Honda will begin selling the first gasoline-electric vehicle in the U.S. ahead of rival Toyota Motor Sales USA, which has said it will roll out its Prius hybrid next year. The Prius is currently sold in Japan.
An Insight spot from Honda shows an old van at an intersection, its rear-end filled with pro-environment stickers. As an Insight pulls up alongside, voice-over says: "You can express your opinions about the environment on your car, or you can do it in your car."
Describing the Insight as "the most fuel-efficient car in the world," the spot from agency Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica, Calif., closes with the tag, "Honda. thinking."
SALES GOAL: 4,000
Robert Bienenfeld, manager of advanced environmental vehicle marketing, said Honda wants to sell 4,000 Insights in the U.S. next year. The price will be under $20,000, he said.
"It's a low-volume vehicle, but it's very important in our big picture as a leader of new technology," Mr. Bienenfeld said.
Hybrid vehicles achieve low emissions and high fuel economy by having an electric engine kick in to relieve the load on a high-efficiency gasoline engine when it is working hardest-starting, accelerating, climbing hills.
Honda officials say the Insight will overcome concerns about limited range and recharging times in all-electric vehicles. The Insight uses brake friction to generate sufficient electricity to power its electric engine.
But, Mr. Bienenfeld said, Honda knows technology alone won't sell cars.
"The final challenge was to develop a vehicle that consumers would desire," he said.
"We committed to make the vehicle fun to drive and equip it with the features that consumers expect in today's vehicles," he added.
3 GROUPS TARGETED
The executive said three consumer groups are being targeted: Early-adopter professional males in their mid-40s likely to be attracted by the technology and styling of the Insight; families with a household income of $55,000 or more looking for a second or third vehicle; and young people attracted by the sticker price and fuel economy.
One consultant who has driven the Insight said Honda has succeeded in making the hybrid comparable to other vehicles.
"The driving experience is close to transparent," said James Hall, VP-industry analysis for consultancy AutoPacific. "The truth is, you don't want something that's going to stun people. The idea is to make it seamless."
MORE WORK AHEAD
Although the hybrid technology seems to work well, Honda will have its work cut out to attract environmentally conscious buyers, Mr. Hall said.
"Ecological consumers have a tendency to not buy new technology-they want proven stuff," he said. "They need to find early adopters who care about fuel economy."
Hybrid vehicles may seem to offer the most viable alternative to the internal-combustion engine, but the field is still evolving, Mr. Hall said. Different technology may be used in different kinds of vehicles.
"There isn't a single technological future for cars," he said. "There are a lot