GM Charges Up the Electric Chevy Volt

Some critics have called the Chevrolet Volt, the electric car General Motors (GM) plans to sell in 2010, vaporware. Other skeptics have doubted the company could get the needed lithium-ion batteries ready for market by then.

But in a play to show that GM will get beyond its current financial struggles and challenge Toyota (TM) in the technology game, Chairman and CEO G. Richard Wagoner Jr. showed the production version of the car at a 100th anniversary event for the automaker at its Detroit headquarters. "The Volt is symbolic of what GM is today—cutting-edge design and technology," he said.

GM first showed the Volt in January 2007 at the Detroit Auto Show (, 7/01/07) in an attempt to show it was pushing ahead with advanced technology. While GM and its bread-and-butter Chevrolet brand were trying to buoy pickup truck and SUV sales amid rising gasoline prices, rival Toyota was winning converts with its Prius (, 6/6/08)> and several other hybrid electric cars.

The Volt is an attempt to leapfrog over the Priuss reputation for technology and make GMs Chevy brand—known more for trucks and muscle cars than tech savvy—relevant in todays market. Says Global Insight analyst John Wolkonowicz: "This is exactly what Chevy needs."

40 Miles on a Single Charge

The car is more advanced than todays hybrids, which typically run most of the time on a gasoline engine, getting a boost from electric motors to improve fuel economy.

The Volt is completely different. It is engineered to run purely off the electric motor for up to 40 miles on a single charge from a home outlet. After that a four-cylinder gasoline engine kicks in to charge the battery. The car would get more than 50 mpg if the driver drains the battery and uses a tank of gas. But the company says most drivers commute less than 40 miles a day, so theyll rarely use gasoline.

GM was expected to announce that the controversial car is on the way to being showroom-ready. The only surprise is that the vehicle's design drifted from the original concept car, which was sportier than the production model GM displayed in Detroit. The new one isnt bland by any stretch, but GM Vice-Chairman Robert A. Lutz explained that the car had to change to make it more aerodynamic and cost-effective.

Design Change

First, Lutz said, the car will be built using similar underpinnings of GMs future family of compact cars. In that sense, the Volt will be a cousin of the Chevrolet Cruze compact (, 7/10/08), which goes on sale in Europe in March and the U.S. a year later.

That allows GM to share some parts with a family of compacts that will sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year worldwide. The tradeoff is that the Volt loses the longer hood and sporty stance of its concept car.

There were other reasons the design had to change, Lutz says. Standing next to the Volt, he showed how the production version is more aerodynamic than the show car was. That will help GM engineers get the car to run 40 miles before the gasoline engine kicks in to start charging the battery. If the carmaker had kept the more stout design of the concept, "youre looking at 33 or 34 miles of electric range," Lutz said. "Were getting a reliable 40 miles of range. Its exactly what we predicted."

Will the Car Be Ready?

Inside, the dashboard, central console, and controls look like they were styled in Apples (AAPL) studios. A glossy, metallic-white center console resembling a large iPod houses all the control buttons. And those turn on the stereo of environmental controls by sensing touch. No need to push down on a button.

But the big question is, will the car be ready? GM says the lithium-ion batteries, which skeptics have questioned, are testing on schedule. Frank Weber, Volts chief executive, says the cars electric drive system and batteries are testing out for 10 years and 150,000 miles.

He even eschewed concerns that the lithium-ion batteries would spontaneously combust like some lithium-ion laptop batteries have. GM uses a different chemistry, Weber says. It has tested the Volts power storage system vigorously and had no flare-ups.

What will it be like to own a Volt? Weber says owners will be able to fully charge it in a home outlet in four hours. The cars battery will drain 2.520 kilowatt hours worth of electricity, which is about the same as a hot water heater and less than a refrigerator. It should cost 80¢ a day, he says.

Price Still Uncertain

GM engineers also say the car will be fun to drive. Anthony L. Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Volt, says the electric drive system will have the equivalent giddy-up of a 240 horsepower V-6 engine. It will be able to go from a standstill to 60 mph in about 9 seconds, more than two seconds faster than a Prius. "That doesnt sound like a golf cart to me," Posawatz says. "Itll be fun to drive."

So far everything is checking out for the Volt. But GM has competition already. Silicon Valleys Tesla Motors is already selling a $100,000 roadster (, 7/30/07) that runs only using electric motors. The company packed together 6,800 laptop batteries to help power a lightning-fast two-seater. Tesla just started delivering cars this year. Nissan (NSANY) also plans to have an all-electric vehicle for sale in 2010.

GM initially looked at Teslas technology. But the automaker passed. Lutz said GM figures Teslas battery pack would cost $14,000 a car. But Tesla says it chose to use existing battery technology because there are already factories cranking out those battery cells, and demand for the cells from the computer and consumer-electronics industries should lead to lower costs.

The question now is price. Lutz says GM doesnt yet know what the Volt will cost. It will be more than $30,000, but he wouldnt be more specific. Lutz wants to sell 10,000 models in 2011. Making the car and its technology affordable will be vital.

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