"Cars for Idiots": Carmakers Get Personal About New Technology

Sometimes carmakers take the competition personally, especially when new technology is involved. Toyota executives recently went out of their way to disparage the plug-in hybrid (even though their own company is building one).

Irv Miller, Toyota's group vice president of environmental and public affairs, told me back in June that after the batteries were depleted on a plug-in hybrid, they became a heavy "boat anchor" until the car plugs in again. "The dog doesn't hunt," Miller said. "We may be trying to change the world for a very small part of the market."

Last week, Audi North American President Johan de Nysschen reportedly called the Chevy Volt a "car for idiots," though he later denied using that word. He also said the Volt's potential buyers are part of an "intellectual elite who want to show what enlightened souls they are."

His point, according to a mea culpa post on Audi's Facebook page, was "simply one of [the Volt's] economic feasibility today. The 50 percent or so price increase that the Volt represents over a similar gasoline car cannot be offset through the savings from reduced fuel consumption. The only way to offset the extreme premium for the Volt is through taxpayer-funded subsidies. So I question if that makes economic sense."

De Nysschen later told GM-Volt.com, "I don't think the Volt is a car for idiots." His point instead is that it's "an idiotic business case." But then he said, "We might as well have been talking about the Tesla." Does he think the Tesla fails to make bottom-line sense, then? Seems to me it's doing fairly well. The company, which at one point was paying more to produce the cars than they were selling for, has since turned around and says it made a profit in July.

German automakers, including Audi and Mercedes, have lately been pointing another finger--at American automakers and consumers who just don't understand why diesels make more sense, environmentally and financially, than hybrids and Volt-type range extenders. They have charts and graphs.

Everybody has their own list of "cars for idiots." I've got mine, too, but ultimately the marketplace will decide the winners.