“It’s more car than electric:” Chevy apologizes for making the kind of car America needs

I keep hearing Chevy’s tagline for promoting the new Volt on the radio:

“It’s more car than electric”

And every time, I am deeply underwhelmed with GM’s lack of enthusiasm for its new product.

You know what it sounds like to me? It sounds like when Nikki Haley tells everyone that her children attend public schools. And then hastens to add that in her Lexington County district, the public school are like private schools. Kind of spoils the affirmation.

What ad wizard decided to say, in effect, “We know you don’t want an electric car any more than we want to make one for you. So rest assured, this is nothing cutting-edge, it’s way more like the sucky cars we’ve made in the past.”

While others out there get the idea that Americans (and the rest of the world; after all, it is a global economy) kind of like something new, something better — take Steve Jobs, who totally gets that people want something better than what they’re used to, something original and even exciting, something that enables them to do things they couldn’t do in the past — GM wants to make sure you don’t think they have any such notions.

I thought GM got the “thanks, America” thing right. But they’ve got this wrong. And I’m not alone. Here’s another view on it:

The Chevrolet brand name is a major problem. Chevrolet stands out in the mind as a classic American brand. In its heyday, they built big steel cars that looked great and endlessly chugged gasoline. In fact, not even two years ago Chevy was running an awesome billboard campaign to reinforce this perception for a powerful and classically American car. Yet now the consumer is supposed to associate Chevy with a small car that can sip gas ever so slightly and still be great.

I doubt that that will happen, especially with the Volt’s current positioning strategy: “More Car Than Electric.” That positioning hardly screams out “Chevy is a small, fuel-efficient car.” Instead, Chevy is attempting the impossible task of fighting deep-rooted perceptions, specifically that small (and electric) cars are not powerful. For consumers, small and powerful are conflicting qualities in a car. Any consumer making judgments on vehicle horsepower or toughness will make a strong determination without even hearing so much as the sound of an engine. A simple eyeball test will tell them that a Chevy Volt is not “more car” than the significantly larger vehicle it’s parked next to. Trying to convince the American consumers otherwise is an exercise in futility.

And yet another one:

I have been waiting for the Volt since it was announced in January 2007. From what I have been able to read through October 2010, all of GM’s buzz about the Volt has been positive. So I was flabbergasted and deeply annoyed that GM should choose the slogan, “It’s more car than electric”, as their lead advertising catch-phrase. What a negative way to advertise GM’s outstanding engineering achievement!

One university student who knows my Volt advocacy — I wear a Volt tee-shirt during the summer — has asked me, “Is GM apologizing for this car?” Another asked, “Why would anyone want to buy it a Volt if GM is ashamed of the engineering that makes this car both unique and ecologically appealing?” I can’t answer them because this phrase is so out of character for the group that made this car and for potential customers like myself who have been cheering on GM since January 2007. Did this phrase arise from a focus group packed with folks who’d rather be driving a Cobalt or a Cruze?

Yeah, I get it that they’re thinking an electric car won’t have the range, or the pickup, that their 2000 Buick Regal with the supercharger (which I mention because, well, I own one) has. But it completely ignores that people likely to buy an electric car are looking for something completely different, something that gets them from point A to point B more efficiently, cheaper and without the harm to the planet and national security. People like that — or at least, like me — don’t even care if that something is a “car.” We actively, ardently want something different.

This approach is made even more ironic, sounds even more tone-deaf, because I hear it during the sponsor breaks on NPR news shows. Like you’ve got to apologize to that audience for making a break with the internal combustion engine. What ARE these people thinking?

