It's not the keys to the minivan. It's the alternative fuel source called E85, and consumers have mixed notions of what it's all about.
Only one-third of Americans has ever heard of E85, according to an exclusive Marketing Daily survey by Synovate eNation. This is despite frequent media attention about the corn-based fuel in particular and renewable resources in general, and despite a marketing blitz by General Motors Corp. for its E85 vehicles.
In fact, most people haven't a clue that GM has anything to do with driving the E85 trend: 64% of respondents who are aware of E85 said they're not sure which automaker is best known for offering E85 vehicles; 13.4% said GM and 8% think it's Toyota. (It's GM.)
"The credibility given Toyota is interesting because they don't even advertise an E85 vehicle," says Tim Englehart, account group manager for Synovate's Motoresearch division. "They're getting a halo effect from the Prius; people think they're way ahead of the curve."
Toyota's Prius is a hybrid car, and many people may be getting hybrids confused with flex-fuel vehicles. Hybrids run on a combination of gasoline and electricity, whereas flex-fuel vehicles run on either gas or E85, a fuel that's 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.
According to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (NEVC), ethanol is a high-octane fuel produced by the fermentation of plant sugars such as corn and other home-grown grains; it's renewable and cleaner-burning than gas; and it decreases America's dependency on foreign oil.
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About 8% of vehicles on U.S. highways are E85-compatible, says Michelle Kautz, deputy director of the NEVC. That's about five million cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs. But less than 1% of fueling stations carry E85 in the U.S. "Many more stations need to be accessible for these vehicles to be able to fuel easily," she says.
According to the Marketing Daily/Synovate survey, 80% of respondents who are aware of E85 said they won't go more than 10 miles out of their way to purchase the fuel. Synovate conducted the online survey of a representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adults May 17-21.
But lack of availability and confusion don't mean that people have totally tuned out E85's potential. Almost 47% of the respondents who are aware of E85 said they'll look for E85-compatibility next time they purchase a vehicle.
The target market is higher among certain demographic subsets, such as parents, Baby Boomers, Generation Y and people living everywhere except the Northeast. Among those who are aware of E85:
"The purchase consideration is great, but the infrastructure will drive the success of this product," says Englehart. "People are not used to being given an alternative to gasoline. You can see a lot of ads or read about it in the media, but unless E85 is at your gas station, it's not attainable."