In Marketing Volt, GM Uses "It's a Real Car" Defense, Potentially Hurting Rest of Plug-in Industry

· · 10 years ago

The comparison is inevitable: Nissan LEAF versus Chevrolet Volt. As the only two mass market plug-in cars available for the first two years of the coming global wave of plug-in releases, the companies have found themselves locked in what seems to be a rather reluctant marketing battle—waging a delicate war of words as they try to woo customers.

But has GM gone too far with their most recent claims that, compared to the competition, the Volt is a "real car"—as Joel Ewanick, GM’s new vice president for North American marketing said at a Volt reception prior to Plugin 2010? By making those claims, and essentially saying that a pure battery electric is not a real car, is GM shooting the whole plug-in movement in the feet?

At this point the two companies have certainly come to parity on many items. We now know that you can lease both cars for virtually the same price and terms ($350 per month for three years), and they will come with the same battery warranty (8 years/100,000 miles). But even given the parity on these issues there is one glaring difference that GM is trying very hard to play down: the Volt's base retail price, at $41,000, is roughly $8,000 more than the Nissan LEAF's $32,780.

A logical initial reaction to the huge price differential is that GM essentially thinks the extended range capability of the Volt is worth $8,000, but when I asked Tony Posawatz, GM's Vehicle Line Director for the Volt, about that at a dinner prior to Plugin 2010, he said that wasn't the case. According to Posawatz, the Volt offers loads of other upgraded features and is a larger vehicle with more cargo space than the LEAF, so the $8,000 difference is about more than just the extended range capability.

But the LEAF also comes with most of the standard "upgraded" features that the Volt does, and, arguably is a more practical car for cargo and passenger space. The Volt still has all the emissions equipment under the car and GM had to get creative with where to place the battery, hence it fills up the spot between the two rear seats, making the Volt a four-seat-only car. The LEAF has ample room for four large adults and could fit 5 in a pinch, or two adults and three kids easily. Also, the rear seats of the LEAF provide plenty of head and legroom for tall people, whereas the Volt's rear headroom, although it's a larger car, is not as good.

So given the above realities facing consumers, it seems GM knows they've got a fight on their hands—because $8,000 is a pretty penny to pay for what essentially amounts to an onboard engine and generator combo. As a result the marketing message coming from GM has become clear: our car can do everything you're used to doing with the car you have now and all the other plug-in competition (just Nissan for now) have cars that can't and, therefore, aren't real cars. To GM, this appears to be the only marketing message they've come up with to justify the $8,000 difference.

But it just doesn't sit right with those of us that think all plug-in vehicles are equally as "real." In fact, with a marketing message like that coming out of one of the largest auto manufacturers on the planet, it risks doing harm to the whole lot of pure battery electrics. Having driven the Nissan LEAF twice now, I can assure you it is a real car. It may not be able be the Swiss army knife that you expect your combustion engined car to be, but in the end no car is going to be for everyone. For instance, let's say I'm a farmer. I drive a pickup and no other vehicle will do what I need it to do, so I don't buy a Camaro. Does that mean the Camaro isn't a real car? No, clearly not.

So, has GM missed the mark on this marketing message? Is it a strategy of short term gain but long term harm... even to GM? As of this point, GM has started to build the news up about how they are also working on battery electric vehicles, so in the future they too will be hurt by selling the image that pure battery electrics aren't real cars. The ultimate strategy is unclear, but as of now it's a complete head scratcher to me. Nissan has always stayed away from directly commenting on their competition in this way... and in the brave new world of plug-in vehicles that certainly now seems like the wiser strategy.

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