This time, GM takes low-key approach to mild-hybrid technology

Buick executives want to keep customers focused on the 2012 LaCrosse as a whole -- and let its technology sit quietly in the background. Photo credit: GM

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Stroll around the soon-to-launch 2012 Buick LaCrosse and look for the shiny logo that touts General Motors' latest gas-saving technology, eAssist.

You won't find one.

There's no badge. No attempt to brand eAssist as a breakthrough green technology -- even though the hybrid seems worthy of at least its own little green decal.

eAssist combines an electric motor-generator, brake regeneration and a menu of other little tricks to boost fuel economy by 25 percent, to 25 mpg in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway.

But Buick executives want to keep the focus on the car and let the technology sit quietly in the background.

"The focus isn't 'Come in and buy this new technology,'" Roger McCormack, Buick's product marketing director, said during a media event here. "It's 'Come in and experience all the same great things about the LaCrosse. And oh, by the way, here's a big boost in fuel economy."

It seems GM has learned from its mistakes.

Five years ago, GM rolled out "Hybrid" versions of the Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Aura, based on an earlier, weaker version of the eAssist technology. Shoppers thought "Toyota Prius" -- until they found that the technology only eked out a few extra mpg.

Sales flopped.

This time, the term "hybrid" won't appear on the vehicle or in any of the upcoming LaCrosse advertising.

The 2012 LaCrosse goes on sale this summer with eAssist as the standard powertrain, along with a 2.4-liter, direct-injected 4-cylinder engine and six-speed transmission. Buyers can get a new, more powerful version of the LaCrosse's 3.6-liter V-6 (17 city, 27 highway) for the same price ($30,820, including freight).

Noticing the mpg

Sure, eAssist will get plenty of play when national ads roll out this fall. And GM will use dealer tutorial videos and live demos so sales folks can negotiate those "It's-not-exactly-a-hybrid" discussions with customers.

But I'll bet most buyers will pay only passing heed to how the technology works -- and will stare long and hard at that difference in mpg.

eAssist uses regenerative braking to charge a small lithium-ion battery stored in the trunk. The battery provides extra power to an electric motor-generator that takes the place of an alternator. It assists the engine with up to 15 hp when the car is accelerating onto the highway, for example.

The electric motor in the so-called mild-hybrid system never powers the car all on its own, unlike the electric motor in a full hybrid such as the Prius. In the LaCrosse, the motor only assists the gasoline engine.

That's why the LaCrosse's city mpg rating trails that of luxury competitors like the Lincoln MKZ hybrid (41 city, 36 highway) or the Lexus HS hybrid (35 city, 34 highway).

But the LaCrosse with eAssist also costs $4,000 to $6,000 less than those vehicles. Buick is betting that buyers will like their return on investment.

Evolving industry

There's one more reason why GM isn't making a "hybrid" fuss.

With the Obama administration mulling a 56.2 mpg requirement by 2025, these sorts of fuel-economy advances simply are becoming the cost of doing business.

Sheri Hickok, GM's vehicle chief engineer for mid-sized and full-size vehicles, puts it this way: "The industry is evolving to where fuel economy itself is becoming the message, not some special technology."

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