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2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid engine close-up

Despite long, grinding years of adulthood, the word “synergy” still reminds this author of the character on the excruciatingly 1980s cartoon Jem and the Holograms, which his older sister would commandeer the TV set for on various mornings. To Toyota, the word is the centerpiece of Hybrid Synergy Drive — the name applied to its hybrid drivetrains since the dawn of the gas-electric era.

Times change and, just as hoop earrings are no longer rad, the word “hybrid” has evolved to mean any one of a confusingly long list of gas-electric propulsion systems. Studies show that a great many consumers are still mystified about hybrids.

Hybrid Synergy Drive needs a makeover.

Speaking to Automotive News, Ed Laukes, Toyota Motor North America’s marketing boss, claims his company needs to move in a new direction to end the confusion.

“There have been so many variants of hybrids: our version of what we refer to as hybrid technology versus something maybe you saw from General Motors or something you saw from Ford,” Laukes said at the L.A. Auto Show, site of two Toyota hybrid introductions. “Those variants have confused the consumer, ultimately. They don’t even know what hybrid actually even means.”

Thanks to years of bad marketing on the part of OEMs and poor reporting on the part of the news media, too many consumers believe “hybrid” always signifies the presence of a plug, or even the lack of a gas engine altogether. The rise of the word “electrification,” along with the presence of PHEVs, has further muddied the waters. Automakers (some more than others) are keen to brag about their future “electrified” lineups, carefully avoiding mention that this just means one variant of each model in their lineup will boast, at minimum, a hybrid powerplant.

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Because of this, Toyota’s signature hybrid name “could go away over time,” Laukes said, without mentioning how exactly Toyota plans to describe the powertrain to the buyer.

“We’re still a long ways away from making that decision of how that’s going to happen,” he said. “But we have to figure out a way to be able to amplify the messaging around all these different powertrains.”

He added, “There could be potentially some name in the future that could represent multiple alternative powertrains.”

Well, this scenario sounds like it could compound the confusing, especially in the absence of a name addition signifying which alternative powertrain lies beneath the hood of the vehicle. While consumers would know that a certain vehicle is green, they wouldn’t know to what extent. If battery electric vehicles are scary due to range concerns, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles vanishingly rare due to infrastructure limitations, would-be buyers could hear the green word, jump to the wrong conclusion, and immediately state “Oh, that’s the one that’s not for me.”

Of course, Toyotas has well-paid people on staff to predict and avoid this situation, so it’s possible everything will work out tickety-boo.

Sam De La Garza, marketing chief for Toyota’s small car lineup, suggested to AN that hybrids face the same problem that turbocharged vehicles once grappled with. That issue has since been worked out, he claimed. Has it? Some might suggest that Ford’s naming strategy for its line of turbo mills — Ecoboost — could come across as confusing. It sounds like the name you’d give an engine with electric assist, not turbo assist.

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Maybe I’m just used to picking on Ford.

[Image: Toyota]





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