NAIAS 2015: Chevrolet CMO Tim Mahoney on the Volt, Bolt and Beyond

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Chevrolet Volt 2016

Tim Mahoney has been reshaping the Chevrolet brand since he took over as global CMO in early 2013, leaving the CMO post at Volkswagen US to steer one of the most iconic brands in the entire auto industry.

Having chatted wth Mahoney at CES 2015 last week, where he gave a sneak peek at the Chevy Volt, we were eager to catch up with him at the North American International Auto Show, where he could say more about the brand’s 2015 (and beyond) plans.

One thing not in those plans: Super Bowl advertising, as Chevrolet plans to skip the Big Game this year, along with a handful of other automotive brands that advertised during last year’s Super Bowl: Lincoln, Acura, Jaguar and Honda.[more]

Mahoney cites Chevrolet’s launch timing for its absence this year. “Last year we were in because we were right in the middle of our Silverado heavy-duty launch,” he told USA Today, so the Super Bowl “made sense.” This year, in contrast, Chevy’s major launches are mostly in the second half of the year, including the 2016 Volt (at top), which boasts a freshened design; longer range, Mahoney and team this week also revealed the Bolt EV concept.

Find out more on his launch strategy and Tesla-challenging EV plans, even as Mahoney tells us, “We’re not trying to be Tesla.”

Tim Mahoney chief marketing officer Chevrolet 2015 headshot

bc: Chevy’s big news at this Detroit auto show is the substantially improved Volt and the unveiling of the Bolt EV concept car that will challenge Tesla by offering a range of 200 miles and a sticker price of around $30,000 when it comes out in a few years. So how do you feel about gasoline prices plunging below $2 a gallon?

Tim Mahoney: If you wound the clock back 12 months and said that we expect the price of oil in a year to be $50 a barrel, what would anyone have thought? So you have to plan for the long term. Gas prices can change quickly.

With Volt and Bolt, we’ve got great performance and technology and design in these vehicles, representing the best we can offer under our “Find New Roads” brand promise. And with Volt, our owner base guided the second-generation improvements in the car. It’s a no-compromise vehicle, especially in the new version with very few tradeoffs. The 2016 version will give you even more freedom to go where you want to go, with longer range, and for commuters it covers the majority of their needs.

Part of how we talk about the vehicle is to point out that first-generation owners have averaged 970 miles between [gasoline] fill-ups. Another beautiful thing about first-generation owners is that they’re a highly engaged customer base. Third-party evaluators have found them to have the highest satisfaction rate with their vehicle of any owner base. They really love that car. At the Los Angeles Auto Show, at CES last week and here in Detroit, we’ve even had many of them willing to participate with us at the shows to testify to that.

bc: With Bolt, you seem to be putting a “bold” stake in the ground by saying you’re going to be able to challenge Tesla technologically with the car that they’ve said for a long time that is going to come out in a few years with about the same specs: 200 miles of all-electric range, a price of about $30,000. What’s behind that?

Mahoney: Well, a 200-mile car means that it can be a daily driver, and we’re bringing it in at an accessible price point. We’re not trying to be Tesla. The cool thing is that when this kind of car comes, it makes sense that it should come from Chevrolet. It has a great connection to Chevrolet and what our brand stands for.

bc: One sure winner that GM gave you is the Colorado. Now you’ve got Nissan and Toyota trying to catch up by improving their own existing entries in that truck segment, which not too many years ago each of the Detroit Three had given up on.

Mahoney: Yes, it was a smart move to re-enter that segment. Three choices of segments—full-size pickups, or cars beneath the Colorado—are better than two. At one time, the mid-size truck segment was larger than the full-size segment. And today those car buyers who consider a full-size truck purchase is minimal. It’s about taking care of the customer.

The epicenter of the full-size truck market is Texas. For mid-sized trucks, it’s California. Colorado customers are buying it for its truck capabilities, but they also take it to the beach and the mountains— there’s a huge lifestyle component. But it still does trucky things. They can have their cake and eat it too. There’s a market for it.

bc: And you think the new Chevrolet Trax compact SUV will prove to be another good product decision by GM, right? It’s early, with that nameplate appearing on your sales chart only for the first time in December.

Mahoney: Yes, it’s another example of a great decision by our product people. It’s an emerging segment—one of the hottest, actually. The success of the Buick Encore [compact SUV, whose 2014 sales rose by 53 percent over its 2013 launch year] gave us extra confidence that Trax will be a success.

bc: Yet in the very growth of that compact-SUV segment, across both the mainstream and luxury markets, American consumers are demonstrating in large part a response to first, the recent stabilization of gasoline prices, and lately a severe dropdown to around $1.60 a gallon in some places.

Mahoney: But they are still not a dominant driver. If you talk to consumers about plug-ins and electric vehicles, for instance, you’ll hear that they like them for one thing—because they’re fun to drive. And they are cars that are technologically advanced.

And as far as our bigger vehicles go, such as the Chevy Suburban and Tahoe large SUVs, marketing them is not about thumping gasoline prices any harder. Consumers are seeing that factor on their own. And they also are recognizing that the new versions of those nameplates that we introduced last year are much better vehicles than before—with much better fuel economy, by the way.

Many of the buyers are affluent buyers, many have large families, and we still give them a choice: Tahoe is more of a “me” car, and [the larger] Suburban is more of a “we” vehicle.

—Click here for more coverage from the 2015 NAIAS Detroit Auto Show and here for more brand leader interviews.

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