NOVI, MI – AmericanMotor Co. Inc.’s poor-selling Insight won’t dissuade the brand from launching more hybrid-electric vehicles, a top official says.
“We got a ‘C’ on one paper, (but) we’ll come back. It’s a long semester,” John Mendel, executive vice president-American, tells Ward’s at a media event here.
Honda has sold 15,791 Insights since U.S. sales were launched in March. The auto maker initially targeted an annual rate of 90,000 deliveries.
Mendel believes low gas prices, Americans’ lack of enthusiasm for going “green” andMotor Corp.’s Prius HEV all have kept the Insight from meeting its sales target.
“Hybrid sales run in sync with fuel prices,” he says, noting when regular gasoline hit $4 per gallon last year, “everybody was buying them faster than hotcakes.”
Through September, HEV sales stood at 220,587 units, a 15% decline from like-2008, according to Ward’s data.
“We’re a little bit of a ‘convenient-arian’ society,” Mendel says. “We’ll recycle if it’s convenient; we’re green if it’s convenient.”
While Americans’ awareness about the environment and reducing their carbon footprint by driving HEVs has improved, environmental awareness is “certainly not as great” as in European nations, he says.
Mendel also gives credit to the Prius, sayinghas “done a masterful job” of equating the Prius name to ‘hybrid,’ noting it stands in for the word in the same way that Kleenex means tissues or Coke means soda pop in the American lexicon.
Toyota launched its third-generation Prius in May, and sales have been relatively strong given the weak U.S. market overall, with 104,794 units through September, a 19.7% decline compared with year-ago.
Mendel jokes he’s glad the impending arrival of the Insight kept Toyota executives “awake nights” with worry. “(Toyota) happened to put all their marketing efforts right at the time we brought our car out,” he says. “That’s competition.”
Mendel says Honda could “try to scream louder than them” by increasing Insight TV ads. But the auto maker, instead, is engaging in online marketing activities for its hybrid, as well as other efforts he classifies as “under the radar.”
Despite the slow sales, Mendel says he’s pleased customers who have purchased the Insight “absolutely love it,” and that Honda delivered a record 4,226 units in August.
The Insight is the first of a new wave of hybrids Honda plans to launch in coming years.
Up next is the CR-Z, a 2-door coupe available only as an HEV, which goes on sale in 2010. While the auto maker isn’t positioning the car as such, many enthusiasts consider it to be the spiritual successor to the defunct ’80s CR-X, with one hitch.
“When you talk to Honda customers, they look at it and go, ‘The CR-X is back, the ultimate tuner car! Why is it a hybrid?’” Mendel says.
While the CR-X is best-remembered as a tricked-out performance model, Mendel reminds it was intended as an economical, high-mileage commuter car.
The CR-Z, which Mendel puts in the “B-plus” car segment, will be a hybrid geared toward high performance as well as fuel economy. “It actually pushes the envelope on both fronts. Certainly the car is a blast to drive. It’s small, nimble (and) quick. Its handling is really great and fun, but it is every inch a hybrid.”
However, the CR-Z won’t be receiving Honda’s high-performance “Si” designation.
Mendel is mum on hybrids beyond the CR-Z, but confirms media reports that Honda is working on a full hybrid system to power larger models. The company always has maintained its current Integrated Motor Assist mild-hybrid system is suitable only in small-car applications.
Mendel declines to say whether hybrids are on tap for Honda’s upscale Acura lineup, only that “leading edge” technologies are due “sooner than later” for the brand. Honda has a goal to achieve best-in-class fuel economy in every segment in which the auto maker competes, he says.
A Honda official with the parent company in Japan told Ward’s last spring the auto maker will offer five hybrids in its global lineup by 2015. In addition to the Insight and CR-Z, the auto maker also sells the Civic Hybrid.