Don’t judge a book by its cover.

As children we’re told time and again that storied clich? which urges us to withhold judgment and look beneath the surface to find the true essence and value of something. But do we take it to heart? Those likely to buy electric vehicles certainly don’t.

According to a study by CNW Research, electric vehicle shoppers value distinctive styling in their green machines, even more than improved fuel efficiency and reducing carbon emissions.

The study of 6,000 responses from mass-market vehicle intenders was collected during April and May. It found that of the myriad reasons those surveyed would purchase an electric vehicle, a vehicle’s distinctive styling was the most important. With 52.33% of respondents claiming to value it the most, styling beat out lower emissions (39.68%), higher fuel economy (21.66%) and “makes a statement about me” (36.11%) to present an interesting profile of the typical “green” driver: Someone who bought his or her vehicle primarily because they thought it looked good.

Of course, the styling of a particular vehicle ranks among the most important aspects for consumers of conventional internal combustion engine cars. There is an important difference, however. “While likely EV buyers are looking for cutting edge design, conventional-vehicle buyers want ‘nice’ but not over the top,” said CNW.

Along with the vehicle’s exterior appearance, study respondents valued the styling of the car’s interior as well. “Overall Interior Appearance” was almost 25 points higher for electric vehicle intenders.

Why The Prius Worked 

The results of the CNW study can be seen in the huge success of the Toyota Prius over the past decade. The Prius hit the market with innovative new looks. Buyers shopping for a hybrid ate it up and the small sedan became so closely associated with the word hybrid, that it nearly became a generic term like Kleenex.

Hybrid efforts by other automakers, like Honda and Ford, lagged behind, as their strategy with vehicles like the Honda Civic Hybrid and Ford Escape Hybrid did not include distinctive styling. Looking identical to their gas-powered brethren, with merely a hybrid logo to distinguish the green models, these models did not allow their owners to make much of a statement.

The Prius, by contrast, was a stand-alone model that bears no resemblance to any other Toyota product. After also experimenting with hybridized versions of standard, internal-combustion-engine products, including vehicles from its luxury brand Lexus, Toyota recently launched its first stand-alone hybrid Lexus with the 2010 HS 250h.

According to CNW, styling also proved to be a major setback in Honda’s attempt at a performance-minded green vehicle in the Accord Hybrid. Sitting at the top of the Accord line, the Hybrid was the most powerful version of the best-selling sedan. Yet consumers did not bite, in part because the Accord did not have the innovative styling to match its high-tech powertrain. Honda discontinued the Accord Hybrid in 2007 after just three model years.

Stylish Developments

It seems as though the automakers, especially Honda, now have a better idea of what consumers want from a green product. For instance, the 2011 CR-Z, Honda’s new sporty hybrid, was developed with the utmost emphasis on styling, both inside and out.

“We wanted to bring something new to the marketplace and break out from the rest of the hybrid vehicles out there,” said Will Walton, a product-planning manager at Honda.

Walton said that Honda is targeting consumers that place a large amount of their consideration on the looks of a vehicle, so it knew it needed something that would really catch the eye, even before people realized the CR-Z was a hybrid car.

“The design can appeal to those seeking a hybrid or those who just want a stylish car. Design will be a key area of differentiation,” Walton said.