Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth
As part of the festivities surrounding the Woodward Dream Cruise, GM organized a parade down Woodward and back up again made up of 50 Chevy Volts driven to the event by their owners, at their own expense, from around the country. As far as car company promotional events go it was fairly low key (I was asked not to publicize the pre-parade reception for the owners) but it was clearly a high priority item for GM. The Volt marketing team was out in force and they brought in NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who are racing at Michigan International Speedway this weekend, to wave green flags at the start of the Volt parade. Gordon and Johnson both own Chevy dealerships and they both personally own Chevy Volts. They race for Rick Hendricks, who owns quite a few Chevy (and other GM) stores himself. There were news teams from at least two of the Detroit tv stations and a satellite truck that I believe was used for a national network or cable interview of the NASCAR drivers. GM also brought out a number of pace cars from their private stash of Camaros, Corvettes and even one Chevy SSR that paced races at Indianapolis and Daytona. There was also the ZR1 that set a lap record for production cars at the Nurburgring. Marketing being what it is, the parade also included 2 squadrons of Chevy’s most recent new product, the Camaro convertible and the subcompact Sonic. There were 100 cars in total, one for each year in Chevy’s current centennial.
There were t-shirts and baseball caps for the guests, and the Volt owners each got a nice die cast model of their car, but the Volt owners weren’t there for the swag or for autographs, though they eagerly accepted both. The Volt owners were there because they really, really, really like their cars.
Comments like “the best car I’ve ever owned” were not uncommon. Ear to ear grins were everywhere. These folks were bursting with pride. Sometimes people don’t want to talk to reporters and writers. Not in this case. These people were eager to tell all. I watched more than one Volt owner do more than one tv interview. Understand, these are early adopters, and a number traveled across the country to buy a Volt and then drove the car home hundreds or thousands of miles after taking delivery. Likewise many drove hundreds of miles to come to this event. The chances of any of them driving to Detroit to complain were pretty small.
I don’t like to say I told you so, but I predicted that early adopters of the Volt would love it to pieces and want to tell everyone about it. That’s what early adopters do, isn’t it? There were a fair number of Apple enthusiasts in the crowd. iPhones and iPads aplenty. When I gave one owner my business card, which for this event had TTAC on one side and Cars In Depth, the 3D car culture site, on the other, he showed me his 3D HTC phone. If I were to make a snap judgment, the crowd was mostly white, about equally split male and female, well educated, and seemingly upper middle class. For some this was their first “green” car. One lady from Alabama traded in a Saab 9.5. Others were not new to alternative propulsion. One owner traded in a Prius. He said that his overall gas mileage with the Volt was higher than with the Prius and said that the even with the cost of recharging, it was still cheaper to run than his Toyota hybrid. It was not a homogeneous group of drivers in terms of how they were using there cars. Some were hypermilers, but most said they just drove their cars normally. Some had short commutes and could operate on battery power most of the time, others had 70 mile commutes or took their Volts on long trips. My favorite answer was the guy who had a 40 mile commute but couldn’t charge his car at work. Where does he work? The GM Tech Center in Warren. There are charging stations at the Tech Center, but not near his building and the shuttle buses don’t run on afternoon shift when he works.
I asked each of the Volt owners that I spoke to the same questions: Do they hypermile or do they drive normally? How many gallons of gas have they used? What’s their overall gas mileage? What’s their gas mileage when on the range extender?
Most drove normally, but some had short commutes. The champion gas miser had used a total of 2 gallons of liquid fuel since March, but he’s self employed and works at home. Others reported using as little as 8, 22 and 25 gallons of gasoline over months of service. One person said that charging their Volt was costing them about $1 per full charge. I think that most drivers wouldn’t mind paying only $1 to drive 40 miles. At the price of gasoline today, $3.65/gallon, you would have to get something in the neighborhood of 150mpg to get the same fuel cost. It takes about 12Kw-Hrs to completely recharge a Volt to get an idea of the cost based on your local electricity rates.
All of the Volt owners reported getting at least 40 miles per charge. One guy said he can sometimes get 50. The Volt owners that used the range extender regularly reported overall gasoline mileage of at least 65 miles per gallon, but many reported much higher numbers, double and quadruple that 65mpg. The reports on gas mileage while on the range extender were impressively uniform. All but one said “42 miles to the gallon”, and the one outlier said “42 to 45 miles per gallon”. One said that it was “consistently 42. 42 miles of range on the battery and 42 mpg on the range extender”. All were pleased with the level of fuel economy when the ICE was running. I asked if there was anything that displeased them, and one owner reported being less than thrilled with the navigation system. That was about the only complaint.
I did bring up the question of hybrids and EVs being a false economy. One of them, a businessman from Ann Arbor, said that a $40,000 car is a $40,000 car and you don’t buy a car for that much for the purposes of saving money. He said that when his friends raise the issue of the Volt’s (or any hybrid’s, for the matter) false economy, he points out that their $300 smartphone and $120/month data plan for it is costing, not saving, them money. I didn’t get the impression that any of these people were starry-eyed idealists. They also didn’t seem smug, which is nice.
Obviously, this is not a crowd that is going to be hypercritical of the Volt. There’s a lot of selection and self-selection going on here, so they’re not going to be average drivers, no matter how average their use of the car may or may not be. A few days ago the notion of GM emulating Apple was bandied about. I’d say that most people outside of GM scoffed at the notion. I’ve been around personal computers since the early Altair and Sol days and I remember something from when Apple was rolling out the original Macintosh after the computer they branded as Lisa was a dud in the market. The Lisa was not a bad computer. A solid advance over the Apple IIe, it had some innovations that later became standard issue on Macs and PCs, but the Lisa didn’t sell. Then there was the Macintosh, which had evangelists, literally. Guy Kawasaki was given the title of Chief Evangelist to go out there and spread the good word about the Mac.
I think that GM has indeed taken a page from Apple’s book in terms of how they are cultivating the people who are buying the Volt, using them as evangelists for the brand. I mentioned swag above. When people were gathering around Johnson and Gordon to get the NASCAR stars’ autographs, I noticed that a number of them were having some kind of book signed. I asked one of them about it, and they said it had come as part of a thank you package from GM when they took delivery of the car. Obviously it was a gesture, like Hyundai giving away iPads with the Genesis sedan (and Hyundai discontinuing that practice is a different kind of gesture to consumers), but it appears that the gesture was appreciated with these Volt owners. The success of the Volt is an open question that won’t be answered until the dealer network is fully supplied and we see if those dealers sell enough Volts to match the annual production capacity of 60,000 units. I think in the case of the early Volt buyers, GM can rely on them to spread positive things about the car, to be their brand evangelists.
The Volt is a special case with special attention, special marketing, and a special group of consumers. It’s a cutting edge, high tech product that appeals to both tech geeks and people concerned about the environment so you’re already, again, doing some selection for people that tend to be good evangelists for the products they buy. I don’t know if this kind of marketing would work with more mass market cars like the Cruze, but it is possible. The name that GM gave the event, Volt Homecoming, evokes memories of the two Saturn Homecomings that GM sponsored in Spring Hill, TN. Before the Saturn brand was dissipated through badge engineering and poor product planning, the 1994 and 1999 Saturn Homecomings drew 30,000 and 44,000 people to Spring Hill, respectively. Now those homecomings may just have been part of ad genius Hal Rainey’s overall touchy feely promotional campaign but they do show that you can generate some brand loyalty to a mass market car with something that looks and feels like a personal touch. Meanwhile, based on the Volt owners who attended this event that I spoke to, they have both responded to that personal touch and are willing to extend it to others on behalf of a car that clearly has charmed them.