An ego-trip dressed up as an eco-trip

Why is the planet-friendly Honda Civic not as popular as the celebs' favourite, the Toyota Prius? Because it looks too much like a normal car for narcissistic eco-drivers.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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When you hear the phrase ‘eco-car’, probably the first thing you think of is the Toyota Prius.

Toyota’s hybrid car, which combines electric and petrol engines to reduce fuel usage, and thus helps to ‘save the planet’ from too much oil-use and grey exhaust fumes, has been a huge hit and has won widespread celebrity endorsement (1). Indeed, the word ‘Prius’ has become synonymous with ‘hybrid car’. Just getting hold of a Prius can be hard work, as there are long lists of eco-aware drivers who want one.

Now, Japanese rivals Honda are getting a bit jealous of the success of Toyota’s car. After all, Honda launched a planet-friendly hybrid driving machine of their own well before the Prius hit our roads. But Honda’s models haven’t proved nearly as popular as the Prius. Why not?

The success of the Prius isn’t exactly based on how much money one will save. Yes, it will save you some money at the petrol pumps, as a Prius doesn’t require as much petrol as other cars do, but the difference in the cost of upkeep between a Prius and a normal car isn’t that great. In fact, there is some doubt as to whether the Prius is any better than many comparable diesel-powered models (2), which is a bit of a choker when you consider that the similarly sized Toyota Auris costs about £5,000 less than a Prius.

The saving grace for Prius owners is that the car has been given a privileged status by many city and regional authorities around the world. In London, the Prius is exempt from the Congestion Charge, saving drivers £8 per day. Consequently, London’s private-hire fleets of cars are buying more and more Prius vehicles. This privileging of one kind of car over another on London’s streets shows, as we have argued on spiked, that the Congestion Charge actually has little to do with congestion, and is more about making moral judgements about good and bad kinds of driving (see London: still stuck in a jam, by Nico Macdonald). In California, Prius drivers won access to the car pool lane, in theory making their commute to work quicker; however, after the Californian authorities revised their fuel economy figures, they withdrew this privilege from the Prius.

Honda makes perfectly serviceable hybrid cars, too; in fact, it was the pioneer in the field. So why do so few people buy Honda hybrids? Why have ‘Civic’ or ‘Insight’ not entered the eco-lexicon in the way that ‘Prius’ has? The answer is, partly at least, because they look the same as regular Honda cars. Honda made a conscious decision to keep the look of their regular models so that buyers would not be put off by hybrid cars that looked too new or exotic. But as MSNBC reported this week, that is no good for many eco-motorists who buy distinct-looking hybrid cars precisely to show off their green credentials.

Toyota Prius

‘That’s a big part of why I bought the Prius’, said one New York retiree who traded in his Honda Civic for the better-known, and more easily identified, Toyota Prius. ‘It opens up conversations, and I push my theory that we’ve got to do our best to conserve… If I’m driving a hybrid, I want people to know it.’ (3) He’s in good company, with right-on celebs like Leonardo Di Caprio happy to parade their planet-saving hearts on their sleeves (or in their driveways at least). Honda is so cheesed off with all of this that it is withdrawing its current hybrid models and replacing them with more distinctive designs.

Some of this desire to drive instantly recognisable ‘good cars’ is vanity, wanting to be seen to be part of a new in-crowd. As such, green living has become a currency by which you can prove you’re an intelligent, caring kind of person. Eco-living may prove to be as superficial as any other passing fad (remember the catwalk models who campaigned against fur only to be seen wearing it a couple of years later?) And there’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy about rich celebs who make a song-and-dance about their Prius-driving ways but who keep a private jet parked in their personal hangars for long trips.

But the Prius fad is also a symptom of the deeply conformist nature of green living, where it seems the chosen ones are desperate to show their piety, just as the religious bores of the past did. From their pulpit in the front seat of their energy-saving eco-car, the enlightened can lecture the rest of us about our sinful ways. Their message? ‘Driving is bad – but if you must drive, make it a Prius.’

This desperate desire to be seen to be green is not just about the car you drive. From organic food to recycling, out-and-proud ethical living is all the rage. Ethical living is not entirely about impressing other people; for many, it also seems to serve a therapeutic function, a way of assuaging their guilt about their excessive consumption and comfortable lifestyles. But it seems that an important strain of the eco-lifestyle is to let everyone know you are being ethical, to proclaim your inherent goodness from the rooftops (in the form of ostentatious but largely useless windmills) or from the front of your recognisable hybrid cars (in the form of a smug look of concern at other, lesser drivers). Welcome to the era of eco-narcissism.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

(1) For a fuller explanation of how hybrid cars save energy, see How hybrid cars work, How Stuff Works

(2) For example, see Are we there yet?, Autoweek, 24 April 2006

(3) A case of Prius envy, MSNBC

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Topics Politics


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