Automakers have had difficulty explaining the unique benefits of owning a plug-in hybrid.

For years, the Chevy Volt played an important role at General Motors. The was the proud baby of a new, revitalized post-bankruptcy GM. It was the automaker’s answer to the Toyota Prius and to rising gas prices. This was the car that would demonstrate the technological prowess of American manufacturing. But most importantly for the EV community, the Chevy Volt (along with the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S) was the poster child for the new electric vehicle market. 

In many ways, the Volt was a rousing success. Thus far, no other plug-in hybrid has managed to match the all electric range of the second gen Volt. Unlike most PHEVs, the Volt was a legitimate electric vehicle that could go months (years!) without using a tank of gas. 

The Volt very quickly became the best selling plug-in vehicle in the United States. It held this title until it was finally de-throned by the Model 3.

Despite this, the Volt and the other GM PHEV offerings had greater potential. In 2008, GM Chairman Bob Lutz said that the automaker hoped to sell 70,000 units within the first 2 years of production. Unfortunately a higher than planned starting MSRP and weak post-recession economy meant it took roughly twice as long to hit that 70,000 unit goal. 

But the economy was not the only factor holding back sales of the Volt. Chevrolet, like other automakers, had difficulty communicating the benefits of PHEV to consumers.

“Is it a little confusing for people? Perhaps.” Volt marketing manager Dora Norwicki told CNET in 2014. Norwicki believed it would take time for consumers to “understand that this vehicle could be for them.”

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According to Autotrader’s Michael Harley, Chevy marketers were never able to properly educate consumers. “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."

Not helping this fact was that almost every PHEV/EREV on the market seemed to have wildly different operation and abilities. The BMW i3 Rex in the U.S. was an EV with an underpowered range extender and a tiny gas tank. Early efforts such as the Prius Plug-In were practically useless in EV mode. Other PHEVs offered by BMW and Ford lines had theoretically useful electric ranges but were far more likely to switch to hybrid mode than a Volt.

Chevrolet tried communicating the operation of the car in early television ads. Usually these spots starred an exasperated Volt owner giving an overview of the car to curious people at a gas station or fast food joint. The most memorable of which was an owner trying (and failing) to explain the space age technology called “electricity” to extraterrestrials. 

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Several of these were high profile ads that aired during major events such as the Super Bowl and the World Series. But 30 seconds is hardly enough time to stage a scene and explain in detail a car like the Volt. More importantly, the tone of the ads was all wrong. Instead of the owners being excited to share their knowledge, they appear frustrated at being bombarded with questions everywhere they go. In reality, living with a PHEV is very simple. But many early ads for the Volt made it seem hopelessly complicated.

"Automakers need to educate buyers that owning a PHEV is effortless," Says Harley. "There are fewer trips to refuel, which means PHEV ownership frees up time, and operating costs are much lower, so owners will save money."

Chevrolet marketing director of cars and crossovers, Steve Majoros, says GM focused too much on the technical aspects instead of showing the “promise of what Volt delivered.” That being a cleaner, more environmentally friendly driving experience.

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Source: Automotive News