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When the economy was booming, car companies could offer a range of brands to satisfy the shopping whims of Americans looking for a new ride. This gave auto executives the option to assign one of their brands as the “green” choice. But times have changed, and the auto industry is shedding brands and dealerships as quickly as they can. In this era, and going forward, it’s no longer viable for companies to designate one of their brands as green; advanced fuel-efficient technology will become the mainstream.
There was a rumor throughout 2008 that Toyota would create an entire brand around Prius, the iconic hybrid. It was thought that a new Prius brand could initially consist of three hybrid vehicles: a compact, a mid-size model, and an SUV. As a brand, Prius would become its own entity with its own dealer network—or at least its own dealer showroom—much like the Scion brand. Cars would be positioned at various price points. “You could have a series of derivatives under the Prius brand name that would allow you to market product at a much lower cost,” Jim Lentz, Toyota’s North American Sales Director, told Reuters. “To do that effectively, I think we need dedicated hybrids and I would prefer them under the Prius name.”
That plan—wisely—appears to be mothballed.
General Motors, in effect, created a green brand when it put out its first hybrids under Saturn. It made some sense considering that, at one point, the Saturn brand stood for “a different kind of car company.” The first models introduced as “Green Line” vehicles were unconvincing mild hybrids, but planned versions of the Saturn Vue small sport utility were scheduled to use full “two-mode” hybrid technology—followed by a plug-in hybrid version. That would have made the Saturn Vue the only vehicle on the market with three different flavors of hybrid.
Unfortunately, the entire Saturn brand—hybrid and conventional—is falling victim to GM’s financial woes. Even before the worst of the financial problems, Saturn marketing stopped using “Green Line,” and starting simply calling these vehicles Vue Hybrid and Aura Hybrid.
When the company returned to Congress in February for another dose of bailout funds, company officials said the brand would fade away after 2011—creating a problem for GM which put many of its green eggs in the same Saturn basket. On April 27, the company said it would stop building Saturns by the end of this year. It’s interesting to note that the Volt was very deliberately produced as a Chevy, to send a clear message that the company’s celebrated plug-in hybrid was intended for the mainstream—and should be viewed as American as apple pie.
GM’s shedding of the Saturn brand has thrown the future of its plug-in hybrid technology into question—and put Tom Stephens, vice chairman of GM’s global product development, on the defensive. The full hybrid Vue was scheduled for this summer, and the plug-in hybrid Vue was planned for 2011. Now, Stephens says similar vehicles using those hybrid technologies will launch together sometime in 2011. The vehicles will be introduced under a brand, with a price, and on a date not yet determined. Stephens told Automotive News, “It doesn’t just go away because Saturn goes away. We are going to plug it in.”
According to Stephens, the demise later this year of the Saturn Aura Hybrid will make more hybrid parts, such as batteries and electronics, available to build the Malibu Hybrid—a Chevy. This shift serves as another sign of the collision and merging of the auto industry’s two biggest trends: consolidation and greenification.
When the auto industry gets past the current crisis, there will be fewer brands and vehicles—and all of them will offer products using the most effective fuel-saving technology available to their makers.