40 mpg Chevy Sonic: If Joe Camel Were A Car

There it is, this generation’s Joe Camel.  Remember Joe Camel?  If you’re over 30, you definitely remember the smooth-talking cartoon Camel that was RJ Reynolds’ mascot for Camel-brand cigarettes back in the 80’s and 90’s.  Joe Camel was everywhere … until a federal court decided that you shouldn’t market products that may cause “serious injury, addiction, and death” to minors.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Chevy’s product specialists (you can see them in the photo, above) told me who their new, interactive marketing program for the new-for-2012 Chevy Sonic was aimed at … any guesses?

If you guessed “13-18 year-olds” you nailed it.

That’s right:  thirteen to eighteen year-old children are GM’s target audience at the 2011 Chicago Auto show, where kids are encouraged to “design a Sonic” using a touchscreen display and a selection of drag-and-drop graphics … which just happen to be  available at the show (below) so young Rembrandts Xzibits can see their creations “IRL”.

As I’m listening to the GM reps tell me about “engaging” young audiences and getting them to “connect” with the car, it occurs to me that this shouldn’t be happening.

Think about it:  The Chevy Sonic is a solid car.  It offers great gas mileage (over 40 mpg), respectable performance from a 1.4L turbocharged engine (138 hp, 18 more than Ford’s award-winning new Fiesta) and a close-ratio 6-speed manual that alone would have made it a “hot hatch” less than 20 years ago – all with modern safety (10 airbags!) and convenience features wrapped in an aggressive, sporty look.  Also, Transformers.  Can it really be that people don’t care about any of that?

If they did, I suspect GM wouldn’t need the graphics – which is too bad.

About this point in the article, however, I suspect that you’re beginning to ask yourself what all of this has to do with green cars.  My answer?  EVERYTHING.

See, despite the Volt and the excellent new CNG trucks and hybrid Buicks, GM is still a big, gasoline-burning dinosaur, and for every new Camaro or V8 Silverado Chevy sells, it needs to move one or 2 Sonics or Cruze Ecos, just to meet CAFE standards – but GM doesn’t WANT to build small, efficient, nimble little cars.  GM wants to build profitable, cheap-to-build, low-tech “retro” cars and iron-block pickups that cost less to build than a Cruze, but can retail at 50-100% more.

Imagine a GM without CAFE, then ask yourself if they would ever build (or sell) a car like the Sonic.

You can’t imagine that they would, I think.  They wouldn’t build a Chevy Sonic, or buy a Chevy Sonic – and they can’t imagine anyone else would, either … so they market to kids, people who have little to no interest in cars these days.  They market the idea of customizing a car mobile technology device, rather than the car itself, and it might be the best they can do.

Why do I say that?  The GM reps I talked to, informally, said that the only groups of people who cared about cars anymore were the performance enthusiasts and the environmentalists.  They were actively reaching out to kids in an effort to find someone (anyone) who they could convince to care about cars again.

Good luck, GM.

Source:  2011 Chicago Auto Show, GM.

Jo Borrás

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, out on two wheels, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.