Separate Green Car Brands Die in Down Economy

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.

More Hybrid News...

  • fred smilek

    I also have a green car or hybrid. However you want to call it. Great car and I am also helping the environment.

  • Max Reid

    Just move the Vue to Chevy and it will start selling well.

    But amidst rising gas prices they lost the market share and suffered $7.7 billion loss in the first quarter.

    Insight at 20K is just right for many. Lets see how many units Prius can sell.

    Also Toyota is pushed to #3 in US sales. They better make affordable hybrids.

  • cindy hallendale

    Prius drivers are following what’s in style. I was reading reports that to produce the car was worse on the environment than to keep your old car. I have a old 270k Buick and it gets aprox 30mpg on the highway. But its over 10 years old and it to keep an old car keeps another one from being produced. Who ever says GM is junk might just be stupid. Mine is fine and cost very little to keep running. I like the pillow ride as well keeps me happy on my long drive to work. Dont need a prius hurt my back on airline seats ride.

    The Toyota Prius is made in japan and it cost more than toyota says. Last time I tryed to buy one it was going to cost me thousands and thousands more than it was posted.

    Also the new ford fusion hybrid looks nicer, safer and larger.

    Gets maybe 10 mpg less but in that upper range that’s like 100 dollars a year so I get the ford.

    I am so tired of people saying Foreign is better crap. Its simply just a way of saying they are better or thinking they are smarter.

    The only think smart or green about buying foreign is sending american money to japan.

    sure you make the Japanese happy but start thinking of American people and its not where the car is made its where the engineers are paid.

    When you purchase a apple computer its made in china but you are supporting an entire complex in CA .. Silicone Valley

  • Two Wrongs Does Not Equal Right

    Generally older cars causes disproportion of air pollutants on the road. It is the major reason why some governmenets pay owners to crush old cars.

    “The Toyota Prius is made in japan and it cost more than toyota says. Last time I tryed to buy one it was going to cost me thousands and thousands more than it was posted.”

    Interesting, if you don’t like it so much why are you trying to buy one… If people are paying above MSRP due to demand, it’s good for dealers that makes the sale, not Toyota.

    “sure you make the Japanese happy but start thinking of American people and its not where the car is made its where the engineers are paid.

    Oh no… not another buy domestic argument! Like it or not, the economy is a global one. The big 3 would ship everything out of the country to produce a cheaper car if they can get away with it (to certain extent they are doing that). Don’t forget Ford also employs many engineers in foreign countries. The only difference I see in “domestic” vs “foreign” companies is that domestics are qualified to receive tax payers’ money.

  • David

    2 1/2 years ago I went from a ’94 Intrepid to an ’02 Camry. I maintained my Dodge religiously and the engine and powertrain rarely gave me trouble, even at the 240K mile mark. However, I gave up the Intrepid because of everything else that was going wrong. Electrical problems, trim falling off, seatcovers disintegrating, etc. Little irritations that got too numerous to mention. But nobody could believe I was on my original transmission and that it was still shifting smoothly. With my Camry, I’m having the same luck – only one thing ever went wrong with it so far. The fit and finish, however, is holding up much better than my Dodge and the Camry is now at almost 140K miles. I’m getting anywhere from 40-60% better fuel economy from a car that still seats 5 pretty comfortably.

    I more than a little hopeful to see what Chevy produces in the Volt. How will “the rest of the car” hold up year after year?

  • dhartman

    Unique green model names seem to work for now, but in long run may become confusing with more models having a green option.

    The 2010 Insight is somewhat more than junk! And I like my less frequent visits to the gas station. It is a great value — and all city driving is yielding 43 mpg and it’s barely broken in.