Chevrolet Volt Postmortem: How Not to Market a Car With a Gasoline Engine

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
chevrolet volt postmortem how not to market a car with a gasoline engine

February 15th was a sad day, even for those who hate cars. On that day, General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant produced the last Chevrolet Volt — a green car born at the dawn of a new era that didn’t take off exactly as envisioned.

In the truck-loving land of (relatively) cheap gasoline, electric vehicles are only just now eating up more than 1 percent of the market, thanks mainly to the Tesla Model 3 and what ownership of said vehicle says about your lifestyle and viewpoints. Plug-in hybrids are struggling, however, and the most famous of them all is now dead. A victim of falling sales, though your author would be curious to learn the model’s margin.

Despite offering the most practical combination of conventional gas-powered driving and electric ability, many claim the Volt’s failure was one of marketing, not engineering.

First off, while electric vehicles were all the rage in the waning days of Obama’s first term, the novelty didn’t rub off on everyone. Minus the limited (and pricey) Tesla Roadster, electric vehicle ownership, be it a Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus Electric, meant renting a car for road trips out of town. How does 76 miles of driving distance sound, under ideal circumstances?

Suffice it to say that battery capacity was limited, range anxiety was widespread, and the majority of the driving public wasn’t even close to making the switch. Which is why GM’s preferred descriptor for the Volt — a “range-extended electric vehicle” — may have been a poor choice when dealing with a fearful public and a fledgling segment. Even recent studies show that modern drivers in first-world countries remain confused by terms like “electrified.”

Many don’t know that a plug-in hybrid actually has an engine that powers the vehicle most of the time. To this not-insignificant swath of the population, the mere presence of the words “plug” and “electric” means one thing — that the vehicle is, in fact, fully electric, and might leave them stranded on the side of the road in a remote corner of the countryside where those unsolved murders happened four years ago.

Speaking to Automotive News, Michael Harley, managing editor of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, said, “Overall, marketing and advertising for the Volt needed to focus on education as much as it did traditional selling. A lack of a proper customer perception played a very large role in the demise of the Chevrolet Volt.”

Unlike early PHEVs, the Volt offered a healthy electric range designed to get the average commuter to work and back without the need to fire up the onboard inline-four generator. The second-generation model improved upon its predecessor’s range. Considering its price and size, the Volt remains the best bet for a driver who wants to travel most of his or her miles electrically, while maintaining the capacity for go-anywhere road trips. It’s too bad it’s gone.

The general consensus is that GM played up the Volt’s electric side too prominently in its early days, leading to assumptions about its ability — something the automaker admitted in the recent past. Other factors exist, sure. For a Chevrolet hatchback, the Volt started off pricey, though subsequent MSRP haircuts brought its starting price to a more palatable level. Content is another thing. The Volt only gained a power driver’s seat for its final, truncated 2019 model year. Then there’s the basic worry that a complex powertrain might go haywire, boosting long-term costs.

Still, it cannot be argued that the public was totally on the same page as GM’s marketing folks.

“The problem with PHEVs is it’s a mouthful, and people still aren’t sure what a PHEV is,” said Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at Edmunds. “Nobody’s been able to figure out how to talk about a plug-in hybrid, and I think that’s because we started on the wrong foot.”

Everything GM did to cover up the fact that the Volt was, at its core, a hybrid, worked against the model’s sales. The onboard generator wasn’t a 1.4-liter (later 1.5-liter) four-cylinder — it was a “range-extender.” While an electric motor did propel the Volt all of the time, the backup generator received short thrift. The release of a fully electric Chevrolet with a similar name for 2017 didn’t help alleviate confusion. Quite the opposite.

Educating the public on new things can be difficult, but effective communication is always possible. There’s also the choice of not mentioning electricity at all.

For its upcoming Aviator and Corsair plug-in hybrids, Lincoln is choosing to avoid mentioning the word “hybrid” altogether. As Automotive News reports, the two crossovers don “Grand Touring” labelling, playing up the models’ range-topping opulence and additional power (in the Aviator, at least — no power specs exist for the Corsair) instead of its electrified alter ego.

We’re trying to be really transparent for our customers,” said Mark Grueber, Ford’s consumer marketing manager. “We’re focused on delivering the attributes they care about and marketing it in a way that speaks to their priorities instead of making it more like a science project.”

[Images: © 2019 Chris Tonn/TTAC, General Motors]

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  • HotPotato HotPotato on May 11, 2019

    "Many don’t know that a plug-in hybrid actually has an engine that powers the vehicle most of the time," says Steph. Except that's...wrong. That's not how the Volt works. The Volt's engine doesn't come on at all until the battery is exhausted. Not even under full throttle. And with 53 miles of electric range -- more than the average American drives per day -- the typical Volt owner may go months before the gas engine fires up. The Volt *will* toodle through *most* commutes without using gas at all. It's electric car with a backup plan. For that matter, it's not how other PHEVs work. Other PHEVs are just a standard hybrid with a bigger battery swapped in and a plug tacked on. They generally have up to three dozen miles of electric range, and can stay in all-electric mode if you stay under half-throttle (asking for more power kicks on the gas engine to help power the car.) So they *can* toodle through *many* commutes without using gas. The oddball out there is the BMW i3 REx. Like the Volt, the i3 REx is "an electric car with a backup plan." But while the Volt delivers 100% power regardless of whether it's running on gas or electricity and can go hundreds of miles on every tank of gas, the little Bimmer has only 36 horsepower from its gas engine and 1.5 gallons in its tank, so it's safer to consider its range extender a limp-home mode than a road-trip companion. Basically, Steph's description is accurate for one kind of car: a standard hybrid car without a plug. By definition, not a plug-in hybrid. I hate being nitpicky like this. But the pattern is clear at this point: as soon as electrification comes into the picture, TTAC's writers a) can't keep their politics out of it and b) can't get their facts straight. As a longtime TTAC fan, I find it really disappointing.

  • Hifi Hifi on May 15, 2019

    The Volt does not rely on the ICE "most of the time." The misinformation within this article highlights the general lack of understanding that most people have with the variety of electric options on the market. It can be confusing, and sometimes it takes people a while for the technology to become clear. My aunt and uncle joined me on a 120 mile road trip in my Model X. Though they knew it was a Tesla, they asked when we were going to "stop for gas." Then after I explained that we weren't, the questions became all about how we were going to charge the car and what would happen if we got stuck in traffic. They were amazed with the fact that we could do the entire trip without the need to stop, visit three wineries throughout the day, have plenty of reserve in the "tank" and I would "refuel" the car in my garage after arriving while we ate dinner. The reality is, full EVs are much easier to understand than those with hybrid drivetrains and range extender engines.

  • FreedMike One of the things that we here in North America often forget about Europe is that it's a COMPLETELY different world to drive in. Imagine driving in the downtown area of the city you live in 24/7, and never leaving it, and you have a decent simulation of what it's like to drive in a place like Paris, or London, or Rome - or Manhattan, for that matter. As far as the "dystopia" is concerned, I don't really see it that way. This isn't made for people living in the 'burbs - it's for urban dwellers. And for that application, this car would be about perfect. The big question is how successful the effort to provide large-scale EV charging in urban areas will be.
  • Matzel I am hoping that Vee-Dub will improve the UX and offer additional color options for the 2024 Mk8.5 refresh for Canada. Until then, I'll be quite happy with my '21 GTI performance pack. It still puts a smile on my face going through the twisty bits.
  • Stanley Steamer There have been other concepts with BYOT, that I have always thought was a great idea. Replacing bespoke parts is expensive. If I can plug in a standard 17" monitor to serve as my instrument panel, as well as speakers, radio, generic motors, batteries, I'm for it. Cheaper repair, replacement, or upgrade costs. Heck I'd even like to put in my own comfy seats. My house didn't come with a built in LaZboy. The irony is that omitting these bespoke items at the point of sale allows me to create a more bespoke car as a whole. It's hard to imagine what an empty rolling monocoque chassis would look like capable of having powertrains and accessories easily bolted on in my garage, but something like the Bollinger suv comes to mind.
  • Iam65689044 Sometimes I'm glad the French don't sell in America. This is one of those times.
  • SCE to AUX I was going to scoff, but the idea has some merit.The hard part would be keeping the weight and cost down. Even on the EPA cycle, this thing could probably get over 210 miles with that battery.But the cost - it's too tempting to bulk up the product for profits. What might start as a $22k car quickly becomes $30k.Resource-deprived people can't buy it then, anyway, and where will Kyle get the electricity to charge it in 2029 Los Angeles?