The slow but steady rise in popularity of the Toyota Prius has created a positive association with the word “hybrid” for automakers, and prompted many competing vehicles. Derivatives of the full hybrid—which can propel the vehicle for short distances on electric power alone—that offer a percentage of the reductions in fuel consumption and emissions soon followed. These include the micro hybrid (aka stop-start vehicle), which shuts off the engine while idling and can provide a minimal assist with acceleration, and the mild hybrid, which uses larger batteries and electric motors to assist the engine with acceleration under certain conditions. The plug-in hybrid is a full hybrid taken even further, with a large battery pack that is recharged by an external source of electricity.

Automakers continue to introduce vehicles with many of the hybrid’s fuel saving features, but are backing away from using variations of the word “hybrid.” Most recently, General Motors announced eAssist technology, which will be incorporated into its Buick LaCrosse and Buick Regal. The technology enhancements include: a 0.5-kilowatt lithium ion battery that uses regenerative braking to provide a minimal amount of engine assist; a direct-injection engine; stop-start functionality; a six-speed automatic transmission; and chassis modifications to enhance aerodynamics. The end result of these additions to the LaCrosse are mpg ratings of 25 in the city and 37 on the highway—up from 23/30.

All of these features fit the definition of what we’ve come to know as mild hybrids, as Buick marketing executive Daryl Wilson agreed, but GM isn’t using those words to describe the vehicle. Instead, eAssist will be installed as a marketing term that will eventually spread to other vehicles. GM unsuccessfully tried to launch Saturn mild hybrids a few years ago with the Aura and Vue green lines. Perhaps consumers were expected Prius-like numbers of 50+ mpg, which are hard to achieve in a mild hybrid sedan. The Saturn hybrids, and then the entire lineup, were discontinued.

Similarly, Ford recently introduced PowerShift fuel-efficiency enhancements for the Focus and other vehicles that include direct-injection, a six-speed transmission, and more reliance on electricity instead of the engine when the vehicle is slowing or idling.

Ford, GM and the rest of the auto industry are adding these features to meet with international regulations for reducing carbon emissions and enhancing fuel-efficiency, but largely without the hybrid or stop-start branding. In Pike Research’s upcoming report on stop-start vehicles, we’ll detail how depending on the country, automakers are using names like Efficient Dynamics, ecoFlex, Pure Drive and BlueEfficiency to introduce these technologies.

Are these vague branding terms better or worse for prospective car buyers? Using the hybrid name became somewhat tangible in setting consumer expectations. However, many in the industry now believe that consumers don’t care about the technologies employed to make vehicles fuel efficient; they just want the results in C02 reductions and higher miles per gallon ratings. This strategy appears to be working in Europe and Asia, but for consumers who like to compare specifications, the task has become a bit more complicated.

John Gartner is a senior analyst at Posted in Carmakers, News
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