Commentary

Picasso had his blue period. Now it’s the auto industry’s turn.

Consider how many auto makers are incorporating the word “blue” in their technology marketing.

Volkswagen has BlueMotion in Europe. Introduced at the 2006 Geneva auto show, BlueMotion is VW’s environmental seal of approval. Vehicles earn it if they can deliver extraordinary fuel economy. Similar to Jeep’s Trail-Rated badge, only greener.

(At the time, VW said BlueMotion was inspired by its long-standing use of the color blue in its logo, smugly suggesting that it owns the color. If you cup your ear toward Dearborn, you might still hear Bill Ford laughing.)

Seemingly out the blue, Hyundai unveiled its i-blue concept vehicle last month at the Frankfurt auto show. A cross/utility vehicle, it is powered by an environmentally friendly hydrogen fuel cell.

The Korea-based auto maker promises a production version no later than 2015. Nothing against Hyundai, but with the pace of fuel-cell development so far, that sounds like blue-sky optimism.

However, the blueprints for this industry trend belong to Mercedes-Benz. At the 2005 Frankfurt show, the tri-star brand introduced the Bluetec Hybrid – an S-Class sedan powered by a 3.0L V-6 diesel engine with an electric motor for launch assist.

Now in production, and named one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines in 2007, the diesel meets advanced U.S. emissions standards by virtue of an innovative 4-valve-per-cylinder design with centrally located piezo-electric injectors, third-generation CDI direction injection, exhaust gas recirculation and a turbocharger with variable nozzle turbine.

But the sub-plots surrounding Bluetec are enough to make you blue in the face.

Mercedes launched a campaign to make Bluetec the new buzzword for “clean diesel.” Audi and VW signed on, likely because of the close relationship between Mercedes overseer Dieter Zetsche and Wolfgang Bernhard, then VW’s blue-eyed boy.

But after Bernhard exited VW, the deal went, well, ka-blooey.

Meanwhile, Chrysler – Mercedes’ sister division under the old DaimlerChrysler regime – embraced Bluetec as a brand name to denote diesel programs such as the redesigned 6.7L Cummins I-6 that powers '07 Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 pickups. Problem? Marketers with Chrysler and Cummins are finding Bluetec’s blue-blood roots suggest to consumers – and even well-informed auto journalists – there is hardware sharing with Mercedes. There is not.

Chrysler and Cummins teamed up to enable the I-6’s compliance with U.S. emissions guidelines through 2010.

Had enough? Don’t forget AdBlue – a urea-based aftertreatment system that will clean diesel exhaust on future Mercedes vehicles to make them saleable in all 50 U.S. states.

Why are we so blue? Because blue is the new green, says noted New York-based color consultant Margaret Walch.

“Green is the older environmental reference,” says Walch, director of The Color Association. “Basically, we have shifted to the purity and goodness of water and air, or sky. The psychology of ‘blue’ is that it has strong environmental connections – one with the sky, and the other with water.”

For the auto industry, that leaves a question posed best by blues legend B.B. King: How blue can you get?

emayne@wardsauto.com