The two gasoline-electric hybrids for sale in the United States couldn't be more different.
Honda's Insight is a somewhat impractical two-seater that looks like the love child of a UFO and an old Citroen. Toyota's Prius, while slightly quirky looking, is a real car - a small family could use it as day-to-day transportation.
But dissimilar as they are, the Prius and the Insight share a common problem. Most consumers don't have the faintest idea what a hybrid vehicle is.
That's my conclusion, anyway, after driving both models. And that points to a basic shortcoming in the marketing of hybrids.
The public seems attracted to the cars. Driving either one evokes spontaneous questions from other drivers.
But that's the problem: The most common query I received was something like 'How often do you have to plug it in?' or 'How long does it take to recharge it?'
That means that both companies have barely begun to educate the public. The point of hybrids is that you don't have to plug them in. The small electric motor kicks in when the gasoline engine is stressed, cutting gasoline use and emissions, then is recharged by friction that the car generates.
This avoids the fatal flaw in pure electric vehicles - limited range. Few drivers want a car that needs to be recharged every 75 miles or so.
When you're driving them, hybrids perform much like gasoline-powered cars. There's not much of a tradeoff for the environmental benefits.
Honda and Toyota have intriguing products, but they must explain the technology. Their ad agencies have a huge job to do in consumer education.
I'll even suggest a tag line: 'No plug.'
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