At the new GM, if a product doesn’t pull its own weight it won’t get special treatment and the handful of television commercials devoted to the car reflects that new approach.
PORTLAND, OR – All things considered, Cristi Landy might have the toughest job at.
As Chevrolet’s small- and electrified-car marketing chief, Landy must educate Americans about the Chevy Volt extended-range electric vehicle. It’s a task she readily admits might be greater than anyone at the auto maker anticipated when the car launched three years ago.
“It’s harder than anyone expected,” she says from the back seat of a Chevy Spark battery-electric vehicle during testing of the car here this week. “Even people on the fringes get confused.”
It seems folks just can’t get their arms around the concept: the Volt travels about 38 miles (61 km) on battery power, depending on driving styles, and once the battery is depleted of energy an internal combustion engine takes over acting as a generator to provide electricity and another 250 miles (402 km) of range. After that, the driver needs to plug in for more juice or refill the gas tank.
The odds of getting stranded in the Volt are no greater than a car with a gasoline engine.
But the difficulty understanding how the Volt works isn’t because Americans are clueless about technology. Quite the contrary.
According to a report from CNN, wireless carrier Verizon activated 3.9 million iPhones in the second quarter of this year alone and now more than half of Americans own a smartphone. So no, John Q. Public is quite tech savvy.
America’s difficulty understanding the Volt’s technology, which five years ago was practically unknown outside of advanced engineering laboratories, lies with misinformation surrounding the car since GM’s taxpayer bailout in 2009 and the fact that a business case does not exist to spend the necessary marketing dollars on a nationwide educational campaign.
Conservative news outlets have pilloried the car, labeling it as a narrow-market, over-priced, taxpayer-subsidized flop; an engineering gamble orchestrated by a GM leadership responsible for bankrupting the auto maker with mismanagement, they’ve claimed.
They’ve also wrongly claimed President Obama forced GM to develop the car as part of the 2009 auto rescue, when in fact the Volt’s design began long before he was elected.
The Volt in fact is “the most innovative vehicle to come out of Detroit in a generation,” WardsAuto World editor Drew Winter has written numerous times.
Yes, the car has a specific audience. It works best for drivers commuting fewer than 40 miles (64 km) a day, who rarely would consume gasoline. For the modest number of drivers who eclipse that target there’s the ICE generator for backup.
For example, after testing the Spark EV here, I had the chance to drive a ’13 Volt some 175 miles (282 km) north to Seattle. It was a chance to get acquainted with updates for the new model year, which include a new “Hold” mode so drivers can preserve battery power for city driving.
On the jaunt to Seattle, the Volt traveled 37.7 miles (61 km) under battery power before the ICE generator took over to power the car another 140 miles (225 km) to my destination. The Volt burned 3.6 gallons (13.6 L) of gasoline, which factoring in the battery-propelled portion of the trip translated into 47.1 mpg (5.0 L/100 km). I could have gone another 155 miles (249 km). Not too shabby.
The Volt also owes its difficulties to the media, which for the last few years has insisted on putting it in a sales race with the all-electricLeaf. The Leaf, as good an EV as it is, has range limitations. Unlike the Volt, the Leaf does not have a range-extending ICE generator, but consumers have been led to lump their technologies together.
The Volt’s primary competition is actually thePrius hybrid, and not surprisingly the No.1 trade-in for the car.
“It’s frustrating,” Landy says of the Leaf comparison.
For better or worse, compared with the Leaf, the Volt has a steeper learning curve. Despite all the transparency with which GM developed the Volt, bringing journalists to its research and development campus to witness the car’s design and engineering, the message lost steam.
How could it not? Since its launch, the Volt has sold 41,313 units, according to WardsAuto data. The performance calls into question, rightfully or not, the car’s profitability. And at the new GM, a product must pull its own weight. The handful of television commercials devoted to the car in recent years reflects that criteria.
“It’s a niche segment and marketing dollars are expensive,” Landy says.
So the approach is to use current Volt owners, which are among the most loyal in the market, to promote the car among friends and family. “First adopters are the key,” Landy says. “They are the people other people trust. But it takes time.”
That leaves Landy to educate Americans the hard way, one sale at a time.