Road Warrior

A noncar guy discovers the perfect wheels for a small sales fleet -- but there's a catch

I'm not what you'd call a "car guy." I can't tell a point from a universal joint; I only know that both are better left in someone else's hands. The one time I did try to do some repairs, it was on my son's car, which he'd purchased for $600 and used for driving to and from college. We'd gone to the auto-repair store, bought some things that connected to other things under the car's hood, went home and took out the old things, connected the new things, and were, I want to tell you, damn proud of ourselves. The next day, less than 15 miles into my son's commute, the engine caught fire, and I had to have the car towed home.

But then I heard on my wife's car radio (which works on and off) that the Sierra Club had bestowed its special Excellence in Environmental Engineering award upon Honda Motor Co. in January for the Honda Insight, a hybrid that uses both a gas and an electric engine. I did a little digging online and downloaded the Insight's specs from I had no idea what a 995 displacement, a 91@2000 torque, or a 10.8:1 compression ratio was. But when I saw that the car got an average of 61 miles per gallon in the city and 70 mpg on the highway, and that it retailed for about $18,000 to $20,000 -- much less than the full-blown electric cars, such as the Solectria, that cost about $10,000 more -- I thought it was worth checking out. The car sounded like just the ticket for a company's growing sales force, and I wanted to see just how efficient it was. So I arranged to spend six days with an Insight.

Day One, Friday: I've arranged to pick up the Insight in the parking lot of my daily metropolitan newspaper. I live five blocks away. The keys have been left for me with the newspaper's receptionist. The Insight is easy enough to pick out. It's small and bright red, and it has a back fender that partially conceals the rear tires.

It's a five-speed standard. There's no switch to hit, and there's nothing to plug in. The car's designed so that it automatically shifts between its gas-powered engine (which it uses most of the time) and its electric engine (which kicks in for acceleration). The electric engine operates on batteries that automatically recharge when you step on the brake.

Around the gearshift shaft there's a card bearing the words important information. It warns me that the vehicle has an auto-stop function that may shut off the engine when I come to a stop. I'm not comforted by that. The card explains that this function improves fuel efficiency. I think to myself, so does getting out and walking.

The car is a two-seater with a hatchback that opens onto a small storage area. It's also low to the ground. I'm six feet tall, and though it takes some effort to slide into the car, once I'm buckled in, I fit comfortably.

A guy runs toward me -- no lie -- and says, "I had to ask: What is that?" He hasn't seen anything like this before on the road.

I depress the clutch, put my foot on the brake, pop the shift into reverse, and back out of the parking space. I make the short drive home and park the car safely in front of my house. It's dusk. I bring the car manual into the house to study. By the end of the evening I still don't know what a 995 displacement is.

Day Two, Saturday: My son-in-law calls and asks if I can give him a lift into Boston. I figure this will be a good test of city driving.

The car runs smoothly. The instrument panel is easy to read, and there's even a digital readout that shows how many miles per gallon you've gotten cumulatively for a particular tank of gas. There's also an indicator for how many miles per gallon you're getting at the moment. You can adjust your driving accordingly. I seem to be getting about 47 miles per gallon rather than the 61 mpg Honda advertises for city driving, albeit with a footnote that clearly says "Actual mileage may vary." Another indicator on the dashboard shows when the batteries for the electric engine are charging and when the electric engine is functioning.

Later in the day, we take the car to the supermarket. The back storage area is big enough to stash a couple of weeks' worth of groceries for a family of two adults and a toddler. The auto-stop hasn't kicked in once yet. I'm relieved.

Day Three, Sunday: My wife and I take the car for a long ride, out to Newburyport, which is about an hour's drive north of Boston. The car travels well. Unlike some small cars, this one feels very smooth at top highway speeds and even when you push it a smidgen over the limit. I'm not encouraging such driving behavior, of course. It just seemed necessary in the interest of a full test-drive.

We get to Newburyport without incident, logging about 52 mpg on the journey. Most of the public parking lots are full. I find a small spot in one of the side lots. There's plenty of room for me to squeeze the car in.

Day Four, Monday: At about noon, I get into the car and do a few errands in downtown Boston. The car handles like a charm. I'm averaging about 50 mpg in town and out. Although that's lower than the advertised 61 mpg in town and 70 mpg on the highway, it's still a far cry from the lowly 14 that I get from my politically incorrect 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

I'm increasingly convinced that the Insight is reliable and affordable enough to consider as a solid vehicle for a sales force that doesn't have to drive clients around. I decide to try ordering five for a hypothetical company. I put in my request through one of the online car-buying sites.

Day Five, Tuesday: There's an E-mail message waiting for me from the car-buying site. It includes the name of the local dealer who's been assigned to respond to my request. I'm told that it may take up to 72 hours to hear from the dealer.

The day passes uneventfully. I run a few errands in the car. Once, in heavy traffic, I experience the auto-stop function. It's annoying, but it's simple enough to start the car up again and drive on.

At 8 p.m., I receive an E-mail message from my local Honda dealer thanking me for choosing it and giving me the details on one Insight, including color, features, and cost ($20,495 for the base model, plus destination charge). By the next morning there's also a message on my voice mail at Inc. from a sales guy who's following up on the dealer's E-mail.

Day Six, Wednesday: I speak to the Honda dealer in the morning. It turns out that he doesn't actually have an Insight available. He had one a few days back, but it went to someone else. There's a waiting list that has one person on it. Would I like to be next in line? I won't get the car for at least six weeks. I ask the sales guy if it would be possible to get on the waiting list for five Insights for my hypothetical sales force. Sure, he says, but I can get only one at a time, with at least a month and a half between the arrival of each car. I give him my name and number.

Rather than depending on that dealer alone, I decide to call around to see if any other Honda dealers have an Insight (or five) available. I call five dealers. Four of them either have none at all or have already taken payment on the one Insight they have. The fifth one says that he might have one, but he's not sure, so I should get down there soon. I pass. I leave my name and number with each of the dealers.

I call the toll-free number on the Insight's promotional pamphlet and am connected to a Honda rep. I ask how I'd go about ordering a fleet of five Insights for my hypothetical company. The rep tells me that I have to go through my local dealers to buy one Insight, five Insights, or however many Insights I desire. I learn later, from talking to several of the local dealers, that Honda is doling out the cars unit by unit so that the company can track consumer demand.

My sixth day is about up. Just before I return the car to the parking lot of my daily metropolitan newspaper, a guy runs toward me -- no lie -- and says, "I had to ask: What is that?" I tell him and notice that others are looking on as well. They haven't seen anything like this before on the road. Of course, if Honda continues to dole out the cars at its current rate, people aren't likely to see many more of them anytime in the near future.

In the month that's passed since I made my inquiries with the dealers, I've received no calls telling me that they have a car ready for me. Which is too bad for Honda. My sales force may be hypothetical, but the ones belonging to real company owners in the market for a small fleet of economical, efficient cars are not.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is an editor-at-large at Inc. His most recent book is The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart (John Wiley & Sons, 2000).

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