My brother-in-law Tom bought a Honda Civic hybrid last fall. I spent this past weekend with him at a family reunion for his dad’s family in Michigan, and his hybrid was a subject of much interest from family members, all curious about the car’s performance during Tom’s drive from Minnesota. Tom always had the same response.

“I got in the car in Minnesota, and didn’t get out again until I was in Indiana. 550 miles on 11 gallons.” Everybody I saw him have the conversation with was impressed. I think they liked the looks of the car, too. I don’t think anyone buys a hybrid for the looks (Tesla electrics excluded), but the appearance has to reach a certain threshold. Considering these were people who grew up in a part of the country where Detroit and the Indy 500 have held large historic sway, I think their curiosity and enthusiasm for the hybrid was interesting (and good) to see.

So I had hybrids on the brain a bit already tonight when I got a fleeting glance at a billboard for a hybrid car. I knew this because it had, in large silver letters on the left-hand said of the ad, the word “HYBRID”. Above that were the words, “Rethink status”. I was immediately struck by that statement. Certainly, hybrids have had a certain cache for some time now, but this weekend was such a dramatic illustration of the concept for me. Several people, people who have a genuine interest in cars (and gas mileage, like anyone else who just arrived after driving many miles), specifically sought out the owner of the hybrid. Conspicuously, nobody at all asked about our Saturn wagon, which I now regard with contempt and disgust.

After pausing a moment to reflect on how squarely the billboard hit its target, I moved to the right-hand side of the ad. It had a picture of the car, a silver version of a sedan. Above that was a repetition of the “Rethink …” motif, but I wasn’t able to catch the last word, as I was merging onto a busy interstate.

I also wasn’t able to catch the make or model of the car, but I didn’t care about that as much as I did with what else the ad was going to ask me to Rethink. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have cared, but the synchronicity of the first statement with my recent experience gave the overall message exceptional credibility, and my interest was piqued.

I was going to be passing by the billboard again on my return trip, so I spent a few moments taking bets on what I thought or wanted it to be. Ultimately, I decided the board would/should probably ask me to “Rethink performance”. I noticed this weekend that the discussion always veered to what Tom’s hybrid had under the hood, whether it could go 100 mph, and so on. It came up later in some conversations than others, but it came up. And that’s fine for it to come up. But it’s probably a better indicator of hybrid acceptance if that’s the 8th question asked and not the 3rd, and that’s all about changing our perceptions of performance relating to things like top-end speed or overall vehicle size in relation to mpg, safety and investment value.

It turns out I wasn’t asked to Rethink performance. Good bet, since anyone buying gas is already coming around on the mpg side of things. Instead, the billboard asked me to “Rethink American”. I take their target message at face value, that hybrids and conservation should now be Core American Values. I thought it might have something to do with a supply chain or manufacturing setup that is somewhat globalized, which turns out to be the case, something I learned from the aptly-named Hatebunny.

Finally, the car was the Saturn Aura. I’m not at all a car buff, but there are a lot of interesting themes (about cars, rednecks, advertising) in the comment threads here.

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5 Responses to Hybrids

  1. We have a Civic Hybrid, and the real status (here in CA) comes from having special stickers that let us use the carpool lane at all times regardless of how many people are in the car. I definitely have noticed that out here people who used to drive BMWs or fancy SUVs have often adopted the Prius in the last couple years — it’s “safe” to buy without giving up your status as someone who drives a “status car.”

  2. pipelineblog says:

    I suspect the prices of some models might be artificially inflated simply to hit a certain price point that connotes “status”. The Aura is the cheapest one so far; it seems to me that once there’s something like price parity between the hybrid and non-hybrid cars themselves, it will be a no-brainer for most consumers.

  3. kelly says:

    Lexus and Toyota put out some $40K plus hybrids expressly for that purpose. Good for the environmental movement to change from purely acts of altruism and into legitimate market demand. Is my inner republican coming out? Now if we can just get corporate emissions into a similar track.

  4. David says:

    I am committed to buying a hybrid as my next car. However, I have three kids, so I need to think about space. The Ford Explorer is one option, but that only gets 25 MPH, tops… that seems to defeat the purpose. The Toyota Highlander is 32/27, but costs $32K, which is a bit much. The Lexus is about the same, except add on another $10K.

    The reality is we need a hybrid minivan. Apparently Toyota has three, two of which are only available in Japan. This is an area where the American automakers could take the lead, if they had the balls.

  5. notchris says:

    i have a prius also. at first i got a lot of novelty comments, now – notably at the pump – i get a lot of serious questions about it. i loved the story about Gore’s kid in the prius – my kids now want me to see if can get mine up to 103.

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