(Oh, and why do I, the founder of the Energy Party, drive a 2000 Buick Regal with a supercharger? Because I could afford it, when I suddenly needed a car after my last truck spontaneously combusted one day on I-77. I could NOT afford a Prius, much less a hybrid Camry, which is what I really wanted. Of course, a fully electric car would have been even better. But I’m not likely to be able to afford one of those until someone comes out with a mass-production one and sells a LOT of them, and the technology keeps improving, and the prices drop, so I can pick me up a used one. In the meantime, I take my solace where I can — such as enjoying the sweet way my Regal zips around trucks on the Interstate when I engage the supercharger, which works the way the afterburner on a jet works, by dumping a lot of extra fuel into the burner. Primitive, and wasteful, and foolish, but also exciting — sort of like tossing a water balloon full of gasoline onto a campfire. OOPS, I did it again — another error. It’s corrected below, in the comments…

But GM doesn’t get the likely customer for an electric car. And I wonder whether it ever will.

19 thoughts on ““It’s more car than electric:” Chevy apologizes for making the kind of car America needs

  1. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Used Priuses are not that expensive, FTR. Consumer Reports just tested an original Prius, and found that is was virtually like new. The battery was fine, etc.

    I would buy a Volt if a.) I needed another car–we are waiting for our dog-mobile Jetta to tank, and then we may not even replace it–just get by with the Prius and an occasional rental car or b.) I had room in my garage for more than one car–you can’t recharge a Volt on the street….the ad campaign didn’t turn me off–heck–they “advertised” on NPR which is about the only way to reach me outside of the paper or a magazine.

    What is your improved slogan, Mad Man?

  2. William Tucker

    A supercharger in no way works the same as an afterburner.

    A supercharger works by rerouting exhaust gases into a turbine which spins an impeller to pump more air into the intake manifold… supercharging the amount of air dumped into the cylinder. A supercharger is continually spinning, from idle to maximum RPM. The higher the RPM the faster the supercharger spins and creating higher air pressure.

    An afterburner is powered by dumping raw fuel into the burner. It’s done by manually engaging the throttle above a particular level. It’s an on-off type switch.

    You’re an AAA card carrying member aren’t you…

  3. Brad

    Actually, folks, William is completely right, there.

    After I wrote that, I went to double-check superchargers, and found that what they do is put more oxygen into the process, rather than gasoline. So no, it’s not like an afterburner — except in the kick it gives you.

    But… having corrected that, I was going to say that the effect on fuel efficiency is the same — more gas is burned. At least, that’s the case unless the MPG calculator on my Regal is wrong. The more I engage the supercharger (and I seldom do, unless I need to quickly pass a truck to avoid riding in his blind spot or something) the more dramatically my fuel-efficiency readout drops.

    Of course, I’m inferring there, so maybe I still don’t understand it. After all, burning fuel is like burning money, and y’all know how confused I get when the subject is money…

  4. Norm Ivey

    I had the same reaction to the ad the first time I saw it. It sounded like We’re sorta embarrassed by this car, but would you buy it anyway?

    Nissan does a better job with the Leaf, ad-wise. They have the polar bear ad for the treehuggers (self included), and they have another (couldn’t find it online) in which a reassuring voice tells the electrical outlet that it (the outlet) will be up to the task of charging the Leaf.

    The automotive industry is way behind. Those behemoths which we call diesel locomotives pulling the traffic-stopping loads of pulp and whatever is in those tank cars are actually diesel-electric hybrids and have been since the 1940s when they first began to see widespread use in the rail industry. (Thanks, GE.) I believe that by 2020 every new car sold in America will have some form of electric motor in its drive train.

    I have been driving this since 2006. (I was electric when electric wasn’t cool.) My bride drives one of these (we couldn’t afford a Prius either).

  5. Burl Burlingame

    My wife inherited a 2000 Buick Regal from her mother, and we drove it clear across the country in four days. An old-lady kind of car — which is great for long drives.

  6. William Tucker

    “It sounds like when Nikki Haley tells everyone that her children attend public schools. And then hastens to add that in her Lexington County district, the public school are like private schools.”

    Didn’t your kids go to Lexington public schools?

  7. Brad

    “Old-lady?” Gee, I thought it was kind of.. sporty. It’s got a sun roof, and bucket seats, and everything. Not to mention having that rocket booster.

    What is NOT sporty is the poor Volt. Did you see the pictures? Could a car LOOK more generic?

    Seems like they could have made the body a little more exciting and distinctive. The way the Mustang was. Or even the original Beetle. Something that said, “Look! This is special.”

    But it’s like GM just doesn’t want us to buy it…

  8. Brad

    William, yes, that’s right. And you’ll notice that I felt no need to apologize or explain. Unlike Nikki, I didn’t have to tell my public-school-hating constituents, “It’s OK! THESE public schools are like PRIVATE schools!”

    Do you understand my point now?

  9. William Tucker

    I understand that you feel that you need to bash Haley for sending her kids to public school, when it was perfectly okay for the Warthen children to attend these same schools.

    And to repeat what I wrote in the first of three attempts to get you to answer this question. Are Lexington Schools really like private schools, or are they more like how public schools should be?

  10. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    @ Burl– yeah, I’m all about “old lady shoes’ and such these days….comfort begins to trump style as the body gets creaky!

    That said, my Prius is *almost* as cushy as an old-lay-mobile…and quieter!

    I’m thinking GM’s strategy on the Volt is to make it not so scary for “ordinary” people who couldn’t withstand the snark a Prius driver endures (proudly, as a badge of honor) from Neanderthal SUV drivers and the like.

    I think it’s a shame they tanked Saturn–the car for people who’d rather pay more for a lesser quality car than haggle–the official vehicle of the nonassertive. The Volt seems to fit that customer profile.

  11. Brad

    No, William, you don’t understand.

    I did NOT criticize Nikki for sending her kids to public school. I think it’s great that she sends her kids to public school. And I’m sure she appreciates that the schools were there to send her kids to, since she went through a bad patch there financially, and would have been hard-pressed to send them anywhere else.

    What I criticized was that, instead of being proud that her kids go to public school, she felt she had to make excuses for it.

    Did anyone else misunderstand that? Because if you did, you misunderstood that entire aside…

  12. Doug Ross

    I don’t read Haley’s comments about the public schools as an excuse – it’s praise. In a state with so many lousy public schools, it’s good to see that there are some that can perform at the level of private schools. Wonder why that is? Well, I don’t really wonder.

  13. bud

    I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I find the new Chevy Volt a very attractive car. Other than the price what’s not to like?

  14. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    @ bud — the cruising range. It makes it solely an around-town car for me–you can’t go to Chucktown or Charlotte and back, for example, and you’d be seriously pushing it to go to Aiken!

  15. Norm Ivey

    Cruising range is an issue with the Leaf, but not the Volt. The on-board generator will keep it running after the batteries lose their charge.

  16. Ralph Hightower

    A turbocharger is driven from the exhaust gas to boost air pressure into the combustion chamber.

    A supercharger is driven from the motor to push more air into the combustion chamber. It is belt driven from the motor instead of depending upon exhaust gas.

    I am primarily a Chevy guy. My first car as a teenager was a ’55 Chevy pickup (it was a year younger than me). During high school, my cars were 55 Chevy truck, 66 Ford Mustang, 66 El Camino. After college, I got a 74 Mustang; Ford should never have put a 4 cylinder in a Mustang!

    Since I got married, the majority of cars have been Chevys; but the others have been GM brands. I downsized from a “work release” van to a Chevy HHR; I lost cargo capacity, but I doubled my gas mileage.

    Range anxiety is what limits pure electric cars. They get power from the electric grid and from braking. They are limited to a short radius.

    Chevy Volt has an electric generator built in that is powered by gas. It can also kick in as needed for extra boost through mountains.

    Toyota Prius does not run on electricity alone. It is dependant upon the gas motor.

    Edmunds has a Chevy Volt as one of their long term cars. For updates on their opinion of the Volt, visit: http://blogs.insideline.com/roadtests/Vehicles/2011-chevrolet-volt/

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