When a car guy in Detroit wants to heap scorn on a vehicle, he leans in conspiratorially and whispers: "It's an appliance."
What could be worse? Your car lacks the romance of curvaceous sheet metal and a deep-throated engine. It's a transportation device.
That outlook has been selling cars for decades. But now, with the rise of electrics and hybrids, internal combustion engines are sharing the stage with an eager upstart.
But here's the problem: An electric car is mainly an appliance. First, of course, it runs on electricity, the same power that operates dishwashers, hair dryers and bedside clocks.
And electricity is not sexy. At a General Motors press event last week, executives proudly displayed the specs of the Chevrolet Volt's battery: 16 kilowatt hours and 365 volts.
Hmmmm. I make no claim to be a car guy, but tell me a car has 250 hp, and my ears perk up. Tell me its propulsion battery generates 16 kilowatt hours, and nothing registers. A foreign language.
To help out, I consult Wikipedia: "A heater rated at 1000 watts (1 kilowatt), operating for one hour uses one kilowatt hour (equivalent to 3,600 kilojoules) of energy."
Sorry, still nothing.
Startup Tesla Motors Inc. is selling electric sports cars. They look good, and I'm sure they're fun to drive. Same for the Volt.
But the appeal of most electrics and hybrids is not fun but efficiency. And that's the challenge for automakers. After years of pitching the power and freedom of the internal combustion engine, they are now groping for a way to sell electricity.
The outlook is mixed. Nissan says it has plenty of orders for its upcoming Leaf electric. And the Toyota Prius hybrid captured the environmental crowd. But U.S. sales in June of the Honda Insight hybrid -- 1,491 -- were only about one-seventh of Prius sales.
Efficiency works for some buyers. But when was the last time you heard someone excited about the sheet metal of his washing machine?
An electric appliance is a tough sell.