Should Your Alt-Fuel Car Blend in or Stand out?

By Mike Mello

Everyone knows what a Toyota Prius looks like – and I mean everyone – not just people who love cars. Does everyone know what a Ford Escape hybrid looks like? How about a Saturn Aura hybrid? This New York Times story from July presents the idea that part of the Prius’ success is due to the fact that it stands out and is instantly perceived as a planet-saver. Does it matter to you if a hybrid has a specific body style unto itself? At this point in time, is it all but proven that Prius sales have been substantially boosted by drivers who want to send a green message?

Since the Honda Insight is no longer in production, the Prius, in stock form, is the mileage king. However, upon seeing the all-new 2008 Chevy Malibu hybrid in person, I have to wonder: Will models such as the U.S.-built Malibu, which is available in gas and gas-electric hybrid form, attract any drivers who had previously not considered driving a hybrid? In terms of brand loyalty, are there Chevy drivers out there who would definitely try out a Tahoe hybrid before ever stepping foot on a Toyota lot? I think there are.
One or two domestic hybrids can’t win over this hypothetical, domestic-brand-hybrid-shopping-crowd I’m imagining. Overall, the more hybrids there are to choose from, the better off the industry will be as a whole, but, I think certain folks out there shopping for a new family vehicle will be inclined to check out this year’s wider selection of hybrids – especially ones that blend in with their gas-burning twin models. Cars such as the Saturn Aura won’t bring the same mpg as a Prius, but I think these shoppers are intrigued at the thought of saving a few bucks on gas, are more comfortable belting themselves into a car that doesn’t stand out in a crowd, and might find the Prius’ styling to just not fit their personality.
Now what about the Concept Chevy Volt? In addition to the Volt being a plug-in electric vehicle, you may have read that its small engine is only there to charge the car’s battery packs and that the Volt only runs on electric power. Whether or not sales of the Malibu and Tahoe hybrids absolutely take off, the Volt – which many people see as GM’s second chance at bringing an electric car to market – should only exist as an electric car. Of course, I haven’t read anything to suspect otherwise, and it should stay that way.

The industry already has its iconic hybrid in the standard-setting Prius. Now, for electrics, I hope GM produces the Volt and that it attains benchmark status as an iconic electric vehicle. If the Volt (unlike the EV1) reaches its mass-market, its sharp, unique looks will help it stand out, which will arguably be just as important as its gas-free commute concept.

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. I think you’re right about the looks thing. If the Volt looks different than everything else when it comes out, that will definitely be part of the appeal of owning one for some people. GM should make the same setup available in their regular cars for people who do not want to draw attention to themselves.

  2. Some people simply will not buy an import. I was shocked when my sister bought a Saturn VUE hybrid (it’s the first automatic trasnmission she’s ever owned). Under no circumstances would she have enven consisdered a Prius.

    Now she has buyers remorse and wishes she had bought the Ford Escape instead.

  3. If the Chevrolet works like it’s supposed to, then GM will have a gotten a huge leg up on everyone else in the business. They are sticking to their 2010 production date so I guess we’ll all find out soon enough.

  4. It’s VERY IMPORTANT that at least one vehicle the Volt powertrain is used in looks different. Many, many people that own a a Pious (oops, I mean Prius) do so because the car is a tangible broadcast of their self-image of moral superiority over other motorists. You cannot discount that motivation if you produce a similar-technology vehicle and wish to maximise sales.

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