”.
    Of particular note was that they LOVED the box-shaped Nissan Cube.

    The detail is in here…

  10. James A said

    Plus there’s the Toyota Bb, aka. the Scion xB in the US. Boxy, yet it was the most popular of the Scion line. I find it kind of funny Toyota felt the need to create a whole new brand just to sell it. Then again, it seems to work for most Japanese companies in the US market.

  11. butakun said

    Ampontan, one small correction. Honda FCX Clarity is not a hybrid. It’s entirely powered by a hydrogen fuel cell motor.

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