The future has arrived with the introduction of several cleaner cars powered by engines that combine gasoline and battery power. But observers expect initial sales will get off to a slow start.
American Honda Motor Co. Inc. is first to the mass consumer market with the Insight, a small, two-seat coupe. It went on sale in December.
Following this spring is the Toyota Prius five-seat sedan, and industry watchers expect similar vehicles from General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler within three years.
State clean-air regulations in a dozen northeastern states and California are driving the so-called hybrid engine vehicles, said Thad Malesh, director of advanced vehicles at consulting firm J.D. Power and Associates of Agoura Hills, Calif.
Although initially produced in limited numbers, within five years 'the numbers will ramp up pretty quickly,' Malesh predicted, because even-stricter vehicle emission regulations are due.
Even so, he projected that by 2006, the segment will generate industrywide sales of between 50,000 and 100,000 units annually. That's hardly a watershed figure. The Mercury Cougar, for example, sold 57,000 units last year.
The automakers are producing limited numbers of the hybrid vehicles to gauge consumer acceptance of the new models. They also are aware of consumer misconceptions about the need for recharging and limited driving ranges, concerns that are being addressed in advertising.
The Insight was launched modestly with one TV spot and several print ads in mid-December; but the big push, from Rubin Postaer & Associates of Santa Monica, Calif., is starting now.
The TV campaign carries Honda's existing corporate tag line, 'Honda thinking.' Print ads, started in January magazines, are product-focused, said Joan Egan, account director at the agency. The main magazine blitz continues through the first quarter.
Toyota Division starts selling the Prius in late spring.
The carmaker's Web site, www.toyota.com, has an area with Prius information, and Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles is developing the ad campaign.
Even before the launch, however, the Prius is getting a boost in national print ads from Toyota Motor Corporate Services of North America, which next month extends a print campaign begun last summer.
The ad, from Oasis Advertising in New York, touts the company's environmental consciousness, featuring the Prius with the copy, 'A car that sometimes runs on gas power and sometimes runs on electric power, from a company that always runs on brain power.'
The second round of ads arrive in Discover and Life, which go on sale this week. The buy expands to Audubon, The New Yorker and People, and will run through March. That effort features the Prius as its centerpiece and directs consumers seeking more information to its (800) Go-Toyota toll-free phone number or the environmental area of Toyota's Web site.
Toyota said it sold 30,000 of the Prius models in Japan since it went on sale there in late 1997. But Toyota is giving the Japanese model, which offers 58 hp, more pep to suit American tastes.
Malesh said that although Honda and Toyota will have no trouble selling out their projected 6,000 units each this year, the car marketers will have to advertise heavily to explain the so-called hybrid-engine cars to consumers.
He said J.D. Power's June 1999 survey of 500 consumers in states with strict emissions laws revealed 75 percent were unaware the batteries of hybrid engines don't need to be charged.
The cars run either on the battery, the gasoline engine or on both.
The new hybrids differ from General Motors' all-electric EV1 car, which needs a battery recharge after traveling about 70 miles. GM launched the EV1 with much fanfare in late 1996 in four Western states, but sales of the lease-only model never took off. Malesh said consumers found the EV1 too costly (in the $35,000 price range) and its driving range before recharging too limited.
Toyota hasn't announced a price range for the Prius, but the Honda Insight starts at $18,800. The Insight gets 70 mpg with 73 hp. Honda expects three different types of consumers to buy its car:
Married, college-educated males with an average age of 48 and average household income of $75,000
Single, urban drivers between the ages of 18 and 25 with an average household income of $45,000
Families, with one or two vehicles and household incomes around $55,000.
Jack Trout, president of marketing consulting firm Trout & Partners of Greenwich, Conn., doesn't believe hybrid cars will have wide consumer appeal.
He said, 'The general public wants other things from cars besides 70 miles a gallon.'