In his Wall Street Journal column today, the ever-insightful Holman Jenkins asks “Why the Volt?” – General Motors much-hyped plug-in electric car, and the company’s none-too-subtle attempt to knock Toyota’s Prius off its pedestal as the green auto icon.
Jenkins notes that GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz — the Volt’s guru – had passed on hybrids years ago because “we opted not to ask the board to approve a product program that’d be destined to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. We won’t make (that mistake) again.” Jenkins writes that “GM intends to beat Toyota at its own game of selling bogus green symbolism to Washington and Hollywood.”
We pundits thrive on exposing our era’s green hypocrisy, but product manufacturers have to live with it. If GM only uses the Volt for PR (or as a CAFE-lobbying strategy, as Jenkins also speculates), then the company will not have learned Toyota’s lesson, and will be doomed to repeat its last one-off PR failure – the battery-powered EV-1 sold in the early ‘80s.
Toyota’s Prius (or the “Pious” as its derisively called) is a success because the same brilliant marketing machine that recognized most Americans view the auto as an appliance (and therefore want reliability above all else) recognized America’s new green consumer theology. It is this same Boomer narcissism that drives the global warming movement today (it sure isn’t science).
Forget the environment. Even if America’s whole fleet went to gas-electric hybrids, it would have a negligible effect on global carbon emissions. Toyota is a consumer products company, and it figured out its consumers wanted to feel green. But at the same time, they wanted a vehicle that was reliable and practical for the family (4-door, unlike other failed 2-door hybrids). CNW Marketing Research finds that 57 percent of Prius buyers said their main reason for buying was that “it makes a statement about me.” That’s no different than gearheads who buy Corvettes or execs who buy their first status-giving BMW.
But here’s the really important part: The Prius was part of a broader strategy to make hybrids throughout their fleet – not just as a single “halo” car (Toyota also sells hybrids for high-gas-cost Japan, which – like the U.S. – has been dismissive of diesels). So while the Prius by itself lost money, it defined Toyota as the fuel-efficiency leader and consumers have flocked to other Toyota models as gas prices have risen: the hybrid Camry, hybrid Highlander, hybrid Lexus RX400, and so on.
For Toyota, green means making green.
The strategy is not dissimilar to one employed by Volkswagen, Europe’s top-selling carmaker. In a Euro-climate of sky-high, tax-induced gas prices, VW at the turn of this century made a statement with its 1-liter Concept (it traveled 100 km on one liter of diesel, or 235 mpg!) and production Lupo (80 mpg) vehicles. The cars not only demonstrated VW’s technical prowess, but benefitted the sales of every diesel in VW’s lineup.
Why the Volt? If GM intends the Volt to be a success (and Bob Lutz is one of Detroit’s best minds), it is the first of many plug-ins planned for its portfolio.