Skimming along in an original, turn-of-the-millennium Honda Insight – arcade game digital gauges gently blinking amber and green, impossibly low scuttle ahead, enveloping boat tail aft – it's impossible not to question how far the genre has evolved since this, the first globally-available hybrid was launched over a decade ago.
As a statement of The Future; a future of Utopian, highly-efficient and progressive personal mobility, the Insight ticks the boxes – it's small, smart, lightweight and, perhaps most importantly, has rear wheel spats. As we all know, a covered rear wheel is the hallmark of any truly futuristic vehicle.
There's something Citroën-esque about the Insight – those wheel spats, the obsession with aerodynamics and the devotion to optimized efficiency links them. The Insight is a latter-day Citroen M35; both are highly experimental small coupes built to showcase their companies vision of future propulsion systems – the Wankel rotary in Citroën's case and the petrol/electric hybrid for Honda.
It's the 'aero look' that has, to a large extent, become the visual signifier for futuristic cars, from the streamliners of the 1930s, through jet-age 1950s Americana and now, hybrids. The 1997 Toyota Prius rather missed this trick with its lumpy, three-box architecture, but the second-generation Prius has become synonymous with hybridization in the psyche of the masses. It's a genre-defining design. Like the Insight, it embraced aerodynamics, with little transition from hood to windscreen, a roof apexing over the front of the cabin that slopes into a cut-off Kamm tail. Its lack of dominant front grille, the pronounced roof humps (for smaller frontal area) and rear bumper 'skirts' drive home the point. And while, sadly rear wheel spats were absent, like the Insight, it looked like The Future. And still does in relation to other cars.
Many have followed the Prius' lead, partly through the necessity, in order to package four seats into the most aerodynamically-efficient body, but also to bask in the Pruis' green halo and become ecologically-friendly by association. Ironically Honda itself has produced the closest Prius clone with the current Insight. Meanwhile the Chevrolet Volt and its Opel Ampera sibling display derivation on the theme. These cars are the 'explicit hybrids'.
At the other end of the spectrum sit the 'covert hybrids', which are designed to look like 'regular' cars. There are two subsets of this species – those based on conventionally-powered cars, such as the Cadillac Escalade, Porsche Panamera etc. There are also those designed for customers who don't want to shout about their cars' credentials, such as the Lexus CT200h. Indeed Toyota has all bases covered, with the Auris Hybrid, Prius and CT200h each sharing similar platform and virtually identical drivetrains, yet each offering a different image.
Inside, the lesson the Insight taught us was that HMI can be exactly that – a two-way interface between human and machine. Historically, gauges in cars have followed the aeronautical model of passively displaying data to the operator. Yet Honda, with the original Insight – and to a much greater extent, its 2009 namesake – has made this interface active. It's rather basic in the first Insight – its 'CHRG | ASST' (charge/assist) meter is, essentially a gauge of when the car's battery is either being recharged or helping push its slippery body along – yet the reality is that the pilot finds themselves altering their driving style to keep it in the left-hand, green CHRG zone as often as possible. The motoring equivalent of the Tamagotchi was born.
Drive a current-generation Insight or CR-Z and the spectral glow from the instrument binnacle – from green (most economical driving), through blue (normal) to red (hooning) – has a large effect on the drivers' psyche. Ostensibly it simply displays a color to reflect instant fuel economy, but the effect is that the driver, even by peripheral vision, alters their driving to keep in the green and, over time, grow their forest of digital trees. Or, if they're in a really bad mood, keep it burning red and watch those hard-earned branches fall off in a cloud of CO2.
The hybrid is, as its name suggests, a stepping-stone from the age of the internal combustion engine and into whatever the future may hold. As when carriages first swapped horses for engines and the airplane ditched piston engines and propellers for jets, the rest of the design remained the same. It took at least a generation of products for the attributes of these advances to become integrated into the overall philosophy.
And so it is with the hybrid car. The Honda Insight was that first step into a new era – a wonderful car in many ways, but also conventional at heart. It's only now, through the ground-up rethinking of the BMW i8, that the hybrid car has reached maturity